Media Distribution Systems Bring a World of Information to Classrooms

I or most educators, media retrieval has traditionally meant requesting that a student or staff member steer bulky carts of equipment between buildings, down hallways, through doorways, etc. and into the desired classroom. With a media retrieval system, however, teachers and students have virtually instant access to all types of media, including video, CD-ROM, CD-i, videodisc and satellite transmissions. Such systems basically work as follows: Within an institution, or among several networked institutions, a main communications center houses all media titles and source equipment. Media signals are routed to television monitors in individual classrooms via coaxial or fiber optic cables. Scheduling software ensures that media segments are available and ready when instructors need them. Once a program commences, teachers may use a remote control or wall panel -- typically connected to the media center through separate "control link" wiring -- to perform functions such as fast forward, rewind, play and pause. Naturally, media retrieval systems come in many shapes and sizes. Price tags can vary widely depending on factors such as the scope of features offered and the degree of expansion allowed. The "How" of Distribution A key variable is the system's method of distributing audio and video signals. One option is broadband distribution, in which programs are transmitted to every classroom television over a coaxial cable. Much like cable television viewers at home, instructors receive a particular program by "tuning in" the appropriate channel. One advantage of broadband is that many facilities already have the necessary cabling in place from existing cable television systems or Whittle Communications' Channel One. On the down side, a broadband configuration generally cannot support more than about 70 channels, which may pose problems for large institutions. With baseband, media signals are transmitted to a switcher, which routes them directly to each classroom over dedicated cable lines. Advantages of baseband are better picture quality and signal strength. However, installing a baseband system may call for a greater investment. If extremely high-quality computer graphics or video is critical, one should consider a baseband system that employs fiber optics. Fiber optic cable accommodates vast amounts of information at faster speeds, resulting in improved resolution, especially over longer distances. While the various media retrieval systems differ in many important respects, they all share several benefits. For example, because media and media equipment are kept in one secured location, theft and vandalism are reduced. Plus, the system's software now handles inventory and scheduling tasks. Moreover, teachers no longer face the hassle of shuffling equipment around or operating numerous media devices at once. The last beneficiaries are students, who can access a broader world of information without ever leaving their desks. AMX's Synergy Systems Whether exploring ancient history on CD-ROM encyclopedias or watching breaking news on CNN, students are part of a dynamic multimedia learning environment with the Synergy Electronic Classroom Systems from AMX Corp. Some of the features of this system are programmable off-line recording of satellite or cable TV broadcasts and channel lock-out to prevent accidental or unauthorized viewing. Detailed reports help administrators detect system failures, make future media purchases and more. The scheduling software (for Mac or Windows) provides a computer cue that tells media center staff what title to load, what equipment to use and which classroom should receive the transmission. To reduce wear and tear, the software even selects media equipment based on when it was last used. A light in the classroom lets the instructor know a program is ready. Transmissions can occur automatically at an assigned time or be started by the teacher via remote control. Several other control options are offered, including custom-designed wall panels. Synergy supports both broadband and baseband (including fiber optic) distribution. Paging and emergency-alert systems are built in. During a fire, for example, the system can turn on all televisions and display building evacuation procedures. Crestron's SchoolNet Like Synergy, Crestron's SchoolNet system boasts an open architecture, meaning it supports integration of any media -- CDi, CD-ROM, cameras, computers and more. Rooms or media sources can be added or changed at any time with only software modifications. Functional highlights include unlimited advanced scheduling of media events, a built-in Lesson Manager multimedia authoring package, messaging and internal e-mail, all-call and zone paging. Among the many classroom controls available are a wireless hand-held transmitter, wired control panel, wireless keyboard interface, telephone and computer. For sophisticated presentations, touch panels allow one to import custom graphics and CAD files, or even control environmentals such as lights, screens and HVAC. The system also accepts signals from videodisc barcode wands. The software (DOS, Mac or Windows) permits systemwide monitoring of any broadcast from any classroom. Logs track usage by courseware, instructor and equipment. A master clock in the media center computer synchronizes all rooms and schedules; it can even interface to a period bell. SchoolNet runs over fiber optics or an RF/cable network. Existing hardware and software may be integrated. Dukane's SmartSystem Three SmartSystem models from Dukane Corp. sport powerful capabilities without sacrificing user-friendliness. SmartSystem 1000 provides direct access to multimedia resources by interfacing a telephone or any Apple or IBM-compatible computer with a local area network. The next higher model, Smart-System 2000 incorporates a media database located on a centralized computer through which teachers and media staff schedule resources up to a year in