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Technology trends – AV planning for the classroom

As classroom presentation systems become more and more complex, Michael David Leiboff of Listen Technologies gives a tutorial on how to plan for the audiovisual elements.

As classroom presentation systems become more and more complex, Michael David Leiboff of Listen Technologies gives a tutorial on how to plan for the audiovisual elements.

Planning a new classroom, whether it be a tiered 65-person classroom with fixed seating, a flat floor space with movable furniture to accommodate 35 students, or any other configuration, need not be difficult at all so long as you can define the appropriate room characteristics.

This article serves as a general outline for the range of planning considerations that are the underpinning of a thorough planning process for AV equipped facilities.

Key purpose of the room
Often, the most vexing questions about which capabilities should be provided have little to do with technology and instead revolve around trying to answer the more basic question: “How will the room be used?”

  • How many students must be accommodated?
  • Should the furniture be reconfigurable?
  • Will learning activities be didactic (teacher lectures student); interactive (among students and teacher); or collaborative (students work within small workgroups)?

One of the key drivers in designing great classrooms is being able to envision how the front of the room should be configured to support instructional activities.

Instructor’s workstation
In most classrooms, some type of furniture is located at the front of the room to support the instructor. This furniture may include:

An instructor’s table – typically used as an instructor’s home base during classroom sessions. The table may serve as a surface on which to place notes, student handouts, collect assignments, and often a place for an instructor to sit.

Podium (lectern) – a presentation platform that may have integrated into it, a computer, monitor and keyboard, and/or an AV control panel, document camera DVD, VCR, etc.

It would not be uncommon to provide both a table and a podium in a classroom. The location of this furniture and its fixed or movable characteristics must also be determined.

Teaching wall

In many classrooms, the front of the room becomes the focal point for the presentation of various types of visual materials. Virtually all classrooms have some kind of writing surface at the front of the space, and often a projection screen as well. (Keep in mind that the remaining walls of a space should also be considered as presentation surfaces.)

The juxtaposition of writing and project surfaces is critical, and requires an understanding of how instructors are likely to teach. 

  • How much writing surface is needed?
  • Should writing surfaces be raised/lowered?
  • How many projection screens should be installed?
  • What is the requirement for simultaneous viewing of writing and projection surfaces?
  • Should smart boards, if used, be installed or portable?

Once consensus about these basic questions is achieved, the needs for presentation technology can be addressed. Some technologies should be integrated and fixed. Others should be accommodated on a portable basis. Infrastructure provision for the widest array of devices should be made, even though a portion of the equipment may not be purchased initially.

Display technology

There are a number of ways to display video images:

  • Front projection – typically using a ceiling mounted, electric, roll-down projection screen and one or more projectors, either ceiling mounted, or located at the rear of the room.
  • Rear projection.
  • Flat panel display
  • Smart board technology

The size and location of these displays is critical to the overall design of the orientation and architecture of a room.

Audio systems
Room audio systems include the following elements:

  • Voice amplification of a presenter using either a fixed or lavalier microphone. Ceiling mounted speakers are typically used for voice amplification.
  • Program sound – the amplification of the soundtrack of a video, website, CD or MP3 track, etc. Front, wall-mounted speakers are typically used for stereo program sound.
  • Audience participation – microphones utilised by students, typically in larger rooms, to enable the amplification of student’s questions and comments. Audience participation also is used in distance learning applications to allow all participants to be heard at the remote location(s).

Audio sources can be varied and include:

  • audio tracks from a DVD player
  • computer audio from the web, local or networked programs or media clips
  • portable MP3 players
  • audio and video teleconferences.

There may be a requirement for audio recording.

Video systems
Flat panel displays or video projectors provide the display mechanism for a variety of different video sources:

  • Room dedicated personal computer. In most cases, this would be a desktop computer integrated into the furniture within the room
  • Portable notebook computer, provided by the instructor
  • DVD player
  • VCR player (still commonly used)
  • Portable personal video device (Video iPod for example).

Video origination
There are a variety of motivations to originate video from learning spaces:

  • Distance learning applications.
  • Live webcasting.
  • Distribution to overflow audiences in adjacent rooms
  • To facilitate future on-demand download
  • Production of for-profit commercially distributed content.

These requirements should be identified in order to determine the type, number and quality of video cameras that should be furnished around the room, and to determine the sophistication of the control, monitoring and recording systems that are needed.

Control systems
As classroom presentation systems become more complex, the need to control the increasing large number of devices can become overwhelming. The control system is perhaps the most critical element in achieving a successful (usable) AV capability.

The following issues should be examined:

  • Where should the controls be located?
  • Should the controls be presenter centric, allow for manipulation by tech support personnel, or both?
  • How complex or simple should the control interface be? (Touch panel, buttons, etc.)
  • Should controls be fixed or portable?

Multimedia network
Another overall planning issue is to consider how any given learning space will be integrated with the intra-building or overall campus multimedia network, as both a source and destination. This can be an important planning issue, as space must be provided for a technical support space, often referred to as a Central Media Head End.

The planning process is somewhat easier if an institution has developed a set of standards for classroom presentation technology. However, even if such standards do exist, user group(s) comprised of staff that will be teaching in the new classrooms should be urged to provide their input, and perhaps even more importantly, kept abreast of the planning process in order to properly set expectations.

Michael David Leiboff is with the Ed Tech Planning Group at Listen Technologies