This column was reprinted with permission from InfoComm International and originally appeared here.
The roots of the AV industry are firmly planted in the K-12 education market, dating back to the formation of the National Association of Visual Education Dealers (NAVED) in 1939. Back then, classroom AV technology consisted of film strip projectors, screens and eventually basic audio equipment and overhead projectors. Of all the vertical markets in which AV pros do business, education is, and has always been, among the most consistent and highest revenue producers.
But as anyone in the industry knows, K-12 schools have been facing major budget constraints. At the same time, they’re tasked with finding new ways to engage students — AV technology would be one of those ways. So although it’s generally recognized that technology is critical in today’s teaching environment, for most schools, making the right investment choices requires addressing two interrelated challenges: planning and funding.
Keeping informed about the most recent developments in school technology is key to developing a solid plan. What makes this so challenging is the rapid pace of advances in technology. No one wants to commit precious resources to equipment that will be outdated by the time it’s delivered and put to use. This dilemma is not unique to schools, of course; all enterprises — and consumers — struggle with the issue. But K-12 schools struggle perhaps more than others because of their dependence on public funding and the political uncertainties that implies. Schools can’t count on a consistent flow of funds to update aging technologies. A plan that includes replacement lifecycle analysis is more likely to be funded.
It’s important to recognize that not all AV technologies advance at the same rate. In fact, some AV technologies can be described as “mature,” and even commoditized. For example, if a school has recently installed a sound system, it’s not likely that the loudspeakers will require replacement for many years. But continuous improvements in digital signal processing technology allows increasingly higher levels of flexibility in the use of that loudspeaker system.
Over the last decade, projection and flat-panel display technologies have neared their mature stage, too, with lower prices and higher performance. Since the early days of AV in schools, the most cost-effective presentation system was a projector and a screen. Today, that’s changing, as flat-panel display prices have dropped, sizes have increased, and performance has dramatically improved.
“We see a migration toward large-format LCD displays, and away from traditional projectors with screens and interactive whiteboards,” says Julie Solomon, manager of marketing and business development at CCS Presentation Systems. Although interactive whiteboards are the hot technology in K-12 today (analyst firm Wainhouse Research says more than 80 percent of schools use them), that may not always be the case. “Eventually, everything will move toward touch interactive displays,” Solomon believes.
Pedagogy as the Driver
Focusing on specific technologies or products may be the wrong approach to future-proofing K-12 school technology. According to Michael D. Leiboff, principal consultant with the Sextant Group, “Faculty and administrators who take the time to examine how their teaching pedagogy should drive technology implementation are in a much better position to succeed.” So while technology is always evolving, it’s not the technology that should drive investment.
“This evolution is not driven by advances in the products that are available, so much as how teachers imagine new ways to use them creatively and effectively,” says Leiboff. “The goal, in planning classroom technology implementation is not merely to purchase best of breed video projectors, SMART Boards or computer tablets, but to imagine how these devices could be used in different ways. And new equipment that will be purchased over time needs to be interoperable with existing equipment.”
Interoperability is an important concern, says Jim Tierney, CEO of Tierney Brothers. “As schools evaluate each piece of new technology they must question how it will work with and enhance current technology while meeting their goal to improve teaching effectiveness and raise achievement,” says Tierney. It’s rare that entire AV systems can be — or should be — replaced on a regular basis.
Leiboff says that the real trick is to infuse flexibility into the infrastructure.
“Equipment, by and large, does not provide much real flexibility. And, over time, at least some of the equipment will need to be replaced,” he says. “Infrastructure, for the most part is cheap. And, it has the added bonus of being funded as part of the building’s overall construction budget, not the technology equipment budget.”
With flexible infrastructure — one that does not itself limit the types of signals and endpoints that can be tied in — new technologies can be more easily added as funds become available.
Andrew J. Milne, CEO of Tidebreak, a Silicon Valley-based provider of group interaction technologies, also believes in the value of flexibility.
“Flexible learning spaces that easily accommodate emerging and future technologies help schools ‘future-proof’ against retrofitting costs without overspending on equipment that will become obsolete, and without sacrificing future performance in order to constrain costs,” says Milne. “Intelligently-designed infrastructure that both anticipates future directions and allows for unanticipated opportunities positions schools for cost-effective evolution of their facilities.”
Milne believes that hardware-centric AV system infrastructures impose constraints for future improvements or upgrades. He says that a software-based system infrastructure offers more options.
“For years, schools have equipped classrooms with AV technologies that primarily facilitate in-class presentations. These rooms use proprietary hardware infrastructures and technologies that require custom design and highly specialized integration skills. The problem is that making changes or upgrades can be costly and time consuming,” Milne says. “A software-enabled infrastructure on the other hand, makes it possible to consider a wider range of learning space arrangements that can embrace different instructional approaches and emerging technologies.”
A clear trend in pedagogical style is the shift from the “sage at the stage” — one-way delivery of information — to more collaborative methods such as the “flipped classroom,” where lectures are homework and collaborative problem solving is class time. While the debate continues to rage over this approach, one thing is indisputable: Today’s generation of learners value the role that technology plays in sharing ideas and information, even outside of school. Research firm Grunwold Associates found in a 2007 study that 96 percent of online teens used social media. That number is likely closer to 100 percent today. Learning technologies that capitalize on this fact — and other tech trends that kids have already adopted — will be wise technology investments for the future.
Tech Trends that Empower Schools
The explosion of mobile devices should also being acknowledged in the classroom. Some schools are actually condoning “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) policies to embrace smartphones and tablets. Advocates argue that because young people are already glued to them, schools should come up with educational uses for them. And at a time when state budget cuts are accelerating, it makes sense for educators to explore BYOT as a way to do more with less. But bringing mobile devices into the classroom is not without its own complications.
“Schools need to invest in a good wireless infrastructure and the necessary bandwidth to support simultaneous use of multiple mobile devices,” adds Solomon. “Many schools are looking at large rollouts of mobile devices, yet don’t have a solid plan for how they are going to support everyone hitting the system at once.”
Other technology trends outside of education are beginning to make sense in the school environment. Cloud computing is one example that has the potential to significantly reduce IT investments in hardware (such as servers, desktop and laptop systems, and storage hardware) and software (operating systems and applications), because these resources can be located centrally in the cloud, where they’re shared among users who can access them from anywhere using any device with Internet access.
Because the cloud moves applications out of their traditional home on the desktop or laptop, low-cost computers like netbooks and thin clients can be used to access applications and content. The main requirement becomes access to the Internet and to networked applications. But the more important advantages that a cloud infrastructure offers are scalability and freedom from being locked into a hardware investment.
Tierney sees the general move toward digital technologies as a catalyst to the adoption of many other types of teaching scenarios.
“In the classroom of the future, all curricula will be digital, so new technologies will be designed around creating, consuming or managing digital curricula,” says Tierney. “The shift to BYOT will speed up the adoption of robust wireless networks within schools to support all the devices. The enhanced wireless infrastructure will, in turn, open the door to technologies that will change how and where digital curriculum is consumed.
“Assessment of students will become interactive, such as through recording of video and audio instead of traditional answers like ‘true’ and ‘false,’” Tierney continues. “Online visual learning will become real time, with students able to learn and work from anywhere through desktop video conferencing technology. All digital resources will be accessible from home for use by administrators, teachers and students through managed home access technology. And finally, all technology devices will be monitored and controlled remotely via single interface remote maintenance software.”