advance. Once a lesson plan is entered, media distribution to the classroom is automatic; equipment is then operated via infrared remote control. Instructors may access up to eight different multimedia resources with a single keystroke. A control module sits atop the TV monitor and shows what sources are selected on a 5" x 7" display. It also has an emergency-call interface to the intercom system and an elapsed timer function for testing or other activities. For multiple buildings, the SmartSystem 3000 offers the same media management, infrared remote and system reporting functions as the 2000, but uses a video matrix switcher (baseband) in place of the master antenna TV (broadband). It can be configured for either coaxial or fiber-optic cabling. Several optional modules can be added to any SmartSystem, such as AttendanceLink and InfoLink for maintaining student records and HomeLink for connecting parents and teachers. Rauland-Borg's RANGER New to Rauland Borg's RANGER line of media management products is Schedule, which enables teachers to reserve media titles and equipment over their school's LAN. Instructors now have the option of operating centralized equipment from a classroom control panel, remote control or Mac or Windows workstation. Teachers can also work with Lesson Plan software from their workstation, which facilitates integration of multimedia and traditional curricula. Furthermore, because lesson plans are saved on the server, materials are easily shared with colleagues. RANGER is designed to meet an institution's current needs, while leaving room to expand and upgrade as new options become available. Dynacom's Safari Similarly, the Safari Integrated Teaching System from Dynacom can be tailored to the specialized needs of any educational institution. At Aliso Viejo Middle School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., for example, the Safari system downloads selected CNN broadcasts and distributes them to teachers every morning for optional viewing in the classroom. Aliso's sixth graders create multimedia presentations on the system through a program that combines videodisc images and text. The resource director even taught teachers how to operate Safari by conducting "distributed training" over the network. Intuitive menus guide teachers through all aspects of scheduling and retrieving information. Accessories for the system include a wireless remote with built-in barcode reader, the Liberator remote keyboard and an Ethernet classroom fiber interface. Although media management systems such as Safari can be retrofitted to an existing site, an increasing number of districts are including the technology during construction of new facilities. TECH Electronics' The Educator Another system, The Educator from TECH Electronics, utilizes regular TVs and a broadband distribution system to achieve an affordable media-retrieval solution. It essentially creates a private cable TV system into which all of a school's media devices are inserted. Each device is assigned an individual channel; teachers turn to the desired channel to "retrieve" pre-selected material. Notable is that any infrared remote control can be used by instructors. Windows-based software d'es scheduling, tracking, system monitoring and more. Broadcasts from local cable sources can be recorded or routed directly to classrooms. The Educator also supports unattended playback and distance learning applications. An audio/video override serves as an all-call for announcements or emergencies; video bulletin boards are possible as well. The basic system is designed for 64 classrooms using up to 32 media devices, but can be expanded to as many as 256 classrooms. Other Innovative Solutions IBM, meanwhile, offers its own innovative solution, more suited to higher education. The System/390 Parallel Enterprise Server provides transparent access to a variety of clients, and can deliver media files isochronously -- in realtime, at consistently high speeds. Instructors may retrieve full-motion video, graphics and sound "on demand" to enhance classroom lectures. They can even access a broader array of educational resources via network connections to other campuses, libraries or the Internet. Other companies manufacture campus communications systems that provide limited media management capabilities. The Multicom 2000 from Bogen Communications, for example, is an internal telephone network that can interface with a media retrieval module. A Telemedia Remote Control Receiver connects directly to existing telephone wiring; it can turn television monitors on or off at assigned times. Teachers control remotely located media equipment using a hand-held remote that controls volume and channel up/down of both the monitor and media source, plus play, stop, pause, fast forward, reverse, still, direct chapter access and many more functions. Finally, Target Vision's system enables classroom televisions to receive full-color graphics and text messages of news, events, etc. Messages are transmitted over phone lines, fiber optic cables or other forms of video distribution. TVI DeskTop expands message delivery to desktop PCs linked to an existing LAN so faculty and students can selectively view campus news and information on their PC's screens. An interface and switching system allow for control of VCRs and other media sources in remote locations. Selecting the Right System As with other major capital expenditures, selecting the right media retrieval system requires investigation. Each school must decide what best matches the unique needs of its faculty, students and staff. Of course, technology alone will not transform instruction over-night. Prior to installing any new system, schools should also develop strategies to promote its effective use and train their teachers. Indeed, when fully exploited, a media management system will help schools deliver a wealth of varied information that challenges and excites students and teachers alike.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.