Projectors: The Big Picture


New projection systems are allowing teachers to bring the world largeright into the classroom.

ProjectorsREMEMBER THE DAYS when projection systems came in big carrying cases, were large, heavy, and unwieldy—and cost $3,000 to $5,000? Setup was fraught with the challenges of multiple wires plugged into the backs of desktop computers, often causing confusion about what went where. Systems were sometimes so difficult to set up that teachers had to spend pre-class time putting them together. Once the projectors were in place and teachers flipped them on, they sometimes found the lamps were too bright to project clear images in a classroom with many windows.

Now, thanks to new and emerging technologies, the experience of using the projector has been completely transformed. State-of-the-art, lightweight projection systems (some new models weigh as little as five pounds) offer advanced features and capabilities at prices less than $1,000. Many of the latest systems provide plug-and-play setup capabilities, project clear and vibrant colors, include controls for adjusting brightness, and work with wireless laptops to reduce the mess and nuisance of jumbles of tangled wires.

These sophisticated systems can now be used by teachers to breathe life into what—in the absence of a projector—would be stagnant, linear, paper-bound experiences. For example, instead of pointing to a pull-down world map, a geography teacher can boot up a laptop, go online, and use tools such as Google Earth to project real-time images of geographical locations. Think of the projection system as the last component in the making of the technology-integrated classroom, creating immersive experiences that transport students to new worlds through a visual feast of images and videos.

Taking the Projector Online

Progressive educators understand the projector’s value and its potential applications. A teacher now can connect a laptop to a projector, link back and forth between Web pages, and project images of people, places, animals,and things.

Tony Crawford, a geography teacher at Ackerman Middle School in Canby, OR, uses an InFocus LP130 and an iMac to add a new dimension to his lesson plan called Everyday Explorer. Created in a partnership with the National Geographic Channel and local cable companies, Everyday Explorer is designed to motivate middle schoolers to get out and explore the world around them. The program’s Web-based curriculum encourages critical thinking, visual literacy, and an appreciation of other cultures. Crawford brings his students online by using his laptop in connection with theInFocus projector.

Crawford says the convenience of having the projector at his disposal is a big advantage: “Students don’t have to wait while I write on the board. [Plus] it prevents me from having to schedule time in the computer lab. The projectoris right in the classroom, right now.”


The InFocus LP130 brings a new dimension to
one geography teacher’s curriculum by linking
his students to a learning program called
Everyday Explorer.

Another instructor, Mary Anne Beseda, technology director at Spring Independent School District in Houston, works with teachers who use their Mitsubishi SL47 projectors, laptops, and Internet connections to project streaming videos and incorporate them into lessons.“Teachers are more excited about theirprojectors than [about their] laptops,”says Beseda. “It makes such a differencein getting kids’ attention with visual displaysand keeping them engaged.”

Enhanced learning opportunities are only the beginning of the benefits of new projection systems. They also considerably reduce paper and supply costs, saving thousands of dollars over time, and they enable teachers to make better use of their time. At Bellevue School District in Bellevue, WA, the gains realized by reduced copier usage, paper costs, and teacher prep time justified a districtwide rollout of projectors. Bellevue teachers no longer use their extra time to make handouts and backup materials, or to stand at the copier expending reams of paper to reproduce materials. Now they project these images onto a screen for all students to see. BSD currently owns about 1,000 Dell 3300 projectors, with another 700 (the district is moving to the 2300) to go before every classroom in the district hasa projection system.

Emerging Technology

Exactly how new is that new projector you’re using? Perhaps not at all. Emerging technologies can make a new projector instantly out of date. So before choosing which model to buy, consider several new technologies that are being tried in higher education, where tech directors have thebudget to try new things.

In K-12 education, many teachers who use their projectors with their laptop computers use the laptops’ wireless capabilities to access the schools’ networks. Today’s projectors have also gone wireless. Wireless projectors—especially ones on mobile carts—help eliminate the spaghetti of wires and cables. “It’s just starting to be adopted,” says John Glad, product manager at Hitachi America. “And you only need a power cable to make it work.” Projectors can be networked to a central hub monitored by an audiovisual specialist. A key advantage of networked projection systems is enhanced maintenance. This setup allows an AV specialist to use software specifically designed to track projectors, turned on or off, and tomonitor lamp-hour usage.

“Remote access creates maintenance efficiencies,” says Glad. “I was working with one school where the system e-mails reports to the AV specialist. He could then go out and fix the problem. This also allowed him to understand usage patterns and conserve lamp life by identifying issues. When one teacher was going through more bulbs than the other teachers, the system pinpointed the usage-rate differences. The AV guy then went to the classroom and realized the teacher going through more bulbs wasn’t properly dimming the classroom and reducing the projector’s power mode to conserve bulb life. He explained to the teacher what to do anddecreased bulb usage.”


