The latest presentation equipment puts curriculum front and center, making teaching (and learning) easier. Here's how two schools did it.
When Joseph Longobardi, principal at Pelham Middle School in Westchester County, New York, started thinking about what would turn out to be a multimillion-dollar expansion of his overcrowded suburban school, digital multimedia and presentation elements were at the top of his wish list. “We wanted to provide the tools to help teachers teach and students learn,” he says of the planning involved in designing, funding, and building the new facility. “From the start, we knew we needed presentation equipment in each classroom so that our faculty could show students the world instead of just telling them about it.
”Over the course of five years of stop-and-go meetings, a failed bond issue, and interminable construction, the school’s physical and digital infrastructure were brought into the 21st century. In the end, the designers put a digital projector on the ceiling of every classroom—20 in all—and wired them together with video and data networks, creating an archetypal connected school. Now, a class can watch a teacher solve a math equation, do class-wide web research, and even watch online videos or use interactive applications. “Visualization is key to learning,” says Longobardi. “We wanted to bring the world to our school.”
The Visual Classroom
Longobardi and Pelham’s students are not alone. According to “America’s Digital Schools 2006—A Five-Year Forecast” (www.ads2006.org), presentation technology is no longer an experimental instructional add-on for classrooms. “Just about every new school being built or renovated is having presentation technology integrated,” says Jeanne Hayes, coauthor of the survey and president of the Hayes Connection, an educational consulting firm. The survey polled 2,500 teaching institutions, and forecasts that sales of multimedia equipment, which includes presentation hardware, could increase at a 16.9 percent annual rate, from $245 million in 2006 to $534 million in 2011. “Kids are such visual learners, and this technology is an absolute requirement for the next generation of classrooms,” says Hayes.
It all comes together in the visual classroom, where absorbing information via sight counts for as much as listening to the teacher. Instead of writing single-variable math equations on the board, try connecting to an interactive web site that places equations on an animated seesaw that tips to one side or the other when students make a mistake. “This is not a gimmick,” says Hayes, “and shouldn’t be treated as one. Classroom screens combined with a thoughtful digital curriculum should be a natural extension of the teaching process. It’s where education is going.”
With competing claims for the best technology for putting images and data in front of students, it’s not easy deciding which way to go. One thing is certain: Ready or not, presentation technology is coming to the classroom, and school administrators will have to figure out how to outfit their schools for the visual age. Blackboards and chalk are not going the way of the dinosaur, but they will have to make room for digital presentation technol-ogy. There is a multitude of choices, but all are not created equal (see the “How it works” boxes for details). Each technology has its pros and cons.
Flat-screen plasma monitors are great for the typical elementary school class of 20 to 30 kids. But at several thousand dollars per classroom, plasma flat screens can be budget busters and aren’t as bright as other options.
Monitors that use liquid crystal display (LCD) technology are brighter and even more expensive, but they are limited in size.
Projectors become a natural focal point of instruction in the class. They are often less than $1,000 apiece but require a slew of extras, including expensive maintenance. Although traditional TVs are cheap by comparison, they are huge, and screen size is restricted. Look for rear-projection TVs in the coming years, but at the moment, their brightness is wanting, and you have to be looking directly at the screen.
“The choices might seem endless and overwhelming, but each technol-ogy has a place in the classroom,” says Ali Atash, senior marketing director at Samsung, a manufacturer of projectors and flat-screen displays for the home, workplace, and school. “Traditionally, schools chose projectors because of price. As time has pushed the price of flat screens down, they are making inroads in the classroom. Regardless of what you choose, it makes education exciting.”
In the final analysis, rigging a school for digital instruction is no different from purchasing a school’s worth of computers, sound equipment, or a scoreboard for the gym. By setting clear goals, taking a step back, and examining what other schools are doing, administrators can turn classrooms into learning studios. “The more planning and research you do up-front,” says Kathleen McGrath, district technology director at Pelham Union Free School District, “the better the final product will be.”
Since the first blackboard was used, at West Point Military Academy in the early 19th century, academics and administrators have struggled to keep pace with ever more complicated classroom-presentation technology. The blackboard may be without equal for writing, drawing, and showing impromptu items, but it’s hard to create complex figures on one, and the teacher has to work with his or her back to students—a perfect way to lose their attention. Not so with digital display technology, says Debbie Call, principal at East Portsmouth Elementary School in Sciotoville, Ohio. “With our new equipment, the teacher can sit at a desk and look students in the eye while teaching with our screens. It’s an important update to teaching that increases communication and participation.”
At Call’s 240-student PreK-through-6 school, each of the 20 classrooms has a 50-inch plasma screen made by LG Electronics. The natural center of attention, the wall-mounted displays are not only wired into the school’s network, but there also are speakers in the ceiling so that the teacher’s voice and any accompanying audio can be heard by hearing-impaired students. With a strict budget of $3,000 per room (including screens, mounting hardware, and installation), the school’s options were limited. For Call and Portsmouth City School District technology coordinator Mark O’Brien, the price of traditional TVs was right, but they were too big for East Portsmouth’s classrooms. On the other hand, LCDs were too expensive and had screens that weren’t large enough for a class of kids. Plasma displays seemed perfect.
