The Digital Media Lab was created four years ago at Loyola University Chicago in the Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons as a place to put digital media in the hands of students at no cost. The DML is a sandbox for testing and exploration. It's a place where students, faculty and staff experiment with technologies and find new ways to innovate in the classroom.
In keeping with our goal of providing technology at a low cost, Digital Media Services offers a no-charge equipment loan program, one-on-one consultations, short course training and onsite multimedia lab support, as well as digital media equipment and project support for the Loyola community.
Students have responded enthusiastically to the program. Today, 92 percent of our users are students, followed by staff at 6 percent and faculty at 2 percent. Faculty are integrating technology into their assignments and connecting to the curriculum in new ways. As a result, students use the technology to support not only their classroom assignments, but also personal work. From classroom presentations with custom illustrations to integrated team-developed online videos, students have developed a number of innovative projects that keep the campus on the cutting edge.
A Good Start
Loyola's equipment lending program started with one full-time staff member, eight student workers and a budget of $150,000, but it's possible to start a lending program with even fewer resources. Whether it's one notebook and a set of headphones or 80 camcorders, there's an opportunity for students to develop in new ways by removing the financial burden associated with new technology.
This program was created from Information Technology Services funds that were allocated for the space in the university's Information Commons. At the time of opening, the Digital Media Lab was funded by a grant from AT&T for editing workstations. Today, the program is financed through a portion of a technology fee that is assessed to currently enrolled students at the university and operates on a three-year rotation of equipment.
In planning our equipment loan program, we've learned a number of important lessons about lending equipment to students, faculty and staff. For those considering such a program on their campus, the following are some lessons learned.
Make reservations. Without reservations, equipment requests must be handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Students grow frustrated if equipment is not available, and usage declines. Alternatively, by making reservations, students can plan ahead for their equipment needs, and staff will find it easier to manage the equipment pool. We started web-based reservations to encourage the self-service nature of the program and have received more than 265,000 page views since its installation.
Consider monetary fines for overdue equipment. It's important to set fine amounts that will encourage equipment returns. Low fines often result in long delays. Check with your library, professional lending programs and other campus resources to determine the range that is appropriate for your campus.
Get users to make backups. Technology fails at the most inopportune times, especially equipment that experiences heavy utilization, such as hard drives and USB keys. Encourage users to make backup copies when appropriate.
98.7% The on-time equipment return rate in 2011, following the introduction of fines and fees, a reservation system and contracts
SOURCE: Loyola University Chicago
Study manufacturer policies thoroughly. Survey the available providers and manufacturers of the equipment you would like to lend. Review the warranties offered, return policies, repair service-level agreements and customer service expectations. One manufacturer may provide better equipment, but have longer repair and service timeframes.
Additionally, consult with faculty and departments to identify courses in which students might tend to use the program. This will increase the likelihood that the organization will select equipment that is in line with campus needs and avoid using unnecessary equipment.
Start off slowly. With more than 16,000 potential clients, we decided to initially go light on marketing. It is important to ensure that you have a large-enough pool of equipment and a reservations process in place to effectively provide resources for users. Otherwise, you may have month-long waits for equipment.
Require all users to sign contracts. A loan contract is important to ensure that your users understand their liability and responsibility. Some topics to detail in the contract: lost, stolen or damaged equipment; due dates and times; fine amounts; and replacement costs. Standardize the contracts so you can produce them when requested. A document management solution is recommended, so check with your institution to see if such a system is already in place.
Clarify any copyright issues. The line between assisting a user and violating copyright laws can be very thin. Clearly define and publish your expectations regarding your support staff's interactions with users and their content, specifically regarding fair use. Additionally, include your copyright policy on the rental agreement to identify the user's responsibilities.
Offer repair options. As with all technology, items will eventually break. Local repair shops may provide more inexpensive avenues for repair. Identifying regular maintenance cycles can also ensure more readily available equipment. At Loyola, we have facilitated a number of maintenance agreements with manufacturers, but also work with our local repair shops to make small repairs.
Try everything twice. Be ready to change and try different things. What works this year may not work next year. Technology is constantly improving and changing, and your equipment lending program should be no different.
Look for innovative solutions. There are very few instances in which "no" is an appropriate response to a client question or project support request. Rather than turning away opportunities to support creativity, encourage innovation by considering ways to use old technology to generate new ideas.
With the combination of our improvements, new equipment, increased student staff and a supportive Loyola community, the loan program has become very successful. We have expanded over the past three years to include loan locations on two campuses, five staff members, 60 student workers and more than 175,000 equipment loans annually. We also just passed the 4-million-hour mark in equipment loans.
Such growth also presents new challenges. We are continuously developing and identifying new ways to innovate. The team is finishing a campuswide refresh cycle for equipment based on the life of the equipment, its usage and wear. This has been challenging because each piece of equipment wears differently. With three years of data, we now can monitor the quality of equipment returned and assess the range of time, within months, when equipment should be submitted for maintenance or replacement.
We are also working on ways to let students return equipment at either campus, rather than the one they took the loaner from. This is challenging because the two campuses we make loans from are separated by seven miles.
Finally, we recently automated contract management by integrating the loan program with our enterprise content management system. At the start of each loan, the contracts are scanned and readily available for review on any computer (as opposed to being stored in a file cabinet in a specific location). This has been a major step forward for our "behind the scenes" process, but critical to the front-end user experience and response time. Under our old method, finding a requested contract could take up to three hours; however, scanned contracts in our new system are now found within seconds.
Adam Smeets is manager of Digital Media Services within Information Technology Services at Loyola University Chicago.