MFPs: A Bundle of Possibilities

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Packaging diverse software withpowerful hardware, vendors areturning out multifunction printersthat offer educators options galore.

IN THEIR FASCINATING BOOK, The Myth of the Paperless Office (The MITPress, 2001), Abigail J. Sellen and RichardH.R. Harper argue that paper is just tooappealing a medium ever to be replaced byelectronic documents. Human beings, theywrite, are just too fond of scribbling on it, foldingit, and feeling it in their hands ever to giveit up completely. Instead of chasing the ideal ofeliminating paper, the authors conclude, weshould be working toward a future in whichpaper and electronic documents are used inconcert, with tools and organizational processesdesigned to make the best use of both.

LEXMARK X646DTE

Lexmark X646DTE
  1. USB interface supports direct printing (without PC) ofPDF and image files from a USB flash drive. Scanneddocs can be saved to flash drive as PDF, TIFF, or JPEG.
  2. Copy or print up to 50 pages per minute with standard256 MB RAM (expandable to 768 MB).
  3. Scan preview of first page of a job to verify settings,document orientation, and placement. Scans up to 600 x600 dpi in black, up to 600 x 300 dpi in color.
  4. 50-page automatic document feeder; paper-sizesensing in feeder and flatbed.
  5. Eight-inch color touch screen provides large, customizableicons for access to print, copy, fax, and scan functions.
  6. Custom e-mailing with settings for creating a singledocument with multiple types of scans.
  7. Custom copying allows user to set up a group of settingsfor varying types of copies.
  8. Confidential printing with enhanced personal IDnumber management.

As far as Dave Baird is concerned, that future is already here. "We all know that paper isn't actually going away any time soon," says Baird, industry director for education at Kentucky-based Lexmark, a leading developer, manufacturer, and supplier of print and imaging solutions. "The paperless office—or classroom—is a myth. Today, it's all about capturing, managing, and sharing documents; it's about moving them back and forth between the physical and digital worlds."

All of the major printer-scanner-copier makers have the education market in their crosshairs, but Lexmark's new Education Station targets K-12 with a unique combination of hardware and software. The system bundles the Lexmark X646dte, a 50-pages-per-minute, monochrome multifunction printer (MFP), with applications designed to help elementary, middle, and high schools improve their document management processes. The MFP combines print, copy, scan, and fax capabilities, and comes with a large color touch-screen interface called eTask. The standard software bundle includes Lexmark's Scan to Classroom and Forms on Demand applications, which are designed to give teachers the ability to manage their own documents and reduce the time they spend on paperwork.

The Scan to Classroom application allows teachers to send evidence-of-work documents—say, student work that teachers may need for a parent conference— from the MFP directly to a personalized, preinstalled destination on the network— another teacher's e-mail perhaps. Office personnel can use the same icon to scan and e-mail tardy forms, doctors' notes, and permission slips directly to teachers. The Forms on Demand application gives teachers and administrators the ability to access and print files stored on the network directly from the Education Station.

The system is now in a pilot phase, and the company is set to introduce a set of testing and grading options meant to help teachers gather exam results and analyze the progress of individual students. The software will allow teachers to print 15-, 30-, or 60-question tests based on bubblesheet templates. The teachers can then scan completed tests back into the MFP, where the software scores them. The machine will then print out a single-sheet summary for each test, with the score, the answer key, and the student's grade. There's even room for teacher comments.

This testing-and-grading feature was particularly appealing to the Austin Independent School District, which implemented an early version last September. The fourth-largest district in Texas, AISD was looking for a better way to administer 57 different standardized tests three times a year to its nearly 81,000 students. According to the district, more than a quarter-million commercially printed test forms were being prepared at the district's administration building. Each form was personalized with students' names and then distributed to 107 different campus locations.

"Printing centrally, distributing, collecting, and then scanning centrally takes enormous coordination and time," said Melody Parrish, AISD's director of management information systems, in a statement. "With students changing campuses and class schedules, and new students registering, we have a 30 percent mobility factor. We needed to find a better way to make the process easier for our teachers and give them the ability to view the test results easily and quickly."

Lexmark developed the initial bubblesheet template specifically for AISD to include design and content elements such as the school logo. The company also integrated the application with AISD's existing systems, including Principia Products' Remark OMR (optical mark recognition), Pearson School Systems' SASI student information system, and an Oracle database. The software automatically populated the tests with information from SASI, such as the student's name, ID number, and teacher's name.

