Enlightened Choices

Here’s the thinking behind the ‘smart classroom’ products that savvy project managers pick, and how two unlikely buzzwords can help guide your own technology-enabled teaching initiatives.

Smart ClassroomIt’s April 1993, and you’re on board my time machine, landing now at an unnamed liberal arts college somewhere in the Midwest. The Management Economics professor strides into a classroom, toting two sleek, black leather bags. His students eye him—and the bags—warily. After all, this instructor has a dangerous reputation: He used to work in the business world; the real world. And he knows a lot about technology. The students watch with bated breath as the professor pulls an IBM laptop out of the first bag, then an ungainly square box with lots of wires attached to it from the second. He writes his name and the course name on the chalkboard in front of the classroom, then proceeds to attack the laptop and the strange box (which he has placed on top of the overhead transparency projector). As the class minutes tick by, he continues his assault on the laptop and the box, turning the computer on and off, flicking the overhead transparency projector switch on and off, hooking and unhooking cables, and muttering things under his breath. This g'es on for 20 minutes until he finally gives up, turns to the chalkboard, and angrily scrawls his notes there.

Now it is two months later, June 1993, and our time machine has once again landed in the classroom being used this day for Management Economics. It is the final week of classes, and the professor has finally gotten his panel working reliably on an everyday basis—after trying to hook it up nearly every class period since early April.

Why have I taken you on this little excursion back in time, you may ask? Simply put, to illustrate the importance of two vital concepts in the minds of smart IT project managers, when they begin to consider smart-classroom installations and implementations, and the technologies they will choose. Those watchwords are: standardization and boring.

CONSIDER THIS

Will the installation of standard, 12-inch LCD monitors in front of each student obscure sightlines and prevent students from interacting effectively with their professor or peers? Watch stand height and bezel size, and you can even install 15-inch LCDs like those from NEC.

Certainly, nearly every project manager would mention the first watchword: standardization. The second word— boring—nobody says, per se. But technologists intimate it in the other things they say; as my little time-machine example above illustrates, they certainly allude to it when they say they want reliability. And the additional things they must have—contingency backups, low cost of ownership, technical support simplicity, and reduced training requirements for users—are not bells and whistles, but boring requisites. The good news, however, is that the journey to standardization and boringness can be an interesting, if not downright exciting, process.

Charting the Course

The first step in any technology project, especially as it relates to classroom technologies that will not be primarily operated or used by technologists, is carefully setting goals and priorities. There are many methodologies available to make this process easier. One excellent resource is the Programming Information Index from CSI’s Project Resource Manual. Defining as primary factors the people, activities, relationships, locations, intended performance levels, budgets, schedule, and operating/lifecycle costs are usually fairly straightforward activities. Resolving the multitude of goals, concepts, needs, and problems that tie back to each of these primary factors, and prioritizing them appropriately, are often the most difficult part of planning, especially when resolutions of certain of these issues are proven to be mutually exclusive early on in the planning process.

Following a previous CT article (“If You Build It, We Should Come,” July 2005), I was taken to task by a CT reader who felt that I had not made clear the importance of conferring with end users when setting goals and priorities (“Where’s Zachman When You Need Him?” Letters, September 2005). Certainly, a great importance must be placed on gathering information from end users and giving them an ownership stake in the process, from the beginning of a project. However, project managers who do this must keep three important points in mind:

Expectations set early tend not to be malleable later on: If the scope of the project must change due to budget constraints, then these changes must be explained (repeatedly) in terms of modifying specific promises of system performance, number of rooms, and/or available features. Otherwise, trust between users and project managers is lost, and users may never be satisfied with the results, even if the technology meets all basic needs.

Technology changes may make systems that are desired now, obsolete soon. For example, instructors who want the functionality of an electronic whiteboard and who have seen an annotation liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor will usually demand the LCD product. Yet, on an increasing number of campuses (and even in high schools), the prevalence and use of tablet PCs and wireless networking are threatening the place of the annotation tablet in terms of providing a flexible, interactive experience for teachers and students.

Mixed messages come from users who are at different levels. On a recent auditorium project for a medical school, the user representatives asked for the systems to be simple and reliable. But one professor demanded to know whether the projection system would support stereoscopic imaging, surround sound, and HDMI inputs. (The answers were no, no, and yes.)

CONSIDER THIS

Your institution cannot afford higher capital outlay for pricey "dream" equipment— a Barco iCon H600 $50,000 projector, or two stacked $25,000 Panasonic PT-DW7000U-Ks. Are you willing to go for a single PT-DW7000U-K, some inconvenience, and pricey bulb replacement, in order to offer quality projection in a large room?

