Desk Jockeys

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AV control systems give teachers the reinsto multiple classroom computing devices,without their having to leave the lectern.

THERE’S AN INTERESTING photo illustration on the website maintained by Crestron, the New Jersey-based maker of multimedia control and automation systems. It’s at the bottom of the company information page, and it shows some audiovisual and computer gear— amplifiers, monitors, a CPU cabinet, a remote control—allassembled before a sunset like a dense cityscape.

Hardware & Software

GAINING CONTROL: A single, easy-to-use
interface allows educators to manage the jumble
of classroom technologies from their own desk.

The illustration is an apt metaphor for the veritable urban sprawl of audiovisual and computing equipment accumulating today in school districts around the country, often clogging up instead of augmenting instruction.

“There comes a point where all the devices we’re putting into the classrooms to enhance education begin to detract from it,” says Bruce Haase, director of technology for the Orchard View School District in Muskegon, MI. “To expect a teacher to stand up in front of a class and deliver curriculum while juggling all these blinking boxes is just too much to ask. So for us, reducing the complexity of these disparate components—marrying the various pieces of technology with a single, easy-to-use interface—was a real priority.”

In spring 2003, local voters passed a bond proposal that allowed the district to build a new high school and to renovate and expand several existing buildings. Part of the overall renovation was a technology upgrade; included in that upgrade was the unifying AV control system that Haase desired.

Orchard View serves about 2,700 students. The small but tech-savvy district maintains about 1,000 computer workstations connected on a local area network (LAN). All 163 full-time classroom teachers have laptops for lesson planning, student recordkeeping, and e-mail.

In its two elementary schools, where teachers remain in assigned classrooms throughout the day, the district installed “technology desks,” which look more like credenzas, next to the main working desks. These tech desks house Dell computers that are connected to the LAN, as well as DVD and VCR players. The computers and media players are linked to fixed, ceiling-mounted projectors and enhanced sound systems in each classroom.

In the high school, however, where the teachers move from classroom to classroom, the district found it more practical to install so-called “podium-based” control stations. The podia (which are actually lecterns, but carry the now industry-standard misnomer) house the same equipment found in the technology desks.

At the center of these equipment clusters, in both the desks and the lecterns, is a Crestron Controller. Today, the district maintains more than 100 of these AV control stations, either desk- or podia-based.

AV control systems are combinations of hardware and software through which groups of computers, projectors, media players, document cameras, and monitors are integrated and managed. There’s usually a main appliance—a box—that contains a computer processor, memory, networking technologies, and some software. The devices are connected to the box, and the box is connected to the LAN. Users control the functions of the connected devices via a simple graphical user interface (GUI) displayed on touchscreens.

Haase felt that the GUI was an essential component. In fact, overall ease of use was a critical factor in Orchard’s decision to go with the Crestron system. “These are educators with a high level of expertise in their fields,” Haase says. “But they’re not all equally comfortable with the technology. If the purpose of this technology is to enhance teachers’ ability to teach, the last thing you want to do is saddle them with a daunting interface. Basically, you need a system that is so intuitive, anyone can use it.”

Control systems have in turn become very popular in corporate settings. They’re also showing up in high-end home automation systems. Colleges and universities are using them too, but they’re still just beginning to find their way into K-12 environments.

Crestron’s closest competitor is Richardson, TX-based AMX, which offers its own touch-panel device controller. The AMX product line also includes a series of personal digital media servers designed to store, manage,and distribute digital audio and video.

The Crestron system includes a software program called RoomView, which provides Haase and his team with districtwide control, monitoring, and resource-management capabilities. RoomView presents a big-picture view of the entire system. Administrators and support staff can use it to perform remote system diagnostics, track the usage of projector lamps, log network activity, and automate tasks throughevent scheduling.

The program also allows administrators to lock out selected rooms remotely to prevent unauthorized use of TVs, CD players, and other AV equipment. They can even sendinstant text messages back to the touch panel.

“The teacher can call us, and we can take a look remotelyand then react on the spot,” Haase says.

The Crestron system comes with a basic version of RoomView. An enterprise edition, available for a fee, supportshundreds of rooms and unlimited users.

Haase’s best advice to other school districts shopping for AV control systems: Visit a school that’s running the one you’re interested in. Haase says that he and his staff visited nearly a dozen school districts within the state to have alook at various systems.

“You really want to make sure that you’re able to get onsite at a school where the system you have in mind is already in place,” he says. “Talk to the people who are using it, and get their advice. That’s the best way I know to clarify what you really want, and to see if the technology you’re considering actually performs the way the vendor has promised.”

Orchard View is nearly finished rolling out its control stations to all of the classrooms in the district. Haase says the upgrade has met his criteria for success. “I’ve got teachers who have been teaching for 30 years—people who, heretofore, didn’t even know how to log on to a computer—who have revised their entire curriculum delivery around the system,” he says. “And they’re actually excited about using it.”

John K.Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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