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21st Century Classroom

3 Key Trends in Campus AV Technology

With active learning environments on the rise, new AV systems support classroom collaboration.

AV trends

Sharp's Aquos Board allows students and instructors to collaborate and share content.

In colleges and universities from coast to coast, classroom learning environments are becoming more active and collaborative. Students are contributing to discussions and presentations, and the days of the "sage on the stage" are waning. This development is having a profound effect on the deployment of audiovisual technology in education.

"Classroom AV technology plays a big part in facilitating active learning environments," said Mike Tomei, an independent audiovisual consultant who designs and installs AV systems for classrooms.

Makers of AV equipment have responded in kind, developing new products that support more active and collaborative learning. Here are three key trends that illustrate this concept.

1) Projectors and displays are becoming increasingly interactive, with more touch points to support multiple users at once.

Interactive projectors have shown steady growth since they first hit the market in 2009, said Linda Norton, vice president of PMA Research, a high-tech market research firm that specializes in the projector market.

According to Norton, U.S. sales of interactive projectors jumped 36 percent last year, from 63,042 units sold in 2013 to 85,813 units sold in 2014. Although Norton's firm does not track sales by vertical market, it's safe to assume that many of those sales were to colleges and universities — and she said there is no reason to believe this growth won't continue in 2015.

New options for interactive projectors continue to emerge, with more devices supporting touch interactivity with a finger instead of a pen. In April, for instance, Mimio upgraded its projector line by adding a touch-enabled device. The MimioProjector 280 series now includes a conventional, non-interactive model (the 280); a pen-based interactive model (the 280I); and a touch-enabled model (the 280T).

The 280I allows for the simultaneous use of up to 10 interactive pens, which is a significant increase in functionality over the dual-pen operations of other models, Mimio said. The touch-based 280T supports up to 10 simultaneous touch points.

How might this be useful in the classroom? On MimioConnect, the company's online community of educators, one educator suggested projecting four incomplete equations on the board. Have four teams of two to three students each come to the front of the class, and assign each team an equation to solve. Then, compare and contrast the different strategies that students used to solve each problem, and ask the class to discuss the pros and cons of each method.

"This makes learning fun and game-like," the educator wrote. "It encourages the students to work together to solve the problem, just how problem solving is [done] in the real world. And it also brings the entire class into the learning process, so it isn't [just] one student up at the board."

Many schools look to interactive projectors as an alternative to interactive whiteboards in classrooms, said Tom Piche, a marketing executive at Epson America, which makes the BrightLink series of interactive projectors for education. With an interactive touch area ranging from 60 inches to 100 inches diagonally, these projectors give educators some flexibility in terms of classroom installation, he said.

Touch capability is increasingly important, and many customers now expect this instead of pen-based interactivity, Piche noted. "With iPads, iPhones and tablets, people have gotten so used to swiping with their finger," he explained. "That has become the expectation at the board as well."

Interactive flat-panel displays also are catching on in education. During the Texas Computer Education Association conference earlier this year, BenQ demonstrated its new 70-inch RP702 high-definition interactive display, which features 10-point multitouch technology and a built-in whiteboard app called QuickNote for annotating on the screen. And the Australian company Electroboard Solutions made its U.S. debut by demonstrating Prowise interactive flat panels for education, ranging in size from 55 inches to 84 inches diagonally.

From a cost perspective, interactive projectors or whiteboards will be cheaper than large flat-panel displays, Tomei pointed out. However, there are some benefits that might make interactive flat panels worth the money.

For instance, even when using an ultra-short-throw projector, there will still be shadows on the projected image when users are writing on the board or interacting with projected content, Tomei said. Also, projectors can be bumped out of alignment, requiring a technician to realign and calibrate the image — and they require lamp changes when the lamp burns out.

"You don't run into either of those issues with flat-panel displays," he noted.

Lamp-Free Projectors: A Bright Idea?
Solid-state illumination can save on the total cost of projector ownership.

Projector lamps can be expensive, and it can be a hassle to replace them when they burn out. Properly disposing of mercury lamps isn't easy, either. For these reasons, a small but growing number of organizations are opting for lamp-free models when buying projectors.

Lamp-free projectors, which use solid-state illumination (SSI) instead of traditional mercury lamps for their light source, include LED projectors, laser projectors and hybrid projectors that use a combination LED/laser light engine. Since Casio launched the first hybrid projectors in 2010, a number of other manufacturers have introduced SSI models as well.

When lamp-free projectors first came out, they were more expensive than similar models with traditional light sources, and the colors were slightly off, said Mike Tomei, an independent AV consultant for education.

"Now, we're either at or really close to the point where these are comparable," he said. "I think, in the next few years, most schools will be buying these."

Sales of projectors with solid-state light sources instead of lamps are on the rise. PMA Research expects an 8 percent growth in sales of projectors with laser/LED hybrid light engines in the United States this year, said Vice President Linda Norton. She attributed this growth, in part, to falling prices.

"In 2014, the average selling price of laser/LED hybrid projectors was $1,322, and we expect the average price to be $1,280 by the end of this year," Norton said.

Earlier this year, Casio introduced a new hybrid projector that sells for about $700. The EcoLite XJ-V1 is powered by Casio's fifth-generation LED/laser light source, with an estimated lifespan of 20,000 hours. It produces 2,700 lumens of brightness and boasts XGA resolution (1,024 pixels by 768 pixels).

While PMA doesn't have figures that are specific to education, its 2013 end-user survey showed that 54 percent of projector buyers in the corporate market found solid-state illumination to be "very important," and 38 percent said SSI was an "absolute must" for their next projector purchase.