When purchasing a projector,balancing cost with need is key.

IN EDUCATION, COST ALWAYS COUNTS. Limited technology budgets bump up against rising educational expenses, requiring school IT decisionmakers to ensure the cost/benefit ratio makes a purchase worthwhile. Fortunately, like other technologies, as projection systems mature, prices come down. Projectors once priced from $2,000 to $3,000 now go for between $700 and $1,000.

School districts investing in new projection systems should research the following: standards and specifications; type of installation; maintenance and cost; and new or emerging technology that might better meet their needs.

Standard projector features are:

  • video input for DVD, VCR, cable, and closedcircuit television
  • inputs for HDTV, DVD, cable, digital camera or video camera, stereo audio, and monitor
  • 12V screen trigger
  • laptop and PDA compatibility

Most units ship with a lens cap, a wireless navigator remote control, computer cable, RCA video and audio cable, a power cord, a cart adapter, and user guides.

Common video capabilities include QVGA at 320 x 240 pixels; VGA at 640 x 480 pixels; SVGA at 800 x 600 pixels; and XGA at 1024 x 768 pixels. Experts such as John Glad, product manager at Hitachi America, recommend purchasing SVGA units for great picture quality at a good price. For schools interested in the more dramatic XGA resolution, Mark Holt, a VP in the presentation division at Sanyo-Fisher, suggests TCL SU73 and SU48, which he says are his two best sellers for schools.

Another technical specification is lumens, which measure brightness. Projector lumens range from 1,200 to 3,000. To select lumens intensity, Glad advises educators to consider classroom light. “It also depends what teachers are going to project images on,” he says. “If they’re going to project images on a whiteboard, 2,000 lumens are almost too bright.”

Jack McLeod, the IT and facilities director at Bellevue School District (WA), says his district opted for projectors with a high lumens output.“We wanted enough lumens output for teachers to dim the lights for better color and presentation,” he says. “We also wanted them to work effectively with our interactive whiteboards.”

Another technology, called a classroom response system, isn’t necessarily new, but is made possible through projection systems. A CRS uses individually assigned remote devices that allow teachers to measure student responses to questions. For example, a teacher might ask students a question based on the instructional material for the day. In visual graphics, the CRS measures the percentage of answers and projects the image onto the screen. Teachers can thus see how well their students understandthe curriculum.

“It’s an automatic tabulation that not only provides a measurement of success, but also allows teachers to see who participated and who did not,” says Jack McLeod, Bellevue’s IT and facilities director. “It’s very effective with a projectorin the classroom.”

Mobile vs. Mounted

Projectors come with a multitude of features. But before deciding which features will provide the best solutions for their needs, educators should determine whether they will be installing a projector in every classroom, or placing the projector on a cart and moving it from room to room. Each choice has its pros and cons. When affordability is an issue (when isn’t it?), the cart system offers an economical solution. “Schools that can’t afford ceiling- mounted projectors opt for the more flexible mobile carts,” says Bob Harners, president of Rick’s Computers in Danbury, IA, which sells Optoma projectors to local schools. Going with mobile carts minimizes the number of projectors schools must buy. “I’ll usually sell about a half dozen 738s to schools that put projectors on rolling carts,” Harners says. “But if a school can afford it, they prefer to put one in the ceilingof each classroom.”

One benefit of mobile carts is they don’t bear the extra installation costs associated with ceiling-mounted projectors. Plus, since they’re not confined to a single classroom, mobile systems provide equal access for teachers, who check them in and out from a designated person such as a librarian, tech coordinator, or janitor. Mobile carts can also provide backup when ceiling-mounted projectorsneed service.


GOIN’ MOBILE: If ceiling-mounted projectors
are too costly for schools, carts are a viable option.

Schools leaning toward purchasing a projector cart should consider classroom configurations and design. When dealing with a variety of room sizes, (standard rooms, cafeterias, band rooms, etc.), most educators recommend a projector with a large, diagonal image size, which can range from five to 15-plus feet, with an average of 1.5 times the image size needed for “throw distance” to the screen. The greater the throw distance, the larger the image will be projected. For example, you should be 15 feet back from the screen when projecting a 10-foot image.

If mobility and installation charges aren’t factors, ceiling-mounted projection systems offer more stability and require fewer wires to run to electrical outlets (wires go through an electrical conduit and can be hidden in the ceiling). Newly built schools can account for installation as part of the classroom design and construction. For existing schools, installationinvolves more challenges.

