The Cost-Effective Multimedia Classroom

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Multimedia has invaded the classroom. Presentation software such as PowerPoint has greatly enhanced the classroom environment. Even the electronic spreadsheet has proved to be an effective presentation device.

In the contemporary classroom, the computer, combined with the Internet and the traditional VCR, provides the instructor with a broad range of tools for delivery of a dynamic presentation. In an effort to exploit all of this available technology, publishers are providing a broad array of multimedia presentation materials as part of the instructor support literature that accompanies all modern textbooks. They are even developing extensive packages of interactive materials for their Web sites.

Although all of these electronic tools are available, how a modern classroom should be configured remains a major concern for both faculty and administrators. For instance, what mix of high-tech equipment should be included in a contemporary classroom? How can existing classrooms be configured to allow efficient and effective use of multimedia hardware and software? What design is cost-effective, flexible, and easy to maintain?

This article examines the efforts of the accounting department at one mid-sized public university to develop a reliable and cost-effective multimedia classroom. Why and how the process was undertaken is discussed, as well as the cost implications for the department. In addition, both the advantages and disadvantages of the actual system implemented by the department are reviewed.

Historic Background

For several years, members of the department of accounting at this public university have systematically incorporated more and more multimedia into their classroom presentations. Course presentations have begun to include extensive use of electronic spreadsheets, presentation software, videos and the Internet. Electronic spreadsheets are routinely used in the classroom to display and/or develop solutions to assigned problems. Presentation software is used by the faculty during lectures as well as by students during their presentation of assigned case studies. In addition, videos are used to illustrate business processes and to facilitate discussion of specific business practices, while the Internet is used to demonstrate a variety of real-time interactive research activities.

The department and the individual faculty members faced a number of problems when they initially tried to set up a classroom to effectively utilize all of this multimedia hardware and software. First, maintaining the necessary equipment became a logistics nightmare because all of the department's classrooms were in constant use between 8:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. daily. Next, the individual faculty members needed to be familiar with how each piece of hardware functioned. Often, equipment was damaged because the user was not familiar with how to operate it. Finally, because the equipment was left in the classroom, it became the subject of numerous acts of vandalism and theft.

The classroom ended up littered with all kinds of expensive and often delicate equipment. An overhead projector and screen were needed to display transparencies, a 27-inch TV and VCR were needed to display videos, and a desktop computer with attached LCD display panel and enhanced overhead projector were needed to display computer generated images.

The overhead projector was fine for displaying transparencies. The TV and VCR worked adequately but one TV was not sufficient to make viewing effective throughout the entire classroom. The computer and LCD projection equipment did not produce a display that was crisp, sharp, and easy to read. In addition, the room had to be very dark in order to adequately view the LCD display.

The Solution

The majority of the College's academic departments elected to develop what the College refers to as IMP (Integrated Media Presentation) stations. They consist of a large fixed position lectern, prominently located in the front of the classroom, that contains a desktop computer, CRT screen, VCR, video presentation stand (downward looking camera), and a remote control system to run a Barco projector that is ceiling-mounted. The average total cost of these systems for the College has been approximately $26,000. The maintenance cost of the IMP stations is almost $6,000 per year.

Recognizing that these systems have certain inherent drawbacks including price, reliability, size, and complexity, the Department of Accounting decided to attempt to develop a presentation system that was inexpensive, unobtrusive and highly reliable. It became obvious to the faculty using the existing equipment that what they really wanted was an integrated presentation system that would dramatically reduce the equipment clutter in the classroom while significantly improving the quality of the visual presentation process. They also hoped that a more user-friendly system would induce all faculty to make additional use of multimedia in the classroom and that lower hardware costs would enable the department to outfit multiple classrooms with the system.

It seemed logical to the faculty members involved in redesigning the classroom that being able to effectively integrate the computer into the classroom was the ultimate goal. Thus, selection of the appropriate computer and related projection system became their first priority. They eventually chose to discard the ceiling mounted Barco projector in favor of two 29-inch diagonal television monitors suspended from the ceiling in the front corners of the classroom.

In order to facilitate ease of viewing the televisions, the seating in the rectangular classroom under redesign was rotated ninety degrees. Thus, instead of a narrow, deep classroom, the Department had a wide, shallow classroom where there were only three rows of student seats and the farthest any student was from the face of a television screen was 21 feet. This was accomplished while maintaining a seating capacity of 36 students. It also brought the instructor into much closer proximity to all the students in the classroom and made the setting more intimate.

The televisions selected were the Philips Model PD5029C because they had the capability of being simultaneously connected to: a regular television signal, up to four pieces of audio/video hardware and a computer via an internal VGA hookup. They could also be networked together. This enabled the Department to do away with both the Barco projection unit and a standalone controller for the system.

The department had previously elected to switch to laptop computers as part of their scheduled computer hardware upgrade. Therefore, each faculty member already had a Gateway laptop computer, a Gateway mini-docking station, and an external full size keyboard, as well as an external monitor in their office. In order to integrate a computer into the classroom, all the Department had to do was purchase a Gateway docking station, an external power supply and an Ethernet card. A VGA cable to wire the docking station to the nearest television was already supplied with each television by Philips.

The Gateway docking stations had originally been selected because of their compact size, simplicity, and low cost. This proved to be a real asset in the classroom because the Department elected to leave the docking station mounted out in the open where it is exposed to chalk dust and the students' prying hands.

