Classroom Amplification Systems Allow Teachers to Be Heard

Once upon a time, classroom amplification systems got their start as a tool for hearing-impaired students. Gradually, administrators and teachers began noticing that they were benefiting all students, and sales started to grow. Now they’re becoming as common for general education classrooms as a number-two pencil is for test taking.

In fact, administrators in one school district and another state noticed so clearly how classroom amplification systems were maximizing listening and learning opportunities that they are now installing them in every classroom.

I Heard That! The Significance of Hearing to Learning

The district is Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan.“We had some buildings that had classroom amplification systems to meet the needs of hearing-impaired students,” said Carlos Soto, Ann Arbor’s technical specialist for AV Media.“The PTO purchased a few more a couple of years ago. And now we’re outfitting the entire district.” Specifically, the district has completed about 90 percent of the project in 18 months.

Similarly, the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) has written sound amplification systems into its classroom standards for districts using OSFC funds to upgrade or build new schools. “The primary benefit is children can hear what the teacher said,” said Franklin Brown, OSFC’s planning director. “We need to make sure 100 percent of what the teacher said is capable of being absorbed by the children. Anything that isn’t is interfering with the process of education. Nothing is more important than the relationship between what the teacher said and what the student hears.”

Soto agreed, adding: “It’s not so much a voice amplification system as it is a voice distribution system. It distributes the voice evenly around the classroom, not more loudly.”

Even distribution is important because many noises interfere with the education process, both inside and outside the classroom. For example, coughing, talking, HVAC systems, fans, and computers contribute to internal noise. This can be compounded by high ceilings and bare floors and walls. External noise can include traffic, lawn mowers, and children on the playground.

Noise isn’t the only reason some children don’t hear everything a teacher said. The distance the teacher is from the students is a factor, so children sitting in the front of the classroom hear more than children in the back. Also, the teacher’s orientation in the classroom is another factor. If she’s facing a whiteboard and talking, her voice has to reflect off the whiteboard and back to the students, and so it’s diminished. And a third factor is medical — children with ear infections do not hear everything a teacher said.

The significance of any child not hearing everything the teacher said is life experience. Specifically, adults have the advantage of having life experience so that, if someone sneezes and we miss a portion of a message, we have the ability to fill in the blank caused by the sneeze. “Children, because of their lack of life experience and because most of the information they’re presented with in school is new, do not have the ability to fill in the blank,” said Brown. “They’ll miss the whole meaning of the sentence. So it’s critical that what the teacher said is able to be heard and comprehended. That’s what sound amplification systems do.” Here’s how.

Did You Hear That? System Components and Installation

A classroom amplification system includes four speakers (typically mounted on the walls or in the ceiling), a receiver/amplifier (usually placed near the projection equipment), and a microphone. Microphones are wireless and worn around the teacher’s neck like a pendant. Additional hand-held microphones may be purchased for students to pass around when answering questions.

That’s not a lot of equipment for a system that “fundamentally changes the environment of the classroom,” said Tom Dobson, vice president for Salt Lake City-based Audio Enhancement, which manufactures six classroom amplification systems.

In the old days, the systems ran on an FM radio frequency, and the microphones had wires. The problem with that type of system is that, when failure occurs, the teacher is out of business.

Today, classroom amplification systems are also available in Infrared (IR). “By integrating everything into one unit, we have more reliable products today than we did five to 10 years ago,” said John Merline, director of marketing for Petaluma, Calif.-based FrontRow, which manufactures three different kinds of classroom amplification systems. “Reliability is very high today.”

Brown agreed, observing that “one advantage of IR is that it eliminates interference from one classroom to another. Also, a teacher wearing a microphone can walk into the classroom next to hers and be automatically connected to that classroom’s system. She can immediately get the students’ attention. That is not true of the FM system.”

Another benefit of the IR system is that the signal does not travel through walls. “That’s real convenient,” said Soto. He notes that the FM signal does travel through walls, which can be troublesome if a teacher steps out of the room and forget to turn off her microphone.

One disadvantage to the IR system is that it can’t be used out of doors, as can the FM system.

The equipment is user-friendly and compact. In addition, it can be hooked up to televisions and cassette and CD players for a surround-sound benefit, which is so much better than the distortion that results from turning up the volume. “The classroom amplification system becomes an integral piece of our classroom-of-the-future design,” said Soto. “That’s critical to us, and it creates a pretty captivating environment for our students.”

Installation is quick. “Most installations take just a couple of minutes,” said Merline. “One of our products does take one to two hours depending on classroom and ceiling height.” Even that is not unreasonable.

Can You Hear Me? System Benefits

Classroom amplification systems are useful in most educational settings. “We’ve not found rooms in which we couldn’t use them,” said Jerry Ramey, President/CEO of Tualatin, Ore.-based LightSPEED Technologies, which manufactures three different systems. “They do get a little more complicated with open classrooms. And you may run into some rooms with acoustics that are more reverberant. But, if you’ve picked the right speaker and properly placed it in the room, you can eliminate a lot of and, in most cases, all of the reverberation.”

That’s good news, because the benefits are so great that it would be a shame for any class to miss out. For instance, one benefit of classroom amplification systems is that they lessen the strain on teachers’ vocal cords. Teachers feel less tired at the end of the day and take fewer sick days because of laryngitis and other voice problems.

Related to this is an emotional benefit for the students: When a teacher is raising her voice, she looks and sounds more stressed, which increases student stress. If a teacher is using a quieter voice, she looks and sounds more relaxed, so students feel more relaxed. “It’s hard to project a calm demeanor when you’re projecting your voice in a crowded room,” said Soto. “Our teachers who work with emotionally impaired students appreciate this benefit because it allows them to remain in a relaxed state, and their students pick up on that.”

Another benefit is that it creates a more orderly classroom. The hand-held, pass-around microphone contributes to this. Students pay attention to the person who has the microphone and understand that they have to wait until they have the microphone to speak. “You get a television talk show environment going on,” said Soto. “The microphone becomes a symbol: Listen to the student with the microphone. That really has an impact on building speaking confidence.”

Yet another benefit is that students pay more attention and are less distractible. In addition, teachers report that they don’t have to repeat instructions as often. And they like the freedom of movement that the cordless pendant microphone offers.

One amazing benefit is that studies show that, when classroom amplification systems are used, students’ test scores go up.

In a nontraditional classroom setting, Soto points out, speech therapists appreciate the systems. “It allows teacher ennunciations to be heard more clearly because the way the sound is distributed. It just makes it that much easier for students with partial hearing loss and those using hearing aids.”

All these benefits come with a reasonable price tag, too. Merline notes that FrontRow’s classroom amplification systems range in price from $836 to $1,300. And Dobson said that Audio Enhancement’s products range in price from $600 to $2,000.

“In my way of thinking,” said Brown, “it is an investment we can make in education that provides the greatest benefit in terms of children actually learning.”

Ramey agreed, concluding, “Teachers who use classroom amplification systems say that they would not go without them because the students are engaged.