21st Century Classroom

Giving Them an Earful

Three Michigan districts add support to their technology-infused schools with the latest in classroom sound systems.

Blessed with a $20 million technology bond from voters in 2004, Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan put a little over a million of it toward the purchasing and installation of voice amplification systems for all 1,200 of its classrooms.


“It’s not voice amplification,” says Carlos Soto, Ann Arbor’s technology specialist for audiovisual media, “but voice distribution.” The distinction makes all the difference. “The goal is not to simply make the teacher sound louder. The goal is to achieve a uniform field of sound in the entire classroom—from the first row to the back.”

Hence, the district uses the term sound field systems for its supply of 900 FrontRow 930 analog kits and 300 of the the company’s digital 940 series. Each unit includes ceiling-mounted speakers, a receiver, a “pendant microphone” that rests around the teacher’s neck, and one handheld mic. The installations are a big upgrade over what used to pass for audio enhancement in the district’s classrooms. “If teachers wanted to do any kind of interactive instruction using their computer, they had no real sound output,” Soto says. “Previously, schools would buy a $20 set of computer speakers, which wouldn’t meet teachers’ needs.”

Soto calls the district’s inventory of sound systems “the audio hub for all of the multimedia we use in our classrooms.”

Such is the case at a growing number of school districts, as classroom audio systems have become a must-include component of comprehensive technology upgrades. The point is not just to give more oomph and clarity to teachers’ voices, but to have sound quality worthy of the video now commonly streaming to their computers and projecting on large display screens, or being shown from classroom DVD players.

That was the goal of Portage Public Schools, according to its technology integration specialist, Chuck Haskin. Like Ann Arbor Public Schools, the southwest Michigan district was able to pursue it with the aid of a bond measure that covered a full-scale move toward tech-enhanced classrooms. Installations began a year ago at an elementary school and continued over the spring and summer. By the start of school this fall, four campuses will be outfitted with sound systems from Lightspeed, along with desktop computers and 60-inch LCD screens.

Two more installation phases are scheduled for the next two summers. “The money’s there,” Haskin says. “It’s a matter of the personnel—the actual people in our district who have to physically install all this stuff.”

The one component of the new sound systems that Haskin says may be having as much of an impact in the classroom as the improved audio quality is the handheld microphone, which teachers generally keep for student use. The thrill of holding that mic tends to embolden even the most timid kid to speak up.

“I would use it as a carrot for the kids who don’t normally want to volunteer,” Haskin says. “Maybe that’s just enough of an impetus to get a kid to speak up. Or maybe it’s for a kid who’s so soft-spoken that when he does share you just can’t hear him. It’s one more teaching tool, in my mind.”

At Holly Area Schools in southeast Michigan, handheld microphones are even getting some credit for the recent rise in standardized test scores. Matt Mello, the district’s director of technology, says the improvement is due to many factors, but one is assuredly increased student engagement, and teacher feedback assigns a good part of that to the presence of new sound systems.

Can They Hear You Now?

As David Parish sees it, though sound systems are put to good use as a complement to the rich media content in 21st century classrooms, that’s not nearly as compelling as what they can do to affect learning. “To me, that’s the far more interesting aspect of the discussion,” says Parish, CEO of K-12 technology provider Calypso Systems (calypsosystems.com).

“There’s quite a bit of independent research out there that points to the effectiveness of amplifying the teacher’s voice in improving learning outcomes. Asking a student to perform effectively without adequately hearing the teacher is similar to saying, ‘I want you to read this book, but I’m going to turn the lights off.’”

Parish calls “astonishing” the number of students who are identified as underperforming and referred for special education, when in fact they simply can’t hear the teacher because of poor classroom acoustics and their own mild hearing loss. Parish says multiple studies have put the number of school-age children who test positive for mild hearing loss at 14 percent.

“That affects their ability to integrate information, and to learn it and to progress,” he says. “In fact, the data shows if you look at the 14 percent of students who fail that hearing test, they are 10 times more likely to repeat a grade than students who do not fail that test. This is an epidemic. Clearly, there’s something profound going on here.”

The hearing loss generally goes undetected; schools don’t check for it and students don’t know they have it. “The student gets categorized as an underperformer,” Parish says. “If we just gave the teachers microphones, everything would be fine.”

One of the more convincing cases in support of that notion, he says, comes from a small Wisconsin school district, which reported in 2001 that installing voice amplification systems in its elementary school classrooms produced after two years a 40 percent drop in the number of referrals to special education in comparison to data from the nine previous years.

Parish says other studies indicate that about 70 percent of all special ed students show moderate hearing loss. “Why would that be?” he asks. “The only connection would be that the hearing loss is causing academic and behavioral problems that lead to a special ed referral.

“[Voice amplification] needs to be considered as the first dollar that you spend in the classroom, especially because it is not a systemic change. I don’t need to change curriculum and assessment and teacher training. I simply need to give the teacher a microphone and say, ‘Put it around your neck, turn it on, and just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

“I can’t tell you that for every sound system we put in a classroom, look how much the standardized test scores have gone up,” he says. “But we do know that the students are more engaged as a result of testimonials from the teachers. They regularly share stories of students wanting to participate in ways that they didn’t before.”

Mello has seen so himself. “I can’t think of a classroom I’ve gone into where the students weren’t reaching for that microphone.”

The effort to improve classroom audio in Mello’s district goes back to 1996, when residents passed a bond that included $2 million in technology money. The bond has been renewed twice. The initial funds allowed RF (radio frequency) systems to be installed in the elementary schools; the most recent bond renewal in 2004 enabled the district to equip the remainder of its 210 classrooms with infrared technology from FrontRow. “We found that with RF there were interference issues that we could fully eliminate with the newer infrared systems,” Mello says.

Money from last year’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) went toward refreshing the four elementary schools, replacing the old RF systems with FrontRow’s latest units.

“Several innovations jumped out at us,” Mello says. “You only have to install two wall-mounted speaker kits. You used to have to install the speakers in a kind of quad setup—four corners of the classroom and the ceiling tiles. You had to run a separate wire to each. FrontRow took two speakers out of the ceiling, put them together, and put the infrared receiver between them. That allowed them to run one bundle of cable to two speakers, so you have half the cabling to go through.”

Mello says the only real trouble has been the need to replace the batteries in the microphones. “The cost of consumables took us by surprise,” he says. “The microphones are on six hours a days, five days a week. They just naturally wear out.”

Soto says his district made a point of accounting for battery life ahead of time. “We negotiated replacement batteries into our deal for the first five years. It’s now an issue for us as we enter year five.”

Beyond that, Soto says about the only challenge was volume control. “Teachers tended to turn up the volume too high. If you can hear yourself, you’re too loud. At that point you’re having a negative effect, completely opposite from what you’re trying to do.”

The bit of pushback Soto received from teachers who didn’t see a need to wear the pendant microphone he answered with a demonstration. “Doing the training, I’d turn around and bury my face in the chalkboard or whiteboard and keep talking,” he says, “and show them the difference in how that sounds out in the classroom when I have the mic on versus when it’s off. When you’re writing something on the board and you’re still talking, that’s a lot harder to hear than when you’re facing the class. When you have the system on, it sounds exactly the same.”

Humorously, Soto adds it was actually some of the high school kids who were most disenchanted with the new technology. “The students said, ‘Hey, you’re making it harder for us to tune out.’”


FrontRow - gofrontrow.com

Lightspeed - lightspeed-tek.com

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of THE Journal.