Enhancing Classroom Audio: Beyond Amplification
Systems designed to improve audibility in classrooms are changing. They used to be all about amplification. That's still the single most critical component. But systems are now also adding lecture capture, emergency features, paging, monitoring and collaboration capabilities to enhance not just sound, but student learning as well.
In Louisiana's Calcasieu Parish Schools, a classroom audio system called Flexcat is helping to support more collaborative learning.
Teachers can project their voice to the entire class, enabling students to hear more effectively — but they also can listen in on up to six distinct clusters of students as the children work on projects in small groups. Teachers can monitor this group work from a distance, giving students the opportunity to feel independent while still making teachers available to support those students, if needed.
"What we have found as a result is much more engaged classrooms," said Sheryl Abshire, the school system's chief technology officer. "I've been to quite a few classrooms with the Flexcat system in them, and I've seen students working on different projects and teachers being able to manage those classrooms in a way that I haven't seen before."
The Flexcat system is one example of how classroom audio systems have become more sophisticated in recent years. No longer just technologies that amplify the teacher's voice so students can hear better, today's classroom audio systems often can perform multiple functions.
Voice amplification is still as important as ever. Studies suggest that voice amplification systems can help improve student achievement and lower special education referral rates, while also leading to better classroom management and fewer teacher sick days as a result of voice strain. And earlier this year, researchers concluded that ambient noise is more distracting to a child's brain than an adult's, hindering how students learn. In fact, the ability to understand and process speech against competing background noise is a skill that doesn't mature until adolescence, the researchers said.
But classroom audio systems have advanced beyond just voice amplification to include additional features. For instance, manufacturers such as Audio Enhancement, Extron Electronics, FrontRow and others have offered emergency alert capabilities on their teacher microphone pendants for some time now. With this safety feature, a teacher can notify the front office or other staff members if there is a classroom emergency with just the push of a button.
Audio Enhancement and FrontRow sound systems also include lecture capture features, allowing teachers to record the audio from a lesson and make it available for students who want to hear it again as they are reviewing the concept — or for those who might have been absent from class that day.
Smart Technologies' Smart Audio classroom amplification system integrates with the company's Smart Notebook software and is designed to work with a Smart Board interactive whiteboard. Smart Notebook software has a Gallery feature that comes with audio files a teacher can play through the Smart Audio system's speakers. The software also includes a Recorder tool that teachers can use to capture their voice or a student's voice and save the recording for use in future Smart Board lessons.
Lightspeed Technologies has made it easier for teachers to manage collaborative group work with its Flexcat audio system. And both Audio Enhancement and FrontRow have developed products that integrate paging and classroom audio within a single system. FrontRow's Juno Connect even allows teachers to control a classroom projector or record the audio from a lesson with simple voice commands.
Combining Classroom Audio and Paging
In South Carolina's Clover School District, several classrooms have been outfitted with the Juno Connect system to amplify teachers' voices. But in the district's two newest schools that are being built now, Juno Connect will be used for both classroom audio and paging, said Matt Hoffman, executive director of technology for the district — so there will be no need for a separate paging system.
"Our operations manager was very nervous about this endeavor at first," Hoffman said. "He's an old-school phone guy who's been in the industry for more than 30 years. One of his reservations was, what if the power goes out? How would you tell people, 'The school is on fire and we need to evacuate?' But Juno has a Power-over-Ethernet connector that allows us to pull power not from the wall but from our switch, which is on a battery backup and has a secondary generator backup. So if the power goes out, we don't lose that classroom audio or paging ability. The teacher still has her call button to call the front office if there's an emergency during a power loss. It just seems like a better tool, in my opinion."
When Hoffman and his team were evaluating the Juno system, they filled a room with a dozen or so adults and asked them to simulate a classroom environment by talking loudly with each other. Hoffman then walked around the perimeter of the classroom while someone played the part of the teacher.
"I was surprised," he said. "I could hear the teacher's voice much clearer as he spoke into the Juno microphone, compared with just raising his voice. The projection technology was able to penetrate the chatter of all the other people in the room."
Combining classroom audio and paging in the district's new school buildings will save money because the district will not have to install a separate paging system. But it will bring some additional benefits as well, Hoffman said.
"If the teacher is speaking or is playing some other audio and a page happens in our legacy classrooms, that paging speaker has to be loud enough to overcome the audio that's already being pumped into the classroom," he said. "With Juno Connect, the page takes over the audio." So if there's an emergency situation, the page "will be crystal clear. That's another feature that we liked: It's cutting out the distractions and getting to the heart of the point."
What's more, with Juno Connect, system administrators can set up flexible paging zones and can adjust these easily on the fly.
"With our legacy paging systems, after the install is complete, you're tied into X number of paging zones," Hoffman said. "I can page the 100 hall, or the 200 hall — or I can do an 'all call.' But what if my school is so diverse that the 100 hall isn't just first grade; what if it also has a fifth-grade class for some reason?"
With Juno Connect, "I can go in through the interface and just pick and choose from my map to dynamically change what rooms are in which paging zones," he said. "Then, we're not disturbing first-grade classrooms that might be in quiet time with a page that says we're serving ice cream in the cafeteria for all fifth graders."
Enabling the 'Magic' to Occur
Calcasieu Parish was part of a development team working with Lightspeed Technologies to think about classroom audio in different ways, Abshire said. The result of these efforts was the Flexcat system, which includes a headset and microphone for the teacher and a set of speaker pods placed strategically around a classroom.
If children are working in groups, doing project-based learning, the teacher can listen in and comment on what each group is doing from wherever she is in the room through these pods. "She can nudge them and monitor them," Abshire said. "And the students can ask the teacher questions — so it's a two-way communication system."
It's possible for teachers to manage small-group learning effectively without a system like Flexcat, she said. But this often requires a lot of "running all over the place."
"Just when you've got your back turned on one group, somebody over here would need something," she said. "We have found this technology to be a transformative tool, enabling teachers to do a better job at what they're already good at."
She concluded: "The magic in the classroom is what happens in the interaction between the teacher and the student. Technology enables that magic to occur — and the Flexcat system is a good example. It has empowered better teaching and learning in our classrooms. We feel like this is moving the whole concept of an engaged classroom forward in profound ways."