Oct 12 2006

Installed Projectors Allow Schools To Save Money

The classroom is progressing from blackboards and overhead projectors to whiteboards and digital projectors. Is your school ready for the next evolutionary step?

Want to show the class a web site? If your classroom doesn’t already have a projector, such a demonstration requires at least one day of planning. First, you call the computer lab and reserve a projector. If it’s available, then either you or a student must go to the lab, retrieve the projector, wheel it back to the classroom, plug in all the cables and configure it. Why isn’t the image coming up? You call the computer guy. He’s not available. You page him. Fifteen minutes later he arrives, presses a couple of buttons and fixes the problem. One day and two hours later you’re finally able to show your class shakespeare.com.

Chances are this scenario describes what happens at your school. According to a 2002 Quality Education Data study, the average school has fewer than four projectors being used among 80 percent of the faculty. The high demand is a function of the ever-expanding market for video-displayable education media (i.e. Internet, TV, DVD). The historically high price of projectors has kept supply to a bare minimum. But that’s starting to change, thanks to dramatic price drops and operational efficiencies made possible through networking projectors.

What Good is a Networked Projector?

“We like anything that can have an IP address on it,” declares David Culberson, network specialist for the Sharyland School District in Mission, Texas. Culberson recently purchased 20 network-capable projectors from InFocus. “We steer toward projectors that can be managed remotely,” he adds. Schools in the Sharyland district can be five miles apart and fixing issues remotely has saved Culberson’s crew considerable amounts of time and money.

But it wasn’t InFocus’ networkability that initiated Culberson’s switch from his trusted brand, EIKI. It was price. At $1,000, the InFocus units were 40-60 percent less expensive than EIKI’s network-incapable models.

Of course, purchase price isn’t the only cost consideration. A projector suffers from the same razor-razorblade syndrome as an inkjet printer. If not used efficiently, operational expenses for a projector can quickly outpace the initial purchase cost. A single replacement bulb can cost hundreds of dollars.

Networked projectors come with projector management applications. Using the program, all projectors connected to a district network can be monitored, managed and operated from a central location. In a flash, a help desk employee can see which projectors are powered on, which ones are online, and the estimated life of the current bulb. Such immediate information avoids the costly, time-consuming and inefficient processes of walking around school to school, room to room, just to turn off a projector or check the remaining hours available for the current bulb.

All projectors require some sort of technical support. But networked projectors offer educators an increased sense of security. Can’t see an image? Call the help desk. All status lights and setup options that a teacher can see and control with a remote are also available at the help desk via the projector management software. Quickly diagnosing any issues, the technician can either fix the problem himself (“Let me switch you to the right video input”) or explain what needs to be done (“Re-plug the cable. It appears to be loose”)

A Projector in Every Classroom

Last year, the Desert Sands Unified School District in La Quinta, California purchased 70 non-networked projectors. Many have become permanent additions to classrooms. Dr. George Araya, the district’s director of educational technology, realizes the new units have become as indispensable as blackboards. “[Teachers] cannot teach without the projectors in the classroom.”

The success of the first 70 units convinced the school board that every classroom needs a projector. But interest this year has turned towards networked projectors for monitoring purposes. “You can be proactive in the maintenance of the projector to be sure that it’s going to be working in the classroom for you all the time,” Dr. Araya says. Because you know when and where lamps are going to quit, you can order and replace bulbs before there’s a failure. Non-networked projectors don’t broadcast impending doom and, as a result, spend a considerable amount of time as expensive paperweights waiting for a replacement.

The Wireless Alternative

Wireless projectors don’t offer the same monitoring benefits as their wired cousins. Instead, they claim easy setup, portability and access via multiple users. Connecting to a wireless projector requires the user to first load proprietary software on a notebook computer with a wireless card. The software establishes a peer-to-peer or ad-hoc connection between computer and projector. “Your PC becomes essentially like a server,” explains Bob O’Donnell, director of personal technology at IDC. Contrary to vendor claims, critics argue that the setup of wireless projectors can be difficult. “It’s much more difficult to connect to a wireless device,” O’Donnell says. The default for all Wi-Fi devices is infrastructure mode and, unfortunately, the two types of wireless connectivity, ad-hoc and infrastructure, are mutually exclusive. That means that a simultaneous connection to the school’s network while presenting is impossible.

Connect successfully to a wireless projector and you’ll realize its greatest benefit: collaboration. Wireless projectors don’t need to be limited to one-to-one relationships. In a conference room setting, many notebook users with wireless connectivity can send presentations in sequence without having to disconnect and reconnect each unit from the projector. It’s the technique Dr. Araya and his team used to successfully present their argument for networked projectors to the school board.

