Oct 31 2006

ROI Report

Small-group instruction demands mobility, so an Illinois school district is going wireless with networked projectors and tablet PCs.

SOMETIMES WIRELESS MOBILITY IS more than a convenience in the classroom — it’s a requirement for effective teaching.

After researching best practices in literacy education, Addison School District 4