Plasmas: A New Angle on Learning

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Their superior images, enhanced sightlines, and diverse educational benefits have led to the soaring popularity of plasma monitors in the K-12 market.

THERE ARE NO DO-OVERS in journalism—only retractions. What’s been written stays written. But if I could, I’d withdraw what I wrote a year ago in an article on plasma displays for T.H.E. Focus (thejournal.com/thefocus/featureprintversion.cfm?newsid=40). Then, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. As it turns out, though, I showed too much restraint.

The images coming from plasma monitors a year ago were stunning—clear and rich, with millions of pixels filled with gases giving off ultraviolet rays corresponding to millions of colors. Screens had outgrown 60 inches and viewing angles were exceeding 160 degrees; you could sit at the side of it and still see a great picture. Plasma monitors could be hooked up to computers and used for showing what was on the Internet, for making PowerPoint presentations, or for doing just about anything that your computer monitor at home does. I thought it was nothing less than a techno-pedagogical breakthrough.

I wasn’t the only one. Researcher Prakash Nair wrote in his article, “Planning Technology-Friendly School Buildings” (School Planning and Management, October 2003, www.prakashnairconsulting.com/TechToday.htm): “Modern plasma screens (preferably 42” high-definition compatible) are superior to their old 32” analog TV counterparts. They are easy to install, have a wider angle of view, text-based programs are more visible and readable, they can be connected to the school network and to the Internet, receive HDTV signals, produce less heat, can serve as information hubs that carry programming throughout the school or to selected locations, and instantly connect the classroom to people and places worldwide.”

Technology consultancy NPD Techworld (www.npdtechworld.com) was reporting that the average price of a plasma monitor had dropped from more than $12,000 in 1999—when they first entered the US market—to just under $8,000 in 2002. Randy Moore, product marketing manager at the Lincolnshire, IL, office of LG Electronics (www.lge.com), pointed out that when you compared buying a plasma monitor to buying a projector and possibly multiple screens—which was the most reasonable alternative—the cost of a monitor wasn’t such a bad deal. And to make it even more enticing for the educational market, many companies had special pricing for schools.

“Those who keep an eye on trends in electronics,” I wrote a year ago, “say that once the price drops a little more, plasma monitors will constitute the next huge wave of educational and entertainment purchases.”

Now for the retraction: I was wrong—I miscalculated. There hasn’t been a wave of plasma monitor purchases; it’s been a full-scale deluge.

An Image Change
According to market researchers DisplaySearch (www.displaysearch.com), shipments of plasma display panels in the third quarter of 2005 were up 118 percent over last year, while revenue during that period totaled $1.6 billion, a 57 percent year-to-year increase. What’s behind the sales surge? Until recently, the prevailing attitude had been that plasma displays were very cool, but much too pricey. Two things contributed to altering that notion: One is the improved longevity of the monitor.Whereas several years ago a monitor might last 30,000 hours, today its life span is twice that. A bulb in a projector, on the other hand, may last 2,000 hours; plus, you have to clean the thing two or three times a year. That can get expensive.

The second factor is cost, which continues to slide. Though NPD Techworld said that displays were dropping under $8,000, they actually dropped a lot under $8,000. A school can now purchase 42-inch plasma monitor displays for about $2,000 each. High definition is more expensive than extended definition, but even the latter provides an incredible picture.

Changing the Learning Landscape
“Economically viable.” That’s how Greg Kincaid describes the LG plasma displays he acquired for his school. Kincaid’s sober language, though, belies his enthusiasm.

Kincaid is the grant coordinator for the Ross Academy of Creative and Media Arts, located in a diverse socioeconomic area in Artesia, CA, outside of Los Angeles. But with about 670 students in grades 7 and 8, it could more accurately be called the Ross Middle School. Ross is a magnet school: It attracts students interested in music, video production, drama, art, and writing. And now, thanks to Kincaid, Ross has plasma monitors.

At the Ross Academy of Creative and Media Arts, students have the run of the monitors during the day for learning, presenting, and sharing. Grant Coordinator Greg Kincaid says, "It's Changed the complexion of the school."