Each faculty member is required to use his/her office laptop in the classroom when he/she wants to conduct a computer-aided presentation. To some this may sound like an inconvenience but the faculty found it to be a real asset. Faculty members can set up their computers any way they wish, load any software they want to, and know that their individual computers are totally ready for a specific presentation before they leave their offices for the classroom. Accordingly, except for interactive use of the Internet, the classroom hardware is simply providing two large redundant monitors. This greatly reduces the chances that an instructor is unable to give an effective presentation because of hardware or software problems. In addition, the department maintains a spare laptop computer for emergency use, just in case a department member has mechanical problems with his or her office computer.

The department also purchased and installed a Sony video presentation stand, whose output can be broadcast simultaneously on both televisions. The video presentation stand was incorporated into the system in order to replace an overhead projector and screen when showing transparencies, as well as to display original material without the need to make transparencies. In addition, a VCR was mounted to the base of one of the televisions and hardwired into both televisions.

Finally, the Department purchased a pair of Sejin Electron Inc. infrared remote keyboards (Model SWK 8659WT) with built-in trackballs. By connecting the keyboard's sensor to the docking station, either the faculty member or an assigned student is able to control the computer from up to 20 feet away. This has enabled the Department to place the box containing all the components listed above, plus storage for the remote keyboards and the remote control for the televisions, in the corner of the room directly below the one television. In fact, in a second classroom that the Department has just completed, it mounted all the hardware on one three-drawer filing cabinet that sits discretely under a television.

Table I summarizes the hardware that was used by other departments in the college to construct their IMP Stations, and by the Accounting Department in their original electronic classroom described in this paper, as well as an updated hardware list based on the Accounting Department's experience with their first electronic classroom. The costs associated with the hardware listed in Table I are summarized in Table II.

Advantages/Disadvantages

As with any project, several advantages and disadvantages were identified with the accounting department's multimedia system. The major advantage, as detailed in Table II, proved to be cost. Not just the initial purchase price of the hardware, but the subsequent maintenance costs, or specifically, the lack of subsequent maintenance costs.

Because the hardware utilized involved the use of basic technology that has been in existence for several decades and which has an excellent reliability record, its initial cost proved to be quite low. The TV/monitors have built in redundancy. If one is out of order the second will still function. The most expensive piece of hardware, the downward looking camera, costs only $3,100. Ironically, it proved to be the one piece of hardware that the faculty decided to eliminate from their second multimedia classroom. After extensive experimentation with the camera system, it was felt that better results could be achieved by continuing to use a basic overhead projector. Also, the faculty began to rely more on their computer to make presentations and to rely far less on transparencies.

The television monitors have proven to be extremely effective. They provide bright, sharp images that can be displayed with the lights on in the classroom. And, because the monitors are in the corners of the room, the students tend to concentrate on what the instructor is doing and saying instead of what is on the monitor. They tend to look at it only when the image changes or they are instructed to do so.

As Table I indicates, although the students have no trouble seeing the current 29-inch monitors, 36-inch monitors are recommended for anyone contemplating installing a similar system. The larger screen would enable the use of a smaller font and the presentation of more material at one time on the screen. At least 16 and preferably 18 point font is needed for the material to be readable throughout the room on the 29-inch monitors.

The only technology that the faculty had to master that they were not already utilizing in their offices was the remote control for the televisions. Fortunately, they only had to master two buttons on the remote control: the on/off button and the input device selector key. As for the other hardware, the docking station is a totally passive device and the remote keyboard is in a constant 'on' mode.

The fact that faculty have to use their office laptop computers has proven to be a major asset. Complaints about problems with presentation software have virtually been eliminated. The faculty utilize the same hardware to run their presentations that they used to prepare them. If a presentation d'esn't work, they have no one to blame but themselves.

The one major disadvantage of laptops has been that students who do not own a Gateway laptop that can fit the current classroom docking station have to borrow the instructor's computer in order to make presentations. Although the faculty all have sophisticated anti-virus software installed in their computers, there is an obvious risk when external users are given access to a computer. In addition, students occasionally experience software compatibility problems.

Security has also improved. There is no longer a computer that is subject to theft or vandalism left in the classroom. The televisions and VCR have anti-theft cables and because they are mounted high in the corners of the room, to date, they have not been the targets of vandalism. The docking station is the only other piece of hardware that is left exposed in the classroom. Although it is securely bolted to a cabinet, it is left totally exposed in the front of the classroom. However, even though it has sat there for approximately one year, it has received no damage.

Finally, the classroom has become uncluttered. Every student has an excellent view of both the blackboard and the television monitors. There is no hardware of any kind located in front of the students unless the instructor elects to wheel out the overhead projector. The difference in the overall appearance and functionality of the classroom has been so great that both the students and faculty have commented about it. The University President and the University Board of Directors, as well as faculty from several other departments have come to examine the system and to view it in action.

 

Summary

The multimedia classroom discussed in this paper is extremely cost-effective and reliable. The technology employed is both low-cost and low-maintenance. All the hardware needed to develop a similar multimedia classroom currently costs approximately $5,000. This d'es not include the cost of laptop computers because they are actually part of faculty office hardware and should be acquired during the normal process of upgrading faculty computers.

The resulting multimedia classroom is also very user-friendly. All the hardware consists of items that the faculty and students utilize on a daily basis either in the office or at home. This results in an increased confidence in their ability to successfully utilize the hardware which, in turn, results in an increased level of actual utilization in the classroom.

 

Dr. Richard L. Baker is a Professor of Accounting at Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA. A prolific contributor to educational conferences and publications, his interests include outcomes assessment and technology in the classroom, as well as traditional financial accounting research. E-mail: rbaker@bloomu.edu

Dr. Michael Blue is an Associate Professor of Accounting at Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA. He has contributed numerous publications to academic conferences and publications, as well as authoring many computerized accounting textbook supplements. His research interests include technology, curriculum review and traditional managerial accounting. E-mail: blue@planetx.bloomu.edu.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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