A Brave New World

It used to be that the overhead projector was state-of-the-art. It was touted as the ultimate in teaching techniques. On a real screen, just like a movie or TV screen (sort of), a brand new graphic image popped into place at the click of a switch. It was sure to grab students’ attention and revolutionize the art of teaching.

Technology has advanced far beyond that. Here’s how Michael Callahan, product marketing manager for the Alameda, CA-based RGB Spectrum, Inc., manufacturers of multi-image display processors, puts it:“One of the issues in our culture now is that people have a relatively short attention span. With a multi-media format you’re able to engage the student, and hold his interest. This allows you to transfer content and courseware so the student receives it more effectively.”

The key to accomplishing this, Callahan continues, is through displaying multiple images on a single screen.“You can display to students correlated information they can access and ascertain with a PowerPoint presentation, along with spread sheets, analog discs, discovery broadcasts, and video teleconferencing from another classroom, either remote or within the same facility,” Callahan explains. “In addition, you have a document camera. All these disparate visuals are critical to content at hand, to display to students simultaneously, with the capacity for correlated views of all the pertinent information. The bottom line is convenience, comprehension, and improved retention.”

The typical configuration, Callahan says, consists of a ceiling-mounted projector, coupled with a multi-image display processor such as Superview or Quadview. Other key elements include a video tele¬conferencing system, notebook PCs, a cable broadcast input, a DVD/VCR player, and some form of networking.

When asked for a rough estimate of what these components can cost, Callahan responds as follows.

Ceiling-mounted projectors cost between $3,000 and $10,000.

Multi-image processors cost $5,000 to $15,000.

Video processing? “I don’t have a clue,” says Callahan.

Cable broadcasting input is generally already installed as part of the facility’s infrastructure.

Notebook PCs run from $300 to $1,000.

A document camera is generally about $200.

A DVD/VCR player is about $100.

The overall system costs between $15,000 and $50,000.

When asked where schools are in terms of taking full advantage of this modern technology, Callahan replies, “Colleges and universities have larger budgets and are deploying more quickly than K-12. It’s more important for high schools than the younger grades, for in high school there is a more intense battle for student attention, and thus the need for more sophisticated ways to present content.”

The good news about this species of high-tech, Callahan says, is that incompatibility is not an issue. Products from different manufacturers are all interchangeable. Moreover, the choices are not between poor, average, and good, but rather good, better, and best. “All manufacturers make basically similar equipment,” Callahan says. “It comes down to budget, how much a school can afford.”

Nevertheless, there is one big pitfall that schools can fall into when buying this equipment, says Michael Dunn, president/CEO, PolyVision Corporaton. “Many vendors sell on the amount of functionality in a system,” Dunn says. “The more important criterion should be the rate of adoption, or the rate of knowledge increase for the students using this equipment.”

Dunn, who says that PolyVision is the largest producer of visual communications, ranging from standard light boards to interactive products for both local and distant collaborations, states, “We have watched and studied the market from a no-tech to high-tech perspective, and took a different approach some time ago.” He explains that instead of committing to any one manufacturer platform in terms of hardware and software, PolyVision has always worked on the premise of open architecture, taking the best of every new technology that comes along, and assuming that one size never fits all. He maintains it’s a mistake to believe that more functionality equates to less cost, for much of the functionality may not be needed or used. “Schools can spend huge sums of money which will not change the outcome,” Dunn says. “Far better is the measurement of how the technology actually impacts things like attendance, test scores, and graduation rates — the only measures that matter.”

The San Fernando, CA-based Califone, Inc. has its focus selling not video, but audio equipment. Vice President of Marketing, Tim Ridgway, sees audio advances taking place in five different size arenas. The first is on the personal level, such as the MP3-style player. Second, is the listening center in the classroom. Third, is the installed system for the entire classroom. The fourth is for larger indoor spaces such as the cafeteria, library, or auditorium, and the fifth is portable public address systems for outside locations such as stadiums.

On the personal level, Ridgway says, “The MP3-style player technology has gained a rapid growth in the classroom through applications such as student podcasting, but it is also used for listening to recorded books.”

Ridgway adds that these players have also received a lot of negative attention. They are often played too loudly, leading to hearing damage or loss. Ridgway says they are collaborating with the American Speech and Language Association, which is helping to educate teachers on the safe use of audio products. “We are helping to promote the message that we don’t want America tuned in today but tuned out tomorrow,” says Ridgway. This effort is also promoting the three main goals of ASHA in this issue: reducing the length of time students are listening to these players, lowering the volume, and upgrading the quality of the headphones.

Most headphones are ambient noise-reducing. There are two varieties of headphone. One is on the ear. The other is over the ear. “Both are effective, but the over-the-ear model is more comprehensive in filtering out noise,” Ridgway explains. “By doing this you reduce the need for students to increase volume and also helps to keep them on task.”

“The listening center has long been a staple in many classrooms,” Ridgeway says. “A key factor here is the use of ambient-reducing headphones. Also, there are many different types of media players, ranging from CDs to multi-media players, and we’re processing a brand new media player ability to upload and download audio files through a SD card. This allows for a variable-speed playback. This is very important for the language learner and for teachers who need to differentiate different instructions for different levels of students.”

In terms of the installed system, Ridgway recommends a permanently installed infrared system. “Infrared does not leak into a neighboring classroom, nor will the sounds from that classroom leak into yours, as can happen with other types of wireless audio,” Ridgway says. “This is extremely beneficial in a classroom environment.”

Typically this system will consist of a transmitter and a microphone worn by the teacher. Some models offer a secondary microphone for the students. Both teacher and student microphones are wireless with the signals picked up by a ceiling sensor.

Ridgway adds that a critical point is the signal to noise ratio, which means that you want the message amplified, not the background noise.

Background noises might include noises from the outside, or even inside, such as the hum from the hvac system. If you raise all sounds together you get an increase of sounds bouncing off the walls and ceilings so louder doesn’t necessarily mean clearer. The secret here, Ridgway said, is to have a 10-decimal difference between the signal itself and the message and the ambient noises, which might be around 40 decimals.

The large indoor and outdoor spaces can be combined in one category, Ridgway says, in the sense that here you are using more powerful UHF rather than infrared systems. Wireless receivers should be used to make sure a large number of people can hear the message. Ridgway recommends having two wireless receivers which allows you to have two people talking simultaneously using different channels, such as a school speaker and a guest speaker.

One final bit of advice Ridgway offers is that, “Unless your school has the advantage of a trained audio/video professional, its best to choose a system that’s easy to set up.”