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21st Century Classroom

Projecting Power


Universities go all out to upgrade video projectors with networking, quick-response troubleshooting, and multimedia integration.

COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES are beginning to use projectors in innovative ways not only to enrich the classroom experience for students, but to challenge faculty to present information more creatively and flexibly. Technology is essential to this process: Networking, centralized troubleshooting, and integration with other A/V equipment are fast becoming de rigueur on campuses. And as projector technology becomes more sophisticated, IT departments increasingly are becoming involved in installation and user training, while A/V units are finding that they need staff with advanced computer and presentation skills as well as the ability to work closely with faculty.

Going Digital

At Bowdoin College, an undergraduate liberal arts institution in Brunswick, ME, video projectors are the linchpin of an ambitious digital experiment that began in an art history classroom about two years ago. A plan to digitize the art department's slide library of more than 10,000 images started with the search for a projector that could match colors accurately, says Ruth Bartlett, the college's educational technology consultant. The projector also needed to be able to show two images on a screen at the same time, and enable them to be manipulated simultaneously and independently.

To meet those needs, the college put together various pieces of equipment: switches and controllers from Crestron, a Mercury 5000 HD projector from Digital Projection, a Crestron CNX-DVP4 digital video processor, and a series of digital amplifiers from Headlight Audio Visual.

Projecting Power

department can
manage a campuswide
network of projectors
for remote control,
asset management, and
diagnostics. As a result
of the new system,
problems with projectors
have plunged by more
than 80 percent.

In addition to displaying dual images on-screen, all of the system's output needed to be fed back into a touchscreen with software that faculty members could control on their own. "There's very little software available that can manipulate two separate slide shows," says Bartlett. The college selected Offline Image Viewer from ArtStor, a digital library of art images, information, and software tools designed for educators and scholars. ArtStor contains roughly 500,000 images of art, architecture, and archaeology from a wide range of cultures and time periods. Through Offline Image Viewer, ArtStor images can be downloaded for personal or shared use, as well as for creating presentations. For example, by using the software, an instructor can display on-screen images of a Google Earth map and the Acropolis in Athens and zoom in on one or the other at the same time, enhancing the content of his lecture. According to Bartlett, the system affords the faculty almost unlimited flexibility. Split screen, zooming, and image stitching (by using Adobe's Photoshop image editing software) allow students to see, for instance, both the front and back of a Roman coin, or view the minute details of an elaborate fresco.

To help replace Bowdoin's collection of analog slides, the International Institute for Scholarly Research and ArtStor provided digitized versions of many of the images needed, and college staff members scanned and managed the art department's slide library. The college's digital asset management group has set guidelines for scanning images so that they are consistent in format and quality. The college has now scanned and digitized more than 100,000 images, and eventually hopes to store all of its video data in digital format-an enormous undertaking that will require hundreds of terabytes for digital, still, and video storage and retrieval, in the view of Mitchel Davis, Bowdoin's CIO.

Although the digital library system cost "a lot more than originally planned," says Davis, it will eventually pay off because images are now stored and cataloged accurately and the entire collection is searchable. "We have an allgigabit campus," says Davis. "Users can store incredibly large files. They can write to the hard drive on the network even faster than writing to the hard drive on their own computers."

Still, says Bartlett, "None of these systems are troublefree. A lot of our training came from failures that we had. All of the vendors did a run-through of the systems with us, but we did most of the troubleshooting ourselves." The touchscreen setup (from Crestron) also had a learning curve, she adds. "The touchscreen needs to be programmed, so our engineers have had to go to the vendor to be trained." And training the faculty to use the system is an ongoing process, she says, although the university has "pretty much nailed that now." Overall, the projector installation has been so successful that it is now being duplicated in science classrooms.

Davis points out that the extra training that the system requires has boosted the IT group's capability to respond to problems swiftly. The target response time for teachingrelated technical problems is just five minutes, he says, with Bowdoin's computer help desk participating in delivering emergency service. Most classroom technology issues are resolved in less than 10 minutes.

Seamless Integration

Projectors have become important enough to be considered a critical part of information technology at Chicago's DePaul University (IL), a private institution with more than 23,000 students. Recently, DePaul installed projectors with networking capability in classrooms throughout the campus. The university's IT department heads up the technology-intensive project.

The projector upgrade was designed to simplify professors' presentations, reduce technical problems in the classroom, and lower costs, according to Joseph Salwach, DePaul's assistant VP for information services. "We evaluated many different models based on network capability, size, theft-deterrent features, and reliability," he says. The winner was Sharp Electronics' XG-PH50X DLP multimedia projector, which not only met all of Salwach's criteria but also offered a built-in LAN connection that enables administrators to spot and resolve problems quickly, with little or no disruption of classroom presentations.

At Bowdoin, a plan to digitize the art department's slide library of more than 10,000 images started with the search for a projector that could meet instructors' needs.

Salwach describes the projector setup as a "node on the network backbone." Thanks to the availability of skilled inhouse programmers, DePaul's IT department was able to network the projectors by writing its own programs rather than having to use off-the-shelf software, according to Joshua Luttig, craft leader in the university's Field Services and Enterprise Technology department. "It's a 10/100 Ethernet connection hard-wired to a central network," he says. "It's a protected network segment that the student can't disrupt from home. We have central remote control of the projectors and a central help desk location."

The system's built-in RJ-45 LAN connection and web server allow direct control of the networked projectors from the desktop, which means the IT department can manage the entire network for remote control, asset management, and diagnostics. The system helps minimize downtime and speeds up maintenance by self-diagnosing errors, instantly alerting the control PC or e-mailing an error message to a predetermined recipient list. Salwach notes that since the new system was installed, problems with projectors have plunged by more than 80 percent.

The projectors integrate seamlessly with other media, notes Luttig. "All of the desktop computers in the classroom can control the projector. You can switch interfaces from the classroom PC, to a DVD player, to a laptop." The university has added a custom reporting function that shows projector usage metrics such as which units are in use and where. According to Luttig, the equipment receives preventive maintenance every quarter; bulb life is checked from the central monitoring location, and bulbs are replaced when they show signs of burning out. The Sharp XGPH50X features a dual lamp design for redundant reliability, but in many classrooms at DePaul, the projectors run on a single lamp or low brightness ("eco") mode, effectively doubling lamp life and reducing costs.

Remote Control

As video projectors become more powerful teaching tools, controlling them remotely is becoming a priority for higher ed institutions. This is both efficient and cost-effective, says Romane Roach, president of Universal Communications Technologies, a Minneseota-based value-added reseller of audiovisual equipment. "The help desk can pull up the status of the projector and operate it remotely, rather than sending a staffer to the room to see what is causing the issue. That saves time and money and solves most problems quickly with fewer man-hours required," says Roach

Another quantifiable benefit that networked projectors deliver is the ability to deal with maintenance issues before they occur, Roach adds. "For example, for lamp hours and filter cleaning, the preventive maintenance schedule is proactive, decreasing the incidence of emergency lamp changes as an instructor is trying to teach, and avoiding the inconvenient on-screen error messages that interfere with teaching. In addition, proactive maintenance keeps the unit from overheating and causing premature lamp failure-a costly mistake." And, predicts Roach, keeping up with maintenance will be critical as video projectors become even more high-tech in the coming years.

-Rama Ramaswami is a New York City business and financial journalist.

Editor's note: As this issue went to press, Ruth Bartlett passed away unexpectedly at her home. We offer our sincere condolences to her family, friends, and the Bowdoin community.

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