In the end, Call and O’Brien dec-ided to outfit the classes with plasma TVs that could work as computer monitors. A 42-inch screen was the largest display they could afford. It wasn’t as big as they wanted, but the two thought the screens would be fine for East Portsmouth’s students. In a stroke of luck, however, time and price competition worked to their advantage. “Because we waited a year to get them,” explains O’Brien, “we were able to upgrade to 50-inch models for the same price. They really are perfect for that size room.”
Plus, rather than getting first-generation plasma technology that could show only 640 by 480 pixels of resolution, the LG plasma screens can display pinpoint-perfect 1,024 by 768 images and even the latest high-definition video. As a result, every student has a good view. And there’s a whiteboard on either side, so the plasma screens are integrated into the class and curriculum. At any time, the teacher can open a web page showing how to write cursive letters, zoom in on a location with Google Earth’s Eye in the Sky program, or play an interactive math game. “The best part is that anything you can see on a computer screen can be shown to the entire class,” adds Call. “Teachers and students are now on the same page and communicating more effectively.”
Projectors: The Big Picture
Connecting with students and their imaginations has always been the key to effective instruction, but with cell phones, TV, video games, instant messaging, and the web, today’s classrooms have more than their share of competition. However, nothing gets the attention of children like using a projector to put a 7-foot image on a screen. “It really focuses the class on the business at hand,” adds Pelham’s Longobardi. “It’s like they’re in a movie theater and the show’s about to start.”
The attention-grabbing potential aside, price is a big selling point of classroom projectors. Pelham installed a fleet of InFocus and Mitsubishi projectors that cost about $1,100 each, which looks like a bargain compared with plasma or LCD screens. “Be careful,” warns Samsung’s Atash, “comparing different presentation approaches. Projectors have lots of extra costs.”
To be effective, each projector really needs to be mounted on the ceiling with the many cables hidden out of view. This is fine for new construction but can be expensive for retrofitting older schools, particularly those with high ceilings and brick walls. Projectors work best with a screen that brings out all the detail of the images, which can add several hundred dollars to the installation. Plus, the images can be washed out by sunlight streaming into a window, so shades or blinds are a must-have. While you’re at it, installing lighting dimmers wouldn’t hurt.
By far the most onerous aspect of using a classroom digital projector is that it needs to have its lamp replaced after about 2,000 hours of use, which translates to roughly two or three years of typical use. At $200 to $500, this is not an inconsiderable expense.
“In our budgeting, we built in having enough spare lamps around so that we’d never be without a projector,” explains Pelham’s McGrath. In the first 14 month of use, she has had only one blowout, but she expects the rate to increase as the projectors turn two years old next fall. So that no room is without a projector, her insurance policy is the spare projector and five extra lamps she keeps on hand. Cost may have been a critical element for East Portsmouth Elementary School’s presentation project, but getting equipment that was easy to use, durable, and didn’t require maintenance was just as important. For the school with a limited (or nonexistent) technology staff, ease of use can quickly become the paramount consideration. “We were afraid that teachers wouldn’t take the time and care to properly cool the projectors after use,” says O’Brien, “which can cut lamp life. The plasma screens we got are fail-safe and will last for many years without doing a thing.”
Just Another Teaching Tool
Regardless of whether you choose LCDs, plasmas, or projectors, for presentation equipment to truly add to the classroom experience it needs to be integrated into the school’s curriculum. At Pelham Middle School, the projectors were just the start. The school licensed hundreds of educational applications, got laptops for each teacher, and several carts of them for students. The school also incorporated podiums, Elmo document cameras, and SMART Board interactive whiteboards.
It was the interactive whiteboards that had the biggest effect on education, adds Pelham’s McGrath. Along with the projectors, the boards put the teacher in command of the array of audiovisual equipment so that she can concentrate on teaching. For instance, by dragging her finger across the board, a math teacher can move Excel cells more easily than by using a mouse. Tapping the screen is all she has to do to advance a PowerPoint slide. “It’s all easy,” McGrath says, “and our students have an almost intuitive feel for the new equipment. They seem to invent new uses every day.”
This area will experience tremendous growth in the next five years, according to the digital schools survey. Hayes forecasts that sales of interactive whiteboards will triple, from $50 million last year to $151 million in 2011. “These interactive whiteboards are the hottest thing out there,” she says. “It’s a genuine teaching tool and as much a part of the class as a chalkboard.”
In other words, this is not hardware for hardware’s sake but part of a plan aimed at making the classroom a more vibrant, interesting, and effective place to teach and learn. “Schools will always need good teachers,” says McGrath. “Being able to show students this technology can help them become great teachers. It’s very exciting. Once you go digital, you never go back.”
Adding a visual edge to instruction can make education more fun, exciting, and attention-grabbing in an age where there’s so much competition for a child’s imagination. Putting a lesson on the big screen can bring it home to students and stir their imaginations. “The kids get really excited about the screens,” says East Portsmouth Elementary’s Call. “Learning is now very visual.” @