Solving Smart Classroom Problems: Knowing Where to Look

By Will Craig

Several times a week, I am in conversation with a campus technologist and mention a type of product that solves a problem or need that they have, and they exclaim “I didn’t know there was such a _____[fill in type of device]!” Here are a few examples from recent conversations:

  • Security Cover Replacement: we all know that the few hands that can touch switchers, mixers, amplifiers and the like, the better. But security covers are awkward: they require rack screw removal to tweak a knob or change a setting. Middle Atlantic’s key locked security doors mount directly to rack rail, rather than to the rack, console, or cabinet. By leaving the necessary accessible items (DVD/VCR, PC, etc.) and covering everything else behind a locked solid, Plexiglas, or vented door, you can discourage curious fingers while maintaining easy access to the equipment for service or adjustments. Middle Atlantic also has rack security screws that use bits not typically found in security bit sets available at any hardware store or catalog.
  • Wall Wart Eliminator: Racks containing charging stations, wireless microphone receivers, wireless LAN access points, and other DC-powered devices contain far too many “wall wart” AC-to-DC power supplies. This affects the placement and layout of power strips, which compete for a typically limited amount of internal space within and behind the equipment racks. Calypso Control Systems’ c_Power device provides up to 75 watts or 6 amps total power through 6 ports, each of which can provide 12VDC or 5VDC, all in a metal, half-rack 1RU form factor. Coupling two units together creates a redundant DC power system. This keeps your systems going even if one unit fails (a front panel fault light will provide notification if this occurs). Compared to sorting through a rack full of hot, black little boxes for a loose connection or shorted-out transformer, this is a technician’s dream.
  • Hiding Stuff in the Plenum*: The proliferation of Extron IPLink, Crestron QM-series, and other small control and audio products at the ceiling projector location has created a [cluttered] look that is typically not appealing to architects or educators. One solution is to use a plenum equipment box, such as the one available from Nigel B (http://www.nigelbdesigns.com). This box can house control devices, amplifiers, distribution amplifiers, and all the other small devices that are attaching themselves to projectors and projector mounts. An electrical outlet is contained within the box.

*The asterisk here is big: Always, always check with your local code authorities before putting anything in a plenum space that has wires in, on, or near it.

  • Trying to dock an iPod at an equipment rack? Check out Raxxess’ iPod docking station. Fitting into a 1-RU panel, the unit pulls out to reveal an iPod docking module with FireWire, USB, and audio outputs behind the panel. Sorry, the current version is designed for playback-only, and is not especially friendly for voice-recording applications that use the current dock-able recording modules. For these, you could use the standard Belkin iPod microphone adaptor, and if necessary, add the Griffin GarageBand Microphone Cable, which converts balanced, low-impedance microphone signal from an XLR connector to high-impedance, unbalanced signal on a stereo mini 1/8” connector. Remember, if you’re using a condenser microphone, you’ll still need an inline power module, as Apple isn’t providing phantom power (yet!). And, while you’re at the Raxxess site (assuming they get their domain registration sorted out), check out their blank panels, vent panels, rack drawers, and other rack equipment in charcoal, ruby, sapphire, gold, regal blue, and cherry red. You are not required to have boring, black and grey equipment racks!
  • Electrical power is rarely as consistent as we’d like it to be for projectors and other sensitive equipment, especially in renovation projects or even new construction where distributed power generation is being used. Especially when designing rear-projection rooms, where the cost of the screen, projectors, mirrors, and mounts requires everything to be perfect and the wall hides any extra stuff you need back there to make the image look flawless. For under $50, the APC (http://www.apc.com) LE1200 provides reliable voltage regulation. Its form factor isn’t ideal for every ceiling-mounted projector application, but when your power is suspect in image imperfections, this box is a small price to pay for peace of mind.
  • Recording of ITV classes, group learning activities, and instructional simulations is increasingly moving beyond VHS to server-based platforms. When PowerPoint or other computer-based content needs to be recorded alongside video and audio for future retrieval and/or real-time/synchronous viewing, the price is steep but the solution is possible. MediaPointe’s (http://www.mediapointe.com) DMR-200 and DMR-300 Digital Media Recorders capture XGA video, up to several base band video feeds, and audio, storing the files in MPEG-4.

These products are only a few of the problem-solvers that are out there to help us design classrooms that are “smart.” The rapid convergence of audio & video technologies with the IT world has meant that technologists from each discipline have a wide range of new options to explore. Happy Hunting!

Will Craig, CTS-D, is a consultant with Elert & Associates, a nationwide independent technology consulting firm working with college, university & K-12 institutions around the United States.

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