Taming the 'Smart' Classroom Monster
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on technology-enabled teaching,
new challenges crop up. Here’s how to master “smart.”
Making “Smart Classrooms” affordable, powerful, and easy to use
is like fighting a three-headed monster: Keep a close eye on one or two of the
heads, and it’s a sure thing the third one’ll getcha. Still, if
you can keep essential factors in the picture, you will end up with
happy and satisfied educators, administrators, and technologists. Here are best
practices that are guaranteed to keep the monster at bay:
Using and Abusing CAT-6
Face it; nobody likes dealing with VGA cabling to ceiling-mounted projectors
or displays. Terminating bulk cable is tricky and time consuming, and pre-terminated
cables are difficult or impossible to pull through small diameter conduit. Solutions
for using unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cable (such as CAT-5, CAT-5e, and CAT-6)
for transporting audio, video, and computer graphics have been around for years.
After many generations of product, there are some winners out there. Depending
on the distance being covered, UTP cabling and transmission systems can even
deliver better performance than the coaxial cable it replaces, at a lower cost.
When comparing the cost of UTP vs. coaxial cabling schemes, be sure to consider
the varying cost of labor—any cabling technician can terminate UTP, while
coaxial computer graphics termination requires specials tools and training.
Using UTP d'esn’t always save money when compared with coaxial cabling,
but it can deliver tremendous cost-effectiveness where cable runs are long,
or where conduit and/or wiring access is limited.
Behind the Classroom Dashboard
Have you noticed that the remote controls for the projectors you just bought
are different from the remotes for the projectors you had installed last year?
Who is going to talk each instructor through the steps and procedures necessary
to properly operate each smart classroom? Cost-effective, Web-centric systems
can allow an instructor to control his projector, TV, VCR, DVD player, sound
system, and other AV equipment from his classroom workstation or from his portable
computing device. With a “classroom dashboard,” all classrooms will
look and work identically from the instructor’s perspective, no matter
what equipment is in the room.
Better still, these solutions allow the IT staff to monitor the status of all
the equipment in every room on campus in real time (including lamp-life hours),
and provide remote support by turning systems on and off as necessary from a
Web interface. Technical support can be dispatched to fix a problem in the room
even before the instructor shows up or calls to report it. Scheduled system
shutdowns reduce costly projector lamp replacements.
Locking It Down
Funny how classrooms don’t seem so smart when the equipment disappears.
The decreasing size and increasing popularity of projectors for home theater
applications has led to a wave of projector theft on campuses around the country.
Taking steps to safeguard what usually amounts to the most expensive single
piece of equipment in the classroom is common sense. Following are some effective
approaches to preventing equipment theft:
- Use the security screws and bolts that come with most projector
mounts. Or, use a mount specially designed for security applications.
Oh, and while you’re at it, make sure the mount is attached to the structure
using security hardware, or the thief will take the projector, mount and all.
For extra protection, use a cable-lock kit.
- Attach an audio alarm device to each projector, along with a
warning sticker. The alarm is permanently attached to the projector
with superglue, and a thin sensor coil wire is connected to the alarm box
and looped around the mount or structure, above the ceiling. If the sensor
wire is cut or disconnected without the required key inserted to disarm the
alarm, a piercing 120 dB tone is emitted for several hours, or until the key
- Connect the projector and/or a classroom dashboard system to
the LAN to allow instantaneous reporting (via e-mail and/or
through connection to the building’s alarm panel) when a projector is
disconnected. Many projectors come with LAN connections built in, and nearly
any projector can be integrated onto the LAN, with a classroom dashboard system.
- Paint. If you’re not planning to resell
your projectors, don’t be afraid to mark them up with your institution’s
ID. Better yet, engrave or inscribe markings on the top of the ceiling- or
cart-mounted projector, so they can be clearly seen from underneath. A “hot”
projector (one that clearly has been stolen) will be worth much less at a
pawn shop, and will probably be an eBay reject. Thieves don’t like to
steal stuff that d'esn’t pay off.
Writing tight specifications is the key to getting the best prices from your
vendors, and minimizing costly change orders. Clearly stating your expectations
for the implementation process, as well as for the final outcomes, g'es a long
way to ensure that your vendors are in the hot seat, and need to perform to
your satisfaction. Try these no-fail tips for smart classroom specification
- Use a recognizable specification format. The most
common format for construction specifications is MasterFormat, published by
the Construction Specifications Institute (www.csinet.org). This saves you
time writing and organizing the document, and gives vendors a document that
helps them easily find the specific information they need.
- Be specific about which cables and connectors vendors may use.
Between two similar-looking cables there can be wide variance in both electrical
performance and price, so be sure you know (and tell the vendors) what you
- Include the procedure for negotiating changes to the contract—negotiating
is much easier when you get to make up the rules. Use unit pricing
to your advantage; it comes in mighty handy when negotiating changes such
as additions or deletions.
- Own your code. If you have a classroom dashboard
system, or any type of integrated control system for smart classroom equipment,
be sure your specification states that you own all of the programming
that makes your system work. Have it delivered to you on disc, along with
any software and hardware that is necessary to access and modify the control
With classroom instructor workstation(s), laptops, classroom dashboard systems,
codecs, video servers, cameras, projectors, printers, and other devices all
vying for LAN connections, smart classroom designers need to make sure that
there are enough wired LAN drops. Once the quantity of drops has been established,
consider the locations: front of the room for instructor-accessible devices
(computer, laptop/tablet, printer, IP phone); ceiling for projector and/or classroom
dashboard equipment; rear of room or ceiling for cameras. Having power and network
in the ceiling, in the center of a room, provides an opportunity for easily
adding a wireless access point, so keep that possibility in mind when counting
Calling All Tips
The great thing about best practices is that they’re shared and traded
like currency, and they propagate like crazy. So, go ahead and share your own
with us; we’ll publish them in an upcoming column. Send your ideas to: