A Splash of Color, a Dash of Learning

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The reduced costs of laser printers have helped bring the educational benefits of using color to the classroom.

WHAT’S BLACK AND WHITE and read all over?

In today's schools, less and less.

Studies suggest that the use of color in the classroom is an easy yet effective method educators can implement to promote faster development in their students. Color increases recall by up to 60 percent, and some research suggests that readers pay attention up to 82 percent longer when color is used in a document.

But this is nothing new. Educators have historically embraced color, although mainly through the use of ink-jet printing technology. Ink-jet printers offer attractive initial acquisition costs, and teachers can even afford to purchase them out of their own pockets or through the PTA fund. In the past, stepping up to color laser technology has simply been too expensive for teachers and administrators to consider on a widespread basis. But costs have plummeted, even as the technology advances, and laser printers now list for prices that schools on tight budgets can afford.

Ten years ago, a color device that printed three pages per minute (ppm) would cost about $7,000. Today, however, many high-performance color laser printers are priced below $500—and those machines can be networked so they function as a shared device. Laser printers offer incredible speeds around 20 ppm in color. By comparison, ink-jet devices can be very slow, since speed claims are usually based on documents in draft mode with only spot color. Teachers wanting to print full-coverage documents in the best-quality mode will find that the speed on an ink-jet device can slow to two or three ppm.

Furthermore, several inherent issues work against the use of ink-jet technology. Although ink-jet printers have very low initial acquisition costs, they do have a high cost per page and require frequent user interventions to change cartridges and paper. On the contrary, each laser cartridge provides users with thousands of pages, and even base-model laser printers normally hold a ream of paper. More problematic is the tendency of ink-jet cartridges to dry up quickly if they are not used on a regular basis. This can mean that printers left idle for the summer, or during a long winter break, will need new cartridges upon return, even though none of the ink on the old ones has been used.

Laser printers also have much higher reliability ratings and can easily handle a wide variety of media. It's typical for a laser printer to print 5,000 pages without a single misfeed; ink-jet printers can't match that. Cheap paper, especially the recycled kind, can cause ink to bleed dramatically and the paper to curl. Laser printers generally do not have that problem and can handle recycled paper with ease, in addition to materials like labels and glossy paper, and cardstock.

Beyond the benefits of better information retention and greater student engagement, color also helps brighten up a classroom and enhance the learning environment.

Of course, price is always a top consideration whenever schools shop for technology. However, networked laser printers offer educators many more options toward restraining costs. Network management software can control who can print in color and who cannot. It can also allow several teachers to share one machine. This cuts down on the number of devices a school must track and maintain, as well as the amount of supplies schools must purchase and keep in stock. For those areas where a shared network device in a central location for use by several teachers is not practical, there are solutions available that place a color laser printer on a power cart that can be rolled from classroom to classroom. This allows many teachers to enjoy the benefits of the machine, while ensuring the school doesn't have to endure the additional costs.

Some argue that the drawback to laser printers is not the acquisition cost of the machine, but the cost of toner and other maintenance supplies. However, when you compare purchasing a cartridge that will last for 8,000 pages to buying an ink cartridge that needs to be replaced each month, the cost per page actually comes out less. And more importantly, teachers will spend less time dealing with printer maintenance and more time with their students.

Beyond the benefits of better information retention and greater student engagement, color also helps brighten up a classroom and enhance the learning environment. With today's laser printing technology now enabling documents as large as 12x48 inches to be printed affordably in-house, it makes more sense than ever for schools to add a little color to their printing infrastructure.

David Baird is Lexmark International Inc.'s (www.lexmark.com) industry director for Education.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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