Critical Decisions Based on Design Priorities

At Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, a recent project involving the outfitting of a data statistics exploration classroom (the brainchild of Daniel Kaplan, DeWitt Wallace professor of Mathematics and Computer Science) demonstrated the value of careful planning and the inclusion of input from the users. The professors felt strongly that putting standard LCD monitors in front of each student would obscure sightlines and prevent students from interacting effectively with the professor or with each other. The technology project managers evaluated the ergonomic relationships between users, furniture, and technology, and in the end, chose NEC 15-inch LCD monitors and small Wacom touchscreen monitors for the student workstations. Barron Koralesky, associate director for Academic Technology Services, explains, “We chose these monitors because all the others had higher stands or larger bezels. Now, the faculty members are happy and the room is booked solid every class day.” (Demand for teaching and learning in this type of lab has also increased campuswide since the room was installed, says Koralesky, and Kaplan is now working to enhance the lab’s capabilities through image capture and joint-annotation software, and is encouraging collaborative notetaking through computers.)

Steve Wyffels, Instructional Technology Support supervisor at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, MN, recently had a similar experience. When specifying a preview monitor for Normandale’s new podiums, he and his integrator selected a movable arm to allow the preview PC monitor (a 17-inch model) and the Crestron touch panel to be positioned in a flexible fashion. But, Wyffels reflects, “We found that the 17-inch was still too big for the sightlines to the instructor.” The school switched to 15-inch monitors, which turned out to be just right.

Daniel Kaplan and Barron Koralesky

AT MACALESTER COLLEGE,
Daniel Kaplan (left) and Barron
Koralesky (right) watched sightlines
and opted for monitors with lower
stands and smaller bezels.

Balancing Competing Priorities

Perhaps no smart-classroom decision that falls into a project manager’s lap is as challenging to deal with as the common question of rear vs. front projection. There are some (at least one reader that I know of, for sure!) scanning this article who cannot accept that front projection is a viable technology for use in a classroom, just as there are some readers who could not contemplate devoting the necessary resources (in terms of space and dollars) to implement rear projection as a standard in all classrooms. Yet, where it makes sense—in terms of program, budget, and space—rear projection can be an extremely useful tool in creating an effective learning environment. An ongoing university project in a large auditorium renovation where rear projection is being implemented is an excellent study of competing issues and priorities:

This particular university charged the project manager with delivering a reliable, cost-effective system that would be simple to use and maintain. The user groups requested that the system offer the highest-possible resolution. The architects requested that the system have the highest brightness level possible. Everyone agreed that both the screen and the projection system needed to have a 16:9 native aspect ratio.

The consultant dreamed of specifying a Barco iCon H600 or a Sanyo PLVHD10, each offering 1920x1080 native resolution and greater than 5500 ANSI lumens brightness. However, the high cost of these projectors (around $50,000 each) and the university administrators’ desire to standardize (meaning that it would be cost-prohibitive to put these projectors in other rooms, even if the budget supported them for this particular project) overruled the consultant’s initial ambitions.

The second plan was to step down to 1366x768 WXGA projectors, double stacking a pair of Panasonic PT-DW7000U-K projectors (6000 ANSI 3-chip DLP). At this brightness, the projectors could be run at the reduced light output level, providing an 8000 ANSI image with long-life lamps. At around $25,000 each, the university balked at this outlay, too, and also was concerned with the lamp-replacement implications of four bulbs burning at a replacement cost of over $1,200 a pair.

The third plan was to go in on the low end, double stacking a pair of 3000 ANSI Sanyo PLV-80 projectors (around $10,000 each; $20,000 for two). The advantage of double stacking is that if one projector or lamp fails, then the other will still provide an image, even though it will be half as bright as the two projectors. This is especially important with this model of projector, as it has only the single lamp—good news for the lamp replacement budget, bad news if the lamp g'es out just before a major event or lecture and the tech folks don’t have a contingency plan (such as a double-stack arrangement).

Smart Classroom

ARE YOU EVALUATING the
ergonomic relationship between
users, furniture, and technology?

Then, the screen and mirror manufacturers— Draper and DaLite are two— weighed in on the physical space constraints. The installation of doublestacked projectors requires careful alignment of the two images on the vertical plane. With most mid- to high-level projectors, this is possible through the vertical lens-shift feature. However, the ultra-wide-angle lenses required to fill a rear-projection screen from a short distance (typically .8:1.0 throw:width ratio) are generally not capable of being used with a lens shift, making them unavailable for multiple-stack installations. The next larger throw ratio, 1.2:1.0, required the second mirror in the projection room to be larger than what the screen and mirror manufacturers could fabricate.

The vendors offered two suggestions: reduce the screen size, or go to a sideby- side edge-blending scenario. The architect and consultant immediately recommended against reducing the screen size—the auditorium is historic and the available screen size was already limited by the proscenium opening, which could not be modified. Reducing the screen size even further would dramatically reduce the useful capacity of the room for the graphicsintensive curriculum activities planned for the space.