“We had to inventory every classroom, note room size, height of ceilings, wall materials used [such as cinder block vs. wood], and the best place to put the faceplate and cable,” Beseda says, recalling Spring ISD’s projector installation.“Before mounting the units, we also had tocome up with what the mounting wouldlook like and design a pole to come downout the ceiling. We also added speakersfrom Cetacea Sound,and we’ve been very happy with those.”

Bellevue’s McLeod says his teachers prefer the ceiling-mounted projectors because the integrated features allow them to use the systems as a part of their daily lessons. “Our Dell projectors feature an integrated sound system,” he says, “allowing the DVD, VCR, and TV to broadcast through stereo speakers. Teachers can wear microphones on their lapels and walk freely around the room. It also gives teachers freedom to allow kids with auditory problems to sit anywherein the room.”

Security Issues

No matter which projection placement is selected, security and theft issues must always be addressed. Mobile carts are more vulnerable to burglary. An unsecured, lightweight unit with a small footprint can be easily tucked undersomeone’s jacket.

However, securing mobile carts is simple. Use a cable from a major manufacturer that sells mobile computer products, such as Kensington, including notebook locks that technology directors such as Beseda recommend.“We use a laptop cable with a keyand glue it to the projectors,” she says.“You would have to walk in and use acable cutter to take one. In 2.5 years, wehave not had a single one stolen.”

While ceiling-mounted projectors pose less risk of theft, it is unwise to leave one unsecured. Ceiling-mounted projectors can be secured with a cable tied and locked to a steel ring installed inthe ceiling.

Personal identification numbers have been added to newer projectors such as the InFocus IN24 and IN26. Teachers enable the PIN feature and create a password. A thief wouldn’t be able to use the projector without the password. InFocus also uses watermarks (a logo appearing in the corner of the image) to prominently display the owner’s name. However, the best defense against theft is a lockedclassroom or closet.

A school policy mandating that teachers and users lock their classrooms or place mobile carts in secure areas makes a thief work twice as hard. Susan Holveck, a science teacher at Whitford Middle School in the Beaverton School District (OR), says locking her doors did the job. Also at Bellevue, locking up equipment has proved to be a theft deterrent.“Out of 1,000 projectors, we’ve lostmaybe 10 or 12,” says McLeod.

Maintenance Matters

Like any piece of equipment, projectors need upkeep. While most offer durability and long-term functionality, minor maintenance keeps them working longer. The two projector components that take themost maintenance are filters and bulbs.

Classrooms tend be dusty places, and computer filters don’t work when dust collects on them. A dusty filter— whether it’s glass-polarized or foam— causes a projector to run hotter and burn out. Polarized filters need to be dusted inside and out—a vacuum can do the job; reusable foam filters can be thrown away, but schools must keep a stock ofreplacement filters.

Lightbulbs are the next item most likely to go out. Unlike common lightbulbs, projector bulbs cost between $200 and $400 each to replace. Most projector bulbs are good for between 2,000 and3,000 hours before burning out.

Teachers are more excited about theirprojectors than [about their] laptops. It makessuch a difference in getting kids’ attentionand keeping them engaged.
Mary Anne Beseda, Spring Independent School District

Newer projectors come with what are called “eco-modes” to preserve bulb life.Projectors continually set on eco-mode, which reduces brightness up to 20 percent, increase bulb life between 500 and 1,000 hours. For example, the Optoma 732 comes with a standard eco-mode that cuts brightness by 15 percent, but adds an extra 1,000 hours, and in certain models,up to 2,000 hours.

Longer bulb life is critical for programs with little or no funding for bulb replacement. At Holveck’s school, her InFocus projector bulb recently burned out, and funds weren’t available for replacing it. “It’s something some users don’t figure into their long-term budgets,” she says. “But administrators should always consider who is going topay for it when the bulb burns out.”

Future Projections

Unlike some technologies that often gather dust in the corner, classroom projectors continue to sustain their appeal, if for no other reason than their ease ofuse and stress-free setup.

Forget the six-hour training session required of so many educational technologies— now teachers can get their new projectors functioning in minutes. Some models walk the user through setup via color-coded wiring systems andeasy-to-read menu buttons on the units.

Most importantly, though, projectors offer advantages for everyone involved. With ease of use what it is, teachers—even those slow technology adopters—jump at the opportunity to make the projector anintegral fixture in their curriculum.

Administrators enjoy the increased effi- ciencies and solid returns on investment. Janitorial, technical, and library staff aren’t overburdened by increased maintenance. Technology coordinators gratefully spend less time conducting training sessions. And students delight in learning viaan interactive, audiovisual experience.

All told, it’s fair to say that the future of classroom projectors is as bright as theimages they provide.

For a comparison of projector models, click here.

Michelle Gamble-Risley is a freelance writer who specializes in education, government, and technology.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.