Connected Classrooms

Several years ago, we could not have imagined how we would be using technology in classrooms. In many cases, chalkboards are out; LCD monitors and document cameras are in. On college campuses, students are not just attracted by high-tech classrooms-they expect them. And instructors expect advanced tools to enhance teaching.

Providing the technology that students and faculty desire can strain budgets. By planning thoroughly and keeping your spending sensible, you can get good returns on your technology investment. Here are some guidelines to help you build affordable high-tech classrooms.

Determining needs Before deciding on what level of technology a classroom should have, facilities administrators should work with a team of architects, tradespeople, audiovisual experts and faculty members to evaluate how the room will be used. Which instructors use the room most often? Will students or outside lecturers do occasional presentations? Consult with your technical-support personnel because they will be controlling, monitoring and troubleshooting equipment. The planning team should prioritize user needs.

Develop a comprehensive plan. Blueprints for new construction can incorporate technology requirements from the start, but older buildings may present several obstacles to technological improvements. Having a comprehensive plan will be less expensive than doing piecemeal upgrades. It is cheaper to lay extra cable now to anticipate future needs than it would be to install additional cable next year when you decide to add a document camera.

Different teaching spaces require different technology setups. Room size, ceiling height, acoustics, heating and ventilation systems, the number of seats, available natural lighting and the types of window treatments are among many factors that can affect the effectiveness of classroom technology.

Start with the basics The simplest starting point for a school or university developing a high-tech classroom would be a projector hung from the ceiling, a manual screen, a wall control plate, an amplifier, a VCR and jack, two speakers and wiring. Such a package generally runs from $9,000 to $15,000.

The main price variable in this setup relates to which of two main video graphics types you choose. Super Video Graphics Array, or SVGA, provides a resolution of 800 x 600. Extra Graphics Array, or XGA, has a resolution of 1024 x 768. Both are available in numerous products, but XGA typically costs $2,000 to $3,000 more. So what are the differences?

The XGA has two advantages. First, in some applications, such as blueprints or scientific graphics, XGA enables the audience to see more of what is on a drawing. Second, XGA has become the standard resolution in new laptop computers. Graphics from a visiting lecturer plugging in his or her laptop would look best with XGA.

On the other hand, SVGA is preferable if students will be viewing websites, videotapes or images from a document camera. The letters in SVGA are bigger, and students in rear seats will still be able to read the screen.

Make it easy to use If your equipment is simple to operate, students and staff will use it more, and you will see a better return on your investment. An LCD touch panel (about $3,500) will allow a presenter to select the projector source (such as computer or document camera), control power and volume, and manipulate the screen and audiovisual equipment.

A touch panel is considered a "universal remote" because it is intuitive and user-friendly. In a school or university adding equipment to a number of rooms over time, users will not need to juggle different remote controls if you install LCD touch panels. A common hidden cost of high-tech systems is for technical staff who must keep responding to instructors uncomfortable with new equipment; LCD touch panels can reduce these calls.

A document camera (about $3,000) can enhance the ability of a teacher to share information and objects. For example, in a class on the Civil War, only a few students in a lecture hall would be able to see small artifacts, such as hard tack, belt buckles and diaries. But if the instructor digitizes these items with a document camera, the images will fill an 8-foot by 6-foot screen.

What are considered cutting-edge items and deluxe models today can become standard features tomorrow. Such a "deluxe" package might feature a lectern that has a built-in touch panel, built-in computer and plug for laptops. That would allow a lecturer to grab material straight from a server-no floppy, no zip drive. With an LCD monitor, an instructor does not have to keep looking over his or her shoulder to see what the audience is seeing. In addition, a system could have a mounted VCR and amplifier, gooseneck microphone, and additional speakers and microphones for the audience. A package with all the features described above would cost $30,000 to $35,000.

Install wisely When and how you install equipment can affect cost. An audiovisual expert can draw conduit sizes and locations for engineers and architects so that everything is placed correctly. Without this aid, several things might go wrong: the podium might block the screen; workers might have to cut out the floor to lay new cable (a several-thousand-dollar expense); outlets and jacks will be placed incorrectly.

An audiovisual specialist can offer suggestions about lighting, ceilings, wiring and other components. For example, dimmable fluorescents are expensive, but perhaps all you need is a bank of lights that turn off in the front of the room while the rest of the lights remain on for students to take notes. Spend a little money upfront for the right plans; you'll save in the end. (See sidebar above.)

Standardizing the technology you install is a key way to save money over the long term. Standardized infrastructures result in economies of scale, and it makes the design, installation and training processes more efficient. You and your staff will not have to learn how to use or maintain differing systems or equipment.

Make sure your planning includes discussions about remote as well as local applications. Consider whether you will need the capability for classroom-to-classroom videoconferencing or campus-to-campus learning opportunities.

Audiovisual experts familiar with architectural design can evaluate your blueprints to ensure that a classroom is designed appropriately for technology. Here are a few rules to ensure classroom quality and student satisfaction.

-Use zone lighting. The instructor always should be well-lighted, but avoid washing out the projection screen. In addition, don't let task lighting for students interfere with the projection screen.

-Understand what it takes to see the screen. Take screen size and ceiling height into account. Projection screens must be no less than four feet above the finished floor. This allows for students in the rear of the classroom to see information clearly and without obstructions. Standard screens are eight feet wide and six feet tall. So, a standard screen needs a minimum ceiling height of 10 feet, although it is possible to put a smaller screen in a room that has ceilings eight to 10 feet high.

-Audio and video quality should match. Pay attention to acoustics. Hard surfaces create echoes and reverberations that can make it harder for students to hear presentations.

The big items (screens, lecterns and ceilings) often call for big bucks, but you can save on small infrastructure items, too. Consider:

-Wiring. Plenum cable is more expensive than metal conduit, but installation (by an electrician) is usually cheaper and quicker. (Note: some cities require conduit; check local codes.)

-Surge-suppressed electrical outlets. They cost more, but if there is an electrical power surge, they protect equipment from major damage.

-Theft-deterrence measures. It's better to install inexpensive items such as projector locks and rack security screws now than to shell out thousands of dollars later to replace stolen equipment.

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