As grant coordinator, he applied for federal money to purchase the monitors. He’d gone to all the conferences, seen all the different kinds of monitors, and he liked the idea that the LG plasma monitors could hook up to computers as well as play DVDs. It sounded like a better deal than the old 19- inch tube TVs (along with about 150 Apple computers) that Ross was getting along with at the time, so Kincaid bought the LG monitors.

As of a couple of months ago, they were bolted to the walls of 24 classrooms (it took two guys to bolt each of the new monitors to the wall), and Kincaid’s group is still installing computer interfaces. Unlike the projectors, hardly any space is taken up by the plasmas. “It’s changed the complexion of the school for many years,” Kincaid says. Indeed it has. The technology has made learning more accessible. Morning messages are broadcast on the network, and then students have the run of the monitors during the day—learning from them, making presentations with them, and sharing on them. The excitement is palpable. Kincaid talks about students who were once afraid to speak in class, but now “start expounding all this information.”

It’s easy to be swept away by the success of a school like Ross. But Todd Moffett, director of the Education Business Group at LG Electronics, offers this advice to plasma shoppers: “Analyze your scenario.” He doesn’t claim that plasma monitors solve everyone’s needs. For example, if you need to blow up an image for a big auditorium, then a projector is probably a better choice. But Moffett acknowledges that for an increasing number of teaching situations and circumstances, plasma monitors are becoming the norm. LG knows this. Thus, companies like LG that manufacture monitors are pushing ease of access. “We want it to be easy to use,” says Moffett. “We know that teachers don’t want to worry about their display monitors; they want to teach.”

A Community of Converts
What’s that you say? You think that in these times of tight finances buying a bunch of plasma monitors for classroom use is too extravagant? You’ve gone to friends’ houses and shaken your head at the profligacy of their plasma-TV purchases?

That’s the same reaction Matthew Hladun got from his community of Queensbury in upstate New York. Hladun is the director of technology for the Queensbury Union Free School District, which consists of about 4,000 students across four schools (K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12), all on one campus. Hladun met some opposition from folks who thought he wanted to put plasma televisions in classrooms, not monitors. An easy mistake to make, and one that was soon set right.

Hladun finally got his plasma monitors last year, along with a centralized multimedia distribution system from Educational Technology Resources Inc. (www.etr-usa.com) and Sampo Professional (www.sampoamericas.com). And he got 240 of them, one for every classroom in the district. They were delivered the third week of July, and almost all of the plasma monitors had been installed by the end of August. The first day of the school year—traditionally a teachers’ conference day—was devoted primarily to training the teachers in the new technology. Hladun says, “We didn’t want to just drop the equipment off in the room and say, ‘Here, use it.’”

Needless to say, the monitors have been an overwhelming success.

The screens are placed in the front of the classroom, and even students sitting on the sides can see things clearly. They’re used for PowerPoint presentations, for demonstrations, for interactive response exercises, and for an array of other activities. “You just walk down the hall,” says a vindicated Hladun, “and there’s something different going on in every classroom.”

The skeptical townsfolk are now true believers. An open house that featured students showing off their work—much of it technologically inspired—really helped. So has the boundless enthusiasm of the teachers, and the way they’ve integrated the technology into their classrooms. Hladun says he had no idea the environment would change this quickly.

That changed environment is being experienced in many districts, as plasma monitors are winning over the educational community. They’re long-lasting, more and more affordable, easy to install, don’t take up much space, hook up to a variety of multimedia systems, and—perhaps most importantly—they can be adapted to fit many different pedagogical strategies. Although the data on student achievement is not quite in yet, the value of the students’ (and, for that matter, teachers’) renewed engagement in their schoolwork can’t be overstated. And motivation is a fundamental part of learning.

Kincaid ends with an almost plaintive wishfulness that is, in effect, a wholehearted endorsement of the plasma monitors he brought to his school: “Anything we can do to get the kids interested in school and coming to learn….”

Neal Starkman is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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