The right kit for tomorrow’s classrooms

Investing in tech today might mean it's obsolete by next year, but entry-level AV equipment's cost is falling, says Nicola Yeeles

Schools are constantly weighing up the cost of getting a better projector over the potential benefits of kitting out more classrooms. But there are so many manufacturers producing such a vast array of kit that decisions can sometimes be overwhelming. Investing in tech today might mean that it’s out of date by next year, or that the cost of maintaining it is the same as investing again.  What to do? 

IMPROVEMENTS IN THE HARDWARE

In the past, schools would have to contend with the ongoing costs of replacing the bulbs in their projectors. But times are changing. Phil Clark, head of projectors at Casio UK, says, “All Casio projectors are laser and LED hybrids, which basically means they are lamp-free, so with no lamps to change the light source remains at a constant brilliance. This negates the need to ever pull curtains or draw blinds, so pupils will always be able to see the vibrant and compelling lesson content being displayed, as well as the books that they are writing in.

“Another benefit of being lamp-free is that the projectors start instantly with no warm-up period. This saves valuable time and means lessons can always begin promptly.”

More and more hardware is also becoming automated, giving schools the power to manage their projectors remotely saving staff time and energy. No more walks around school switching off products or maintaining them.

INTUITIVE USE FOR TEACHERS

Of course, school IT teams are investing to improve teaching and learning, not technology. Fairfield High School for Girls in Manchester is over 200 years old, but it’s definitely looking to the future.

Jamie Rowland, network manager at Fairfield, explains: “For teaching staff it is really important that we are able to provide them with devices on a single operating system, which allows them to move seamlessly between the touchscreen system on the desk and the whiteboard on the wall. Valuable time can be saved if we can provide staff with devices that have similar controls.”

As a result, when the school was kitting out eight new classrooms, they decided to make their new screens work in line with existing interactive whiteboards around the school. This would also reduce any time on training, as the teachers were already familiar with SMART notebook annotation software. Stone Group worked with the school to provide nine SMART Board 6065 touchscreens with 4K resolution and nine Stone All in One desktop PCs for the teachers’ desks.

Futureproofing is a major concern. Headteacher Brendan Hesketh comments: “By investing in the latest 4K touchscreens we have equipped the school to be ready for future technological advances. As teaching software develops and expectations from staff and pupils increase, the AV technology will grow with the school.”

DIGITAL TABLETOPS

Taking touchscreen to a new level, some schools are looking at interactive tables which work like a flat whiteboard, so pupils can gather in groups around them. In 2013 researchers from Newcastle University carried out the first study of their effectiveness. Their academic study was done in a classroom environment so it was able to reveal some key findings that previous research conducted in a lab had not raised. What’s striking about their paper is that it focuses not on the tech, but on the software it might run. The researchers identified that digital tabletop software would need to allow teachers to freeze the table to regain pupils’ attention, for example to ask a question, or to skip a stage in a programme. They also wanted the software to give teachers an awareness of how different groups were progressing.

‘Interactive tables are not an end to themselves; they are a tool like any other. To make the most use of them teachers have to make them part of the classroom activity they have planned – not make it the lesson activity”

 

But David Leat, Professor of Curriculum Innovation at Newcastle University, who co-authored the paper, warned, “Interactive tables are not an end to themselves; they are a tool like any other. To make the most use of them teachers have to make them part of the classroom activity they have planned – not make it the lesson activity.”

Tobias Windbrake, collaboration consultant at SMART, takes up the point. “I’d love to see a mind shift away from the word ‘technology’ to words like tools and devices. The word ‘technology’ is often associated with complexity, which may stand in the way of full adoption. To get there, the overall user experience needs to become more natural, and AV tools should behave in a smarter way, enabled by built-in intelligence.”

FUTURE THINKING

Beyond the infrastructure, then, it seems that it’s the software and what we do with these tools that will develop with time. Today’s pupils are digital natives, happy with using their smartphones to do things that PCs couldn’t 10 years ago. So they demand interoperability and ad-hoc connectivity. It’s natural for them to use their own phones to connect to the teacher’s technology in a seamless way. Windbrake identifies that some cloud-based platforms act as the bridge between AV equipment and personal devices, solving the need for manual software updates for classroom technology. This eases the burden on IT staff.

Windbrake says: “I believe schools should be able to deploy classroom technology on a broader scale, without the need for large upfront capital expenditures. Schools should have the option to sign up for a monthly subscription, which might better align with their budgetary requirements. The good news is that we are already seeing some of these concepts gaining traction, with many more offerings likely to appear in the coming year. 

ABOVE: The Casio Core 2015

Projectors: five factors to look for:

1.  1. Brighter is not necessarily better.
The higher the lumens rating, the brighter the projector. And the more natural light you have flooding into the classroom, the brighter the projector will need to be to contend with that. But be aware that when pupils look into the projector, they will be hit with a beam, so the recommended max for a classroom is 3500 lumens.  

2. Consider the room size.
In small classrooms you might only have a short distance between the screen and the projector. This is called the ‘throw’ of the projector. Clark says “Our ultra-short throw projector is a very popular choice for the classroom as it generates an image of over two metres (80 inches) from a distance of 27cm.” With more pupils, you’ll need a larger image so everyone can see.

3. Running costs.
Look firstly at the lamp life of the projector, and then at the running costs of the individual lamps. That’s what you’ll be spending your money on – unless you go for one of the higher cost laser versions. 

4. Remote controls.
In busy classrooms you might find remote controls have legs, so you can plan on investing in one or more spares. Small credit card-sized remotes are easily lost, so larger ones can be an advantage.

5. A sharp image. 
If you get a projector that’s XVGA resolution, it should be enough for pupils to appreciate even complex images. 1080p resolution is the next step up but isn’t really necessary unless you’re planning to use it for exact measurements, such as in graphic design or architecture classes.