Smart Classrooms Require Smart Planning

During the coming decade, more and more smart classrooms will appear on college campuses. These electronic education centers will allow students using personal computers or laptops at workstations throughout the room to take notes, download information from the professor’s computer or even take tests electronically. They can link to the Internet to do research or school Intranets to collaborate with others in the room or throughout campus.

Most of these smart classrooms will be created by remodeling existing rooms. When properly planned, the conversion of an existing classroom can be completed in a matter of days. Beyond the physical renovation, the ultimate success of the conversion, including the long-term reliability of the system and the ultimate educational value of the room, also depends on careful planning.

Getting Started

At the outset, the team in charge must make one fundamental decision -- how best to deliver power and data to each workstation. This will affect virtually all of the other choices that must be made.

Some schools have tried the seemingly simple approach of perching PCs on existing table tops with power lines and data cables draped and taped around table legs and along the floor. This ruins the room’s appearance and creates ample opportunity for people to walk on, trip over and drop things on the lines, risking damage to the wires and computers and injury to themselves.

A much better approach is a renovation plan incorporating a “below-floor-level” conduit network carrying power lines and data cables from their entry point into the room to workstations and in-room servers. This hides the lines from view and protects them from damage. At points throughout the room, the wires feed up through the floor directly into classroom furniture designed specifically for smart classrooms.

Planning the Conversion

Many of the rooms being converted will have fixed seating systems incorporating pedestal or swing-away seats located behind tables. Depending on the age and style of this seating, it might be possible to re-use it as part of the conversion. The tables are another matter. In almost all cases they must be modified extensively with raceways to accept the wiring system from the floor and holes cut into the table top so that the computers can be connected.

Assuming a total wire management system is to be installed, the starting point for a conversion should be the creation of a detailed scale model floor plan that will show exactly where the in-floor conduit network should be located and where the power lines and data cables should come up from the floor.

Once the floor plan has been approved, the furnishings company will begin building the systems, which should be designed so that each table will be installed directly above a floor opening. The ideal table design allows the wiring to be fed up through a hollow table leg or power pedestal and then to a horizontal raceway running the length of the table and attached beneath the table top or behind a modesty panel. The raceway carries it to power and data connection boxes that are built into the table top at each workstation.

As noted above, one popular furniture style features a single steel frame that supports both the work table and a base to which swing arm seating is attached. The legs can accept wiring fed from the floor, and the raceways and workstation connection boxes are built in. This eliminates the need to alter existing furniture. The design provides student comfort and convenience and reduces the number of places where the furniture must be bolted to the floor. Another advantage is that, if the room is redecorated in the future, the chair shells can be replaced without moving or disassembling the table or disturbing the wiring system.

From the Ground Up

While the furniture is being built, the conversion work begins by removing all existing furniture and floor coverings so the in-floor conduit can be installed. If the floor is concrete, the old concrete can be broken up and removed and a new concrete floor poured in its place, preferably in tiers rising from the front to the back of the room. Before pouring the floor, small concrete forms are laid out in the pattern of the planned wire management network to create open channels below the floor’s surface. After the conduit is in place, the channels can be covered with a wood or metal plate, or more concrete can be poured over the conduit to fill the channel. It will always be possible to access the wires in the future by simply pulling them through the conduit.

If pouring a new concrete floor isn’t practical, it’s possible to cut channels into an existing concrete floor or to build a false wood floor over the concrete floor and install the conduit beneath it.

In some buildings, it might be possible to run the wiring under the existing floor in a space between the floor and the ceiling of the room beneath it. Then holes can be cut through the floor to bring the wiring up to the furniture. This requires a great deal of work, not to mention careful planning to achieve perfect alignment between the work table locations and the points where the wires come through the floor.

Once the floor is completed and the wires run through the conduit, the floor covering can be put down and the furniture installed.

Many smart classroom experts are predicting that, in a few years, radio frequency technology will be perfected to the point that data will be transmitted across radio waves rather than through data cables. While this will most likely happen, it has little effect on current smart classroom planning because power will still be needed at each workstation. If and when a room incorporates RF communications, the data cables can simply go unused or be pulled from the conduit network.

Furniture Features

An important part of the decision-making process involves selecting which furnishing system to install. Evaluating these systems requires a basic understanding of furniture quality. Since classroom remodeling is not a frequent occurrence, many people may have little experience in this type of purchase.

Begin with the understructure. Naturally, the stronger it is, the more use and abuse it will be able to withstand. For example, the table legs and frames should be produced from at least 14-gauge steel tubing, and all welded components should be joined by continuous bead, electric arc welds to provide the necessary strength.

Tables that eventually work loose from the floor are noisy and may place unnecessary stress on the wires and cables. Pay special attention to how the table legs attach to the floor. The base plate should lie flat against the floor and have countersunk holes drilled to accept flathead mounting anchor bolts. If the room has a concrete floor, be certain that concrete anchor bolts are used. If you have a wooden floor, insist that wood toggle bolts be used.

If the classroom furniture is installed on a sloped floor rather than on risers, special angle bases should be used to ensure that the table tops remain level.

Swing arm seats have moving parts. Springs, bushings and other components must be designed to work smoothly and silently and provide their full range of movement for as long as the seating is used. Upholstered seat pads should be secured so they can’t be dismantled by students, but it should be possible to remove and replace a pad that has been permanently damaged or soiled.

Customer service quality is as critical as product quality. After installing the system or consulting with contractors or school employees doing this work, the dealer can help see to it that maximum value is received from this investment. Most dealers provide maintenance programs that include annual inspections to identify components that need to be repaired or replaced. Because classroom furniture is a long-term purchase, quality-oriented manufacturers also stock replacement parts for many years after your system has been installed.

Some experts say that schools with smart classrooms will soon start promoting them more aggressively in order to attract students who want access to state-of-the-art education technology. This means that these rooms must be planned and constructed to live up to these expectations for years to come.

Wilson Troup is vice president, sales and marketing for Lake Bluff, Ill.-based Clarin, a manufacturer and marketer of portable and classroom seating.