Norton cited the convenience and lower total cost of ownership of lamp-free projectors, as well as their "green factor," as reasons for this support.

2) New apps and devices allow multiple users to collaborate and share content wirelessly at the same time.

A number of new AV systems allow for wireless collaboration between instructors and students, enabling an ever-larger number of users to work together on projects and share presentations.

The ShareLink 200 Wireless Collaboration Gateway from Extron allows multiple people to present content from a laptop, smartphone or tablet on a shared display. The device enables up to four people to display their slides, documents, graphs, photos and other content at the same time, without needing a cable. It is compatible with Windows and OS X computers, as well as Apple and Android smartphones and tablets. It also includes a moderator mode so the instructor can control whose content is displayed.

Sharp's Aquos Board line of interactive displays, available in sizes ranging from 60 inches to 80 inches diagonally, includes software called Touch Display Link that can communicate with iOS, Android or Windows 8 devices running the accompanying TD Link app, according to the company.

Up to 50 mobile devices can connect to an Aquos Board at once, and when the teacher writes on the display, this content appears simultaneously on students' screens. What's more, by choosing an option called Host Control, students can add to the presentation from their own device — and anything they write will show up on the Aquos Board.

A growing number of AV manufacturers are integrating Miracast technology into their devices, enabling users of Windows or Android tablets to mirror their screen on a display. For instance, many Panasonic projectors and interactive flat panels include Miracast, allowing users to show content from their own device wirelessly — provided they are using a device that supports the Miracast screencasting standard, such as a laptop or tablet running Windows 8.1 or Android 4.2 or later.

Epson recently introduced free software called Moderator, which enables instructors to control multiple presentations at once. Up to 50 students can connect to an Epson projector simultaneously from a laptop, iOS or Android device, using Epson's free iProjection app — and with Moderator, which runs on Windows or OS X, the instructor can display up to four student screens at the same time.

Instructors can see who is connected from a list on the left side of their own computer screen. To show a student's screen, the instructor simply drags that student's user ID to the center of his or her screen. In controlling what the entire class sees, instructors can choose from among single, split-screen or four-screen views.

Systems such as ShareLink, Moderator and Touch Display Link are designed to take advantage of the "bring your own device" phenomenon in education. But Tomei recommended that campus AV buyers involve their network services team when planning for and evaluating systems that enable wireless collaboration, to ensure their networks can handle the anticipated demand without any signal interference.

3) Web conferencing offers a more versatile option for making video connections.

Nearly everyone is familiar with Skype or Google Hangouts, but there are other Web-based conferencing systems that enable educators to connect with remote speakers without the need for expensive videoconferencing equipment.

These services, which allow users to participate in a video chat or conferencing session using any device with a Web browser, are more scalable and reliable than ad-hoc calls using a free system such as Google Hangouts — but colleges and universities don't need high-end equipment to use them.

For instance, Pexip offers a scalable, cloud-based platform for videoconferences and meetings, called Pexip Infinity. The service allows schools to create "virtual meeting rooms" in which students and instructors can join using any smartphone, tablet or other device with a camera and a Web browser.

Pexip Infinity takes advantage of the new WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communication) two-way videoconferencing capabilities built into the Google Chrome and Firefox browsers. It also uses a distributed architecture to optimize bandwidth: Only the person who is talking uses the full amount of bandwidth, while the others who are connected use just a small fraction. What's more, there is no limit to the number of users who can join a call or meeting, according to the company.

Users can choose from among different formats. These include a "virtual auditorium" mode, in which the current speaker is shown along with smaller images of up to 21 other participants, and a "lecture mode" showing just the speaker.

Pexip Infinity is licensed based on the number of ports used per month, and a yearly enterprise option includes an unlimited number of ports.

Another Web conferencing service, Vidyo, offers its own cross-platform systems for hosting videoconferences, lectures or meetings on any device.

The VidyoDesktop app brings videoconferencing to Windows, Mac and Linux computers, letting users connect from wherever they are. The VidyoWeb browser extension lets participants join conferences from within a Web browser on desktop or laptop computers. The VidyoMobile app brings videoconferencing to Apple and Android tablets and smartphones through a wireless broadband or WiFi connection.

Tomei said traditional videoconferencing codecs work well, but you have to know what technology is used on the other end of the call.

"If you know that and you need a reliable connection, this would be my recommendation," he said. But if you connect to many different sources and don't know what technology they will be using, "then Web conferencing would be the better choice."

4 Tips for Campus AV Buyers

Independent audiovisual consultant Mike Tomei designed AV systems for Harvard University (MA) and Ithaca College (NY) before striking out on his own. He now works with schools and colleges nationwide to help them develop standards and a strategic plan for their AV installations.

Here are Tomei's four key recommendations for planning successful AV projects.

  • Think ahead. Make sure the systems you design will support your future needs. For instance, while 4K video displays might be too cost-prohibitive for some schools to install today, "I do specify video switching that can handle 4K," Tomei said, "so when you're ready to upgrade, you can."
  • Focus on design. Spend most of your time on doing a needs analysis, and talk with instructors about how they want to teach. "AV shouldn't hinder teaching and learning; it should facilitate these," he advised.
  • Include enterprise management. Your tech staff should be able to remotely monitor and troubleshoot AV equipment. "AV staffing doesn't increase proportionally with the amount of classroom technology," Tomei noted, "so remote access and support is critical."
  • Don't overlook staff support. Schools need to offer academic tech support as well. "You have to teach instructors how to use these systems, because they will require new pedagogies," he said.
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