AV & Presentation | Feature

Connecting Smart Classrooms

A recent trend in AV has been migrating smart classroom technologies onto the network--from document cameras and projectors to student laptops to classroom audio systems. One of the most commonly cited benefits has been simplifying device management for the IT staff. But, as Harrisburg University AV specialist Keith Thomas explains, there are major educational benefits as well.

Within the 300-mile span between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, aspiring science and technology students had little choice for affordable higher education. A grassroots effort among private business and government pushed for a solution, and the result was Harrisburg University, the first independent science and technology-focused, non-profit university to be established in Pennsylvania in more than 100 years.

The university, which boasts small class sizes and affordable tuition, welcomed its first class of a bit more than 100 students in 2005. Expansion in the following years was swift, forcing Harrisburg University to move from building to building before making plans for an all-new 16-story academic center. The $73 million building, risen from a surface-level parking lot, allowed the university to plan for state-of-the-art audiovisual systems from the start.

"There was very little AV in the old buildings, and nothing was salvaged and brought over to the building we are in now," said Keith Thomas, AV specialist at Harrisburg. So, the university planned the audiovisual systems around all new equipment, and five months and multiple contractors later, the AV installation was complete.

Connecting over the Existing Network
One significant benefit of planning a new audiovisual system for an entire institution is the ability to integrate one of the hottest trends in AV: networking. Every piece of AV at Harrisburg is connected.

"The AV was completely designed with networking in mind," said Thomas. "We use our existing wireless access points and switches to connect our wireless touch panels with the individual control chassis. This allows me to centrally manage the AV, and provides great flexibility for upgrades. We then have separate AV networks in the individual class rooms which carry all of the signal data and device interconnectivity."

Thomas is able to access all audiovisual resources from his office, where he watches over the rooms and manages automated scheduling for the technology.

Making Smart Classrooms Smarter
The 16 regular classrooms are equipped with at least one projector (some with two or three), Crestron media routing and touch panel control, rack-mounted PCs, Smart Technologies' interactive pen displays (previously called Sympodiums) for onscreen annotation, and wireless microphones with ceiling speakers.

The university incorporated two creative learning spaces equipped with the same technologies as the classroom, but that also have LCD panels for small group presentations. The LCDs are mounted on the wall, and tables are positioned nearby. "Students are able to take control of the LCD using a button panel and plug in a laptop through a VGA cable on the table," said Thomas. "Then, when the group is ready to present to the entire class, the instructor can route the laptop to the main projection screen."

Four smaller rooms in the building, with LCD panels, control panels, and laptop inputs, provide places for students to study.

In the science studies area are three laboratories equipped with projectors, interactive pen displays, and touch panel control systems. "We also installed ceiling mounted instructor cameras for projecting a top-down view of the lab table," said Thomas.

Networking Beyond the Classroom
Two executive conference rooms house a high-definition Polycom videoconferencing system. These rooms are used for audio conferencing and presentations as well, and have Smart Board interactive whiteboards plus multiple laptop inputs and touch panel control. A separate boardroom features wireless table microphones and conferencing.

Then, there is the 125-seat auditorium. "We run three Panasonic DLP projectors on lifts across a large fixed screen," said Thomas. "They can be configured to run with either side-by-side images or using just the center projector. This room is highly reconfigurable and hosts a multitude of events. It has [a speech acoustics system] running Iconyx series line arrays, and a 7.1 surround sound system for program sources, such as Blu-ray discs. Also, the room is fully capable of live Webcasting via our four PTZ cameras."

Having all study areas on the network allows for classroom capture, and 12 rooms are capture-enabled. Using Mediasite EX systems, Harrisburg can schedule, organize, index, customize, secure, and track recorded content. The content then may be streamed over the Internet, accessed on-demand, or burned to a disc. Harrisburg University has benefited from a revenue stream from presentation recording, as outside clients come in to use the university's capture systems.

Thomas said having the entire school on the network has been highly effective. "The AV and network in the building were installed at the same time and all rooms were live on the first day of class," he said. "Now, it is entirely networked, even including our digital signage, IPTV, classroom automation, and lighting, The network also provides great flexibility for upgrades."

About the Author

Denise Harrison is a freelance writer and editor specializing in technology, specifically in audiovisual and presentation. She also works as a consultant for Second Life projects and is involved with nonprofits and education within the 3D realm. She can be reached here.

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