In edge blending, two projectors (typically non-16:9) are placed side by side and spaced so that each fills half the screen, with the line at which the two images meet being digitally blended so that (in theory) it is not apparent to the audience that the image is coming from two projectors. When comparing this approach with the university’s project priorities—namely, having a contingency plan for projector failure at the worst moment—this approach, too, fell short. If either projector or lamp fails, then there’s only half an image on the screen, which is not useful. The other problem with this approach is budget: The rear-projection mirror assemblies cost almost as much as the projectors themselves. With the edge-blending strategy, the project requires not one, but two separate mirror assemblies (albeit slightly smaller ones), making this solution not especially budget-friendly.

The final decision was made by the project manager to balance these competing priorities of budget, performance, and reliability. A single Panasonic PTDW7000U- K projector (at a cost of $25,000) was selected, with a .8:1.0 ratio lens, and set at full brightness (6000 ANSI). This compares favorably with the performance of the edge-blending solution. Budget-wise, this configuration is half the cost of the double-stack, half-power configuration of this model (if it were even possible, given the limitations of lensing and mirrors). The downside is higher cost of ownership, given the 1500-hour life expectancy of the lamps and their relatively high replacement cost ($1,200 per pair).

Standardization: Costs and Benefits

“Up until five years ago, we were throwing classrooms together,” Macalester’s Koralesky notes, adding that “we are now pushing for presentation technology in 100 percent of classrooms.” Accordingly, says Koralesky, “We are now designing and selecting standardized controls and laptop interfaces, so that things are the same for instructors wherever they go.”

Normandale’s Wyffels has taken standardization one step further. “We used to spec and use all Sony VPL-PX41 projectors and were happy with them until we found that replacement lamps took four to six weeks to obtain. We had vendors come in and do a shoot-out to find an alternative, and we then selected a Panasonic model for new rooms to be upgraded.” Working with his control system programmer in an effort to make replacement of projectors simpler, Wyffels and his team noticed that they had extra serial ports on the Crestron control systems in each room. Now, all of their rooms have programming for two projectors: Sony VPL-PX41 on one RS-232 port, and Panasonic on the second serial port. When a projector needs to be replaced for service or repair, they simply switch the DB-9 connector from one port to another on the control system—no reprogramming necessary.

CONSIDER THIS

You’re standardizing on new projectors in all of your smart classrooms, but wish you could salvage the investment in previous projection equipment, while also providing some backup redundancy if a projector fails. Check the back of your integrated control system: Crestron and AMX controllers have extra serial ports that can accommodate two different models of projector. Eureka!

Control systems are usually among the first areas where campuses standardize. Once a control system manufacturer is entrenched on campus, there is often little chance that other manufacturers can gain a t'ehold. Indeed, the marketplace tug-of-war between AMX and Crestron had long left competitors out in the cold, but recently Extron has been gaining ground. AMX’s ceding of the low end of the hardware market to Extron, and the integration of Extron’s IP Link systems into AMX’s Meeting Manager IP interface software, has created low-cost control capabilities for campuses long standardized on AMX. (Crestron’s cost-effective QM-RMC controller has made real inroads into the low-cost technology-enabled classroom market, but it lacks the convenient button interface of the Extron MLC 104 IP.)

Control-panel product wars aside, an institution’s cost of standardization can be assessed by looking at the time and expertise needed to establish standards, as well as to monitor and update them as necessary. Just as important as the equipment are the standards regarding installation procedure, wiring, and labeling. Rooms built by different contractors (or even different installers from the same vendor) can look and function very differently from each other, if standards are not implemented and enforced.

Specific areas where standards should be enforced for classroom instructional technologies include:

  • Intellectual property rights for control system programming and audio DSP configurations.
  • Specific types of cables, wires, connectors, and termination methods.
  • Installation of wiring. BICSI standards are the norm in the structured cabling world and apply equally well to audio/video installations.
  • Rack and station wiring. This should also include use of heat-shrink, expandable sleeving, and appropriate wire ties (Velcro and plastic).
  • Consistent labeling methods, for cables as well as equipment.
  • Documentation of rooms—including as-built drawings, manuals, quickreference guides, warranty registrations, and electronic submittals including control system code and CAD backgrounds.
  • Custom plates and rack panels: finishes, engraving, and layouts.
  • Touch-panel and button-panel layouts and functions.
  • Securing high-risk theft targets, such as projectors and flat-panel monitors.
Smart Classroom

TWO BETTER THAN ONE? Double stacking
a pair of Sanyo PLV-80 projectors may be a
budget-friendly and reliable option for your
auditorium, but space, lensing, and screen
constraints could make the configuration unsuitable.

Importantly, an independent technology consultant can often assist in formulating and documenting standards, as he or she usually will have standard language available for each of these issues. If hired as part of a specific project, the consultant’s standard specification (or elements from it) often can be incorporated on an ongoing basis for additional projects taken on by the institution.

A Final Word

Project managers are faced with difficult decisions every day, and the pace of technological change d'es not make their task any easier. Yet, by implementing standardization and working hard to make their projects as “boring” as possible, project managers can bring a higher quality of teaching, learning, and life to their students and faculties—and can themselves enjoy a better quality of life on the job (no small feat!).

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