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 is inserted.
  • 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.
Write Tight

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 writing:

  • 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 are expecting.
  • 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 codes.
Counting Cables

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 cables.

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: editors@campus-technology.com.

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