Plasma Displays: Still Going Strong After All These Hours - 08/11/2005

T.H.E. Focus

By Neal Starkman

About a year ago, I wrote an article for THE Journal on plasma displays. The pictures coming from these monitors were remarkable-clear and rich, with millions of pixels filled with gases that gave off ultraviolet rays corresponding to millions of colors. The screens were passing 60" and a 160-degree viewing angle, so you could sit at the side of the screen and still see a great picture.

Frank Giannuzzi, the business development manager for advanced TV products at ViewSonic, pointed out that plasma monitors could be hooked up to computers and used for showing what was on the Internet, for making PowerPoint presentations, or doing just about anything that your computer monitor at home does. As researcher Prakash Nair wrote in his article, "Planning Technology-Friendly School Buildings" (School Planning and Management, 2003,

"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 read-able, 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."

Randy Moore, product marketing manager at the Lincolnshire, IL, office of LG Electronics, a Korean-based consumer electronics company with 2004 annual sales of $38 billion, pointed out that when you compare buying a plasma monitor with buying a projector and possibly multiple screens-which was the most reasonable alternative-the monitor wasn't such a bad deal. In fact, NPD Tech-world reported that the average price of a plasma monitor dropped from over $12,000 in 1999-when they first entered the US market-to just under $8,000 in 2002. And to make it even more enticing for the educational market, many companies had special pricing for schools.

I thought it was nothing less than a techno-pedagogical breakthrough. "Those who keep an eye on trends in electronics say that once the price drops a little more, plasma monitors will constitute the next huge wave of educational and entertainment purchases." I wrote that a year ago.

If anything, I underestimated.

Todd Moffett is director of the Education Business Group at LG Electronics. He says that up until recently, the general attitude seemed to be that plasma displays were very cool, but pretty expensive. However, two things have contributed to refute that attitude:

One is the longevity of the monitor. Whereas several years ago it might last 30,000 hours, today it's twice that. A bulb in a projector, on the other hand, may last 2,000 hours; plus, you have to clean the bulb two or three times a year. That can get expensive.

But expensive is what plasma displays are not. While NPD Techworld had reported that the displays were dropping under $8,000, they actually dropped a lot under $8,000. In fact, a school can now purchase 42" plasma monitor displays for about $2,000 each. High definition is more expensive than extended definition, but even the latter provides an incredible picture.

Making Learning More Accessible

"Economically viable." That's what Greg Kincaid says about the LG plasma displays he acquired for his school. But Kincaid's staid language belies his enthusiasm.

It's called the Ross Academy of Creative and Media Arts, but it's really the Ross Middle School-with about 670 students in grades 7

and 8 from a wide socioeconomic area in Artesia, CA, outside of Los Angeles. Ross is a magnet school: It attracts students interested in music, video production, drama, art, and writing. And Ross now has plasma monitors.

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

It took two guys to bolt each one to the wall; unlike the projectors, hardly any space is taken up by the plasmas. As of a couple of months ago, they were bolted to the walls of 24 classrooms, and Kincaid's group is still installing computer interfaces. "It's changed the complexion of the school for many years," he says.

Indeed it has. 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'd been afraid to speak in class, but now "start expounding all this information." The technology has made learning more accessible overall.

It's easy to be swept away with the success of a school like Ross. But LG's Moffett emphasizes this: "Analyze your scenario." He doesn't claim for a minute that plasma monitors are everyone's answer. For example, if you need to blow an image up for a big auditorium, then a projector is probably a better choice. But Moffett acknowledges that for an increasing number of teaching situations, plasma monitors are becoming the norm.

And LG is aware of this. Thus, companies manufacturing monitors, including LG, 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 Breakdown of Leading Plasma Monitors

Below is an updated chart comparing leading plasma monitors. These companies have several models each; for a basis of comparison, I chose monitors with approximately the same screen size and about the same price. There are other criteria, though, and you should check out each company's Web site before deciding which one to purchase. For example, plasma screens currently come in two different aspect ratios: One is 4:3 (the same shape as a computer monitor), and the other is 16:9 (the same shape as a widescreen television). Which one you choose depends on what you want to show on the screen.

Companies are getting more diverse with their models as well. Consider the line of monitors LG Electronics currently offers:

60" Plasma HDTV Monitor Display (MU-60PZ95V)
50" Plasma HDTV Monitor Display (MU-50PM10)
50" HDTV Integrated Plasma Display (DU-50PX10C)
42" HDTV Integrated Plasma Display (DU-42PX12XC)
42" Plasma HDTV Monitor Display (MU-42PM12X)
42" Plasma EDTV Integrated Display (MU-42PX3DCV)
42" Plasma EDTV Monitor Display (MU-42PM11)

What you choose obviously depends on your needs and your budget.

The Bottom Line

What's that you say? You think that, in these times of tight finances, buying a bunch of plasma monitors for classroom use is way too extravagant? You've gone to friends' houses and shaken your head at the profligacy of their purchase of a plasma TV? That's the initial 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 comprises about 4,000 students in four schools: K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12, all on one campus. H met some opposition from folks who thought he wanted to put plasma TVs in classrooms, not monitors. An easy mistake to make, but one that was soon rectified.

Last year, Hladun finally got his plasma monitors (along with an entire centralized multimedia distribution system from Education Technology Resources and Sampo Professional)-240 of them, one for every classroom in the district. They were delivered the third week of July, and by the end of August almost everything had been installed. The first day of the school year-traditionally a teacher's conference day-was dedicated primarily to the new technology and the training of teachers. As 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; even students sitting on the side 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 that he had no idea the environment would change this quickly.

So, to recap: Plasma monitors seem to be a success. They're long-lasting. They're becoming more and more affordable. They're easy to install. They don't take up much space. They're able to be hooked up to a variety of multi-media systems. And, perhaps most important, they can be adapted to fit many different pedagogical strategies. Although the data for student achievement are not quite in yet, the value of the renewed engagement by students-and, for that matter, by teachers-in schoolwork can't be underestimated. And motivation is a big part of learning.

Ross Academy's Greg Kincaid sounds an almost plaintive note that turns out to be 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"-that's the bottom line.