Some projectors are wireless-ready, meaning they have an empty PCMCIA slot in which you can install a wireless adapter. If your projector doesn’t, you can buy a product from InFocus called LiteShow, which connects to a projector’s M1DA connector. Although standard for the past three years, the M1DA connector is not available on all projectors. Another option is the Wireless Presentation Player from Linksys, which connects to the projector’s VGA port. Unfortunately, the major limitation of all wireless projectors is display potential. PowerPoint transitions and animations are choppy, and video is essentially impossible.

A wireless presentation doesn’t necessarily require wireless connectivity to be built into the projector. As long as the projector is networked via a wired connection, the wireless capability can exist through a school’s Local Area Network (LAN). Sony has a web-based application that enables any authorized user to see the IP address of a networked projector and upload a document, such as a PowerPoint presentation. The projector holds the file in its local storage area, and can present it with its built-in Windows CE operating system. Once the remote user uploads the file, he sends signals to change the next slide.

Dr. Araya wants to build this kind of connectivity into the Desert Sands Unified School District. He foresees district schools intercommunicating to share presentations. For example, a high school chemistry class could present what they’ve learned to an elementary school class. And each class could do it all from the comfort of its own school and classroom.

Projector ROI

The considerably high, initial cost of projectors has kept many schools from making significant purchases. Last year, IDC’s O’Donnell finished a study comprising 250 respondents in the business and educational communities to determine the return on investment (ROI) of a projector in both business and school environments. The survey showed that the top five reasons people used projectors was for improved presentation quality, improved audience attention and retention, reduced preparation time, reduced meeting length and the time and cost saved from not having to provide paper handouts.

For each projector-based presentation, schools save $15 on materials (i.e., overheads, photocopies, slides). Given average usage over one year, that adds up to $2,157 per projector just on materials. Teachers claim that by using a projector, they save 39 minutes preparation time per presentation. Using a $39.99/hour figure for the “value” of a teacher’s time, that’s a time cost savings of $4,195 per year. Given that presentations will be reused, O’Donnell expects time saved will increase. If you combine hard material savings and soft-time savings, a single projector saves a school $6,352 per year. With an average cost of a projector last year being $3900, payback from a single projector is just 9.8 months.

But that’s just the initial cost. IDC predicts that the annual upkeep of a non-networked projector is $439. Networked projectors can save money on operational costs. Management programs alert the IT staff when a bulb needs changing. You can also reduce energy costs by instructing the application to automatically shut down all projectors left on after school hours. And the program protects against theft by alerting an IT staff person by phone, alphanumeric pager, or e-mail if a projector is mysteriously disconnected at night.

A Teacher’s Tech Paradise

While Sharyland and Desert Sands Unified are in the process of deploying its projector networks, Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, Maryland has already seen results. Since February, the district has been installing Sharp networked projectors. Teachers use the classroom projectors to present videos, websites, PowerPoint presentations, document camera images, cable television and video feeds from other classrooms or from the school’s broadcast studio. “Teachers have not normally had that access to those resources ever before,” says Mike Pitroff, Digital Harbor’s principal. “They enhance instruction.”

All classrooms, regardless of orientation, are outfitted with presentation stations giving teachers control of all the equipment in the room via an AMX touch panel. If a problem arises, the instructor hits the help icon and a two-way conversation begins, with the technician’s voice being heard over the classroom loudspeakers and his face appearing on the presentation station.

Having seen these tools in operation, Pitroff, a former director of technology for the school district, believes in their educational value. “It enables [teachers] to deliver instruction in a much more effective way and students are much more attentive to what’s going on,” he says.

Baltimore has been very fortunate to be able to create such a sophisticated model. The high initial prices for projectors have spooked schools that are trying to operate leanly from participating in like programs. But now, with some network projectors prices dropping to $1,000, it’s no longer a scary proposition. Not only do projectors open up educational opportunities, they also improve morale. As Pitroff has witnessed, “teachers are saying that these new resources have rejuvenated their teaching. They feel as though they’re being treated as professionals and they’re given the tools that they need in order to effectively do their job.”

What Does it Cost?

Dr. Araya has tested a few networked projectors and is currently running through a bid process to purchase 100 more for the district. The new units are all slated for several of the district’s elementary schools. Here are Dr. Araya’s approximate costs for purchase and installation of last year’s non-networked projectors, along with cost projections for this year’s networked projectors.

This Year

100 Networked Projectors

Sony VPL-PX15 = $4,599 each

Mounting Brackets: Chief SLB 4345 = $130 each

Mounting and cabling installation = $55,000

Last Year

70 Non-Networked Projectors

Philips XG1 = $2,872

Mounting Brackets: Chief SLB 4345 = $129 each

Mounting and cabling installation = $45,000