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Best Buys

Worried about your bottom line?  Here are three classroom technologies that will let you do more for less.

Filling a school with the latest and greatest educational ­technology doesn’t have to bust your budget anymore—many of the newest digital goodies are becoming the cheapest way to teach. “We’re entering an era in which previously expensive classroom technologies are coming down in price,” says John Galvin, vice president for sales and marketing and general manager of a team focused on global education at Intel. “It can save districts and large schools tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The big three hardware items for classrooms are computers, projectors, and network infrastructure. All three are undergoing fundamental changes that can reduce their costs, resulting in inexpensive touch-screen notebooks, lampless projectors, and high-speed Wi-Fi access points that can be remotely controlled. Of course, value means more than a seductive price tag, says Michael Nicksy, coordinator of IT support, innovation, and refurbishing at the Nova Scotia Department of Education’s Learning Resources and Technology Services in Halifax. “The equipment has to help teachers in the classroom.”

1 Touch-screen Notebooks
How Low Can You Go?

Not too long ago, the idea of supplying schools with touch-screen notebooks would have been far-fetched, if not impossible, due to the cost. “Preposterous? Not anymore,” says Intel’s Galvin. “They will soon be cheap enough to deploy in just about every school. This type of device is no longer science fiction.

”Rather than the typical $500 or $600 bulky notebook that can weigh down a backpack-wearing child, small, thin, and light touch-screen systems that cost half as much will dominate the tech landscape, says Galvin. This brave new world of educational computing could begin with an assortment of models as soon as early 2014.

Look for a three-tiered educational market for laptops to emerge in the coming year. It will begin with basic notebooks starting at about $200 for those districts where the top criterion is price, price, price.

HP and Google are almost there with the $279 Chromebook 11. It takes a minimalist approach to classroom computing with a 1.7GHz Samsung ­processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of solid-state storage space. At 2.3 pounds, the Chromebook 11 should be easy on students’ backs. The only real drawback: its 11.6-inch display isn’t touch-sensitive.

“That misses the point,” Galvin notes. “Touch is a critical technology for learning because it brings the educational material to the students.” To get touch, the price tag begins at roughly $250. While there will be a lot of variation among models from a variety of vendors, expect to see several devices on the market in this price range in late winter or early spring that look something like this: a 2.5-pound system with an 11.6-inch touch screen that is less than half an inch thick.

At the top of the classroom pyramid will be several machines that start at $300 and include an active pen and screen digitizer for precise work, such as annotating a website, drawing geometric figures, or sketching a map. This would make it appropriate for teaching about graphs in a math or science class or showing how to digitally draw in an art class.

According to Galvin, the key to making touch more economical is the introduction of Intel’s Bay Trail processor technology. This family of processors incorporates most of a computer’s major components into a single chip, saving both money and space while boosting overall performance. Powered by a Bay Trail–based Pentium N3000 or a Celeron N2000 processor, the system will have a full 64-bit processor so that it works with the latest software, as well as built-in hardware for graphics and power management. A number of ­vendors, including Dell, Asus, and HP, will use the Intel-made processors in their machines; look for new models to be released early this year.

Low power use was designed into the Bay Trail devices. As a result, many of these systems do not need a fan to keep their components from overheating. This allows them to run longer on battery power or even use a ­smaller battery for a lighter overall system. In other words, they’ll allow for more teaching and less charging.

2 Projectors
Getting Rid of the Lamp

While many classroom projectors are inexpensive to purchase, they require an expensive lamp replacement every 18 to 24 months of normal school use, potentially dwarfing the initial outlay. Not Casio’s XJ-M140 projector . Rather than a high-pressure bulb, it has a hybrid laser-LED illumination engine that promises to outlast the rest of the device.

“The idea was to get the projector that was the best value for the money over the long term,” says Nicksy, recalling his initial purchase of Casio hybrid projectors in 2010 for Nova Scotia’s public schools. While today there are many makers of hybrid projectors—Acer, Optoma, and Viewsonic, among others—at the time, Casio was the only game in town. “The bottom line is that we’ll never have to change the lamp of an XJ-M140,” Nicksy says.

At about $1,000, the XJ-M140 is a little more expensive than other projectors in its class, but the more you use it, the more it saves on expenses: Not only does its lamp never need changing, but it uses less electricity and doesn’t have an air filter that requires periodic replacement. Over six years, compared with a conventional projector, each XJ-M140 projector could save at least $600 in lamps, making it a money saver in the long run, according to Nicksy’s calculations.

Nicksy set up a tender in Canada and purchased close to 2,000 of the Casio hybrid projectors over the past two years for Nova Scotia’s 408 schools and more than 122,000 students. He plans to order more in 2014.

So far, the projectors work well and are bright enough to use without having to darken the room. The machine has a good assortment of ports for connecting to computers and offers the flexibility of a 1.5X zoom lens that allows it to be positioned farther from or closer to the screen than is possible with most other ­projectors.

“The best part is that they are just about maintenance-free,” says Nicksy. The first batch of XJ-M140 projectors is approaching its third year in service, and chances are many of these projectors could still be functioning well 10 years from now. “I don’t have to think about them,” adds Nicksy. “They just run and run.”

3 Wireless Networks
Next-Gen Wi-Fi

Schools are ­places where doing more with less is a given. For example, as one connected classroom in California’s Milpitas Unified School District starts to overwhelm its Wi-Fi access point, the district can’t afford to rewire the area to add extra wireless transmitters.

The answer, according to MUSD’s director of technology, Chin Song, is to swap the existing Cisco Meraki MR24 access point, which uses the older 802.11n protocol, with an MR34 device that relies on the newer and faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi system. This move can double data throughput to the classroom. “If we see that an area is getting overloaded,” says Song, “we switch to an MR34 access point and that generally solves the problem. ”The district’s goal is to make the technology invisible and interactive. Behind the scenes, MUSD has 650 Cisco Meraki MR24 Wi-Fi access points in its 14 schools. There are also 30 newer MR34 units online, and Song will replace all the older ones in three to four years.

It is a demanding environment, with each student getting a different mix of data—whether it’s a high school math class in which students are going over curves of trigonometric functions or one of the district’s Learning Labs, where first graders are watching animations about individual letter sounds. This puts a lot of stress on the infrastructure to deliver the lessons when they’re needed. “Reliability is what counts,” says Song. “If the data doesn’t arrive when it needs to, it doesn’t help teaching.”

The district’s Learning Labs accommodate up to 144 students at a time and have a mix of Chromebooks, which use 802.11n, as well as recent Dell PCs and Apple Macs, both of which have 802.11ac Wi-Fi. Seamlessly supplying data to a mix of old and new is never easy, but it’s working at MUSD. So far, so good, because, according to Song, “the network is working well with both 802.11n and ac Wi-Fi clients.”

Extra bandwidth is only the start, adds Song. “The key is that rather than having to individually configure and maintain every access point, we can do it remotely all at once. This saves a lot of time, effort, and money at our schools.

”Critical to making this work at MUSD is tracking every bit of data. That’s where Meraki’s Visual Dashboard comes in. In addition to being able to tell which Wi-Fi channels are in use and flagging classroom access points that are overloaded, the software lets administrators monitor which applications are being used. They can also set quality-of-service priorities so that, for instance, video clips being delivered to a fourth-grade math class go in the fast lane while school Facebook updates get a lower priority.

In other words, the dashboard provides a bird’s-eye view of what is going on throughout the district’s network. “We can see the actual data flow throughout the district and adjust traffic patterns,” explains Song. “It lets us optimize the network and get the most out of it.” 

—Winter 2014—

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