Hewlett-Packard CM4730

HEWLETT-PACKARD CM4730

After some tweaking of the software and training for 20 AISD staffers (who then trained more than 100 of the district's teachers and other administrators), the district implemented the system for the midyear assessments. According to Superintendent Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the system now provides AISD students and their parents with detailed feedback on their progress. It also allows teachers to see, almost immediately, which students are falling behind and identify possible weak points in the curriculum content.

"It gives teachers more time with students and immediate access to scores to help them adjust their approach to the specific needs of their class," Forgione says. "It will not only save our district precious budget dollars, but also help our teachers have an even greater impact on the success of the students."

Officially announced in June of this year, the Lexmark Education Station with a standard document management software package is available now. Baird says the optional testing/grading software, and a solution that integrates the MFP directly with many student information systems and grade-book software programs, won't be available for a few months.

Serving NCLB

The new Lexmark release is impressive, but it wasn't the first print-and-imaging vendor to bundle testing and grading software with its hardware. Xerox, the granddaddy of printing enterprises, has been partnering with Principia Products to offer similar capabilities. Principia is a division of Gravic, a Malvern, PA-based provider of data collection, transmission, and distribution solutions. The company's Remark Office OMR software gives Xerox MFPs the ability to read bubblesheet test scores and analyze test data, enabling educators to both improve instruction and comply with government reporting requirements.

One of the key market drivers in this particular product evolution seems to be the No Child Left Behind Act. It's mentioned frequently in the sales pitches of many print-and-imaging vendors, who tout the ability of software such as Remark Office OMR to help educators comply with the law. As Xerox says on its website: "Educators are under a lot of pressure to prove their students are achieving state-mandated goals. To do this, there is a focus on multiple-choice testing to show students' progress against state learning standards."

BYTESIZE

A video demonstration of theLexmark Education Station systemis available here.

The Remark software is designed to recognize OMR data from plain-paper forms, and to create forms in a word processor and print them via the MFP. It comes with a Grade Wizard for creating test answer keys, and reporting features for things like student statistics, test statistics, and comparative test statistics. It also provides teachers with tools for dissecting test data based on student or teacher demographics, and for comparing how different groups fared on a test. The software will analyze surveys, ballots, and other forms; recognize TIFF images produced by Xerox MFP devices; process multipage and double-sided forms; validate information with data verification; and produce customizable graphs of grade/survey results and statistics. It also allows users to save data to more than 35 different file formats including SPSS, Access, Excel, dBase, Lotus, HTML, Survey Pro, and the Survey System.

The Lexmark and Xerox systems are striking examples of a trend among printand- imaging vendors, who are combining software and hardware into packages for specific verticals. In the K-12 market, the trend is really about applying document management functions already widely deployed in the business sector to the classroom, says Canon PR specialist Len Musmeci. He explains how document management features such as scan-to-e-mail, scan-to-file, and scan-to-USB are likely to prove especially useful for teachers, particularly "for teachers looking to avoid carrying home a number of tests to grade. They can scan the paper to PDF, JPEG, or TIFF files on a USB drive, and grade them at home at their leisure."

All of these scanning capabilities are standard on Canon's ImageClass MF4690, a multifunction, network-ready, monochrome laser printer that the company says is perfect for the K-12 classroom.

"This is an ideal small device that could be placed throughout libraries for students to scan in notes and book pages," Musmeci says, "again, either straight to a USB drive, a file folder on the network, or straight to e-mail. The device can also be networked for a computer lab and used to print from multiple computers."

The theme of the MF4690, which Canon began shipping to retailers in April, is "big office" features in a smallfootprint device, Musmeci says. It's the smallest digital laser MFP the company offers. The device offers all of the aforementioned scanning capabilities, plus built-in networking features and duplexing capabilities (the ability to scan both sides of a sheet of paper at the same time). The model also comes with a 35- sheet automatic document feeder.

The MF4690 epitomizes the new generation of MFPs designed to facilitate efficient and easy-to-use electronic document management workflows. The device allows teachers to scan documents in various file formats and e-mail or fax them directly from the device, without the need for a computer. It even comes with on-board software for storing e-mail addresses and fax numbers.

But the coolest capability in this batch of features is scan-to-USB, which allows teachers to insert a portable jump drive to a front USB port and scan documents directly to the drive in several file formats. Another extra: The printer tells the user when it's safe to remove the drive.

Hewlett-Packard, another powerhouse provider of technologies for capturing, managing, and sharing documents, is also applying the doc-management model to solutions aimed at K-12 environments. The Palo Alto, CA-based company's Campus Advantage suite, for example, is a set of print-management applications that can be bundled into an HP multifunction device. Introduced last May, the apps in the suite are designed to enable a range of capabilities, from mobile printing and user-based, per-page accounting to the consolidation of copying, scanning, imaging, and printing in a secure networked environment.

Security in a printer? "Absolutely," says Enrique Barkey, worldwide director of HP's Civilian Agency Solutions. "If you think about it, the weakest link in the network is the imaging and printing devices."

Colleges and universities are particularly concerned about establishing print-and-imaging systems that are accessible only by authorized users, he says. As much as anything, their wish is to gain greater control over costly imaging and printing resources. Analysts estimate that improved output management alone can lower total imaging and printing costs up to 30 percent.

Hewlett-Packard CM8060

HEWLETT-PACKARD CM8060

Introduced last summer, the HP Campus Advantage program comprises several printing- and imaging-related applications, including Controlled Access Printing, which offers secure, integrated authentication by user ID and department codes; a Controlled Cost Printing Solution, which allows schools to manage, track, and recover costs for printing usage through multiple types of billing options (colleges typically charge students for printing); a Document Capture Solution, which electronically captures, stores, and routes document-based data across groups; and a Mobile Printing Solution, which enables students and faculty to print from wireless handheld devices.

Although Campus Advantage is currently aimed at the higher education market, Barkey says HP is working up a version of the suite for K-12 environments. Authorized-user access controls, for example, are much less of a concern in elementary schools, and so might not be included. He expects the mobility features, however, to be a big hit in the increasingly wireless world of K-12 education. And HP is in the process of developing a set of solutions for testing and grading bubble sheets, Barkey says.

‘Not Your Father's MFPs'

"What you are seeing today in K-12 schools is a change in workflows," Barkey says, "with a significant number of new on- and off-ramps emerging between the physical and digital."

The modern multifunction printer is becoming a kind of cynosure for those workflows, he explains. In fact, the most significant trend in the so-called output marketplace—the trend that's driving the other trends, so to speak—is convergence.

"These are not your father's MFPs," says Lexmark's Baird. "A few years ago, these machines were very ‘kludgy' [slapped together], with scanners bolted to the tops of printers, and copiers with network devices screwed to the back. But now, our multifunction products—and HP's and Canon's—are all performing as well as any standalone machine. You're getting 50-ppm printers, high-resolution scanners, and single-pass duplexing capabilities. It's incredible what these devices come with now. They look sleeker, and they perform better. And you're not sacri- ficing anything but a big footprint."

Barkey agrees: "The performance of multifunction devices is there today. There's just no reason to clutter your life with three separate devices and three separate service contracts and two separate supply items."

Still, Baird admits, though he's seeing more of an appetite for MFPs in K-12 schools, his company has yet to see significant MFP installations in that environment. "There's always that concern about putting too much technology in front of teachers," he says, "of making things too complex so they won't use it— or they'll use it too much. And K-12 is slower to adopt. But the devices are so good that it's just a matter of time."

Amidst all this convergence and innovation lies an irony, Barkey observes: Despite their paperless promise, computers and the internet have created more reasons than ever to use a printer. The web itself is a virtually limitless source of things that people might want to print. "Especially in the education market, the use of the web has grown so much that the volume of pages being printed continues to grow," he says.

Businesspeople print PowerPoint presentations. Government officials print emails. Consumers print their own airline and movie tickets. Teachers print articles from online newspaper editions and magazines to distribute in class. And students print out their homework. HP sees the number of pages being printed in education as reaching the billions, Barkey says. According to Baird, Lexmark estimates that the average student generates about 2,000 printed pages per year.

"Newsweek first mentioned the idea of a paperless society back in 1974," says Baird. "Since that time, the output of paper has continued to grow at 6 to 8 percent per year. Printing has actually just migrated from the print shops to our homes, offices, and classrooms."

-John K. Waters is a freelance writerbased in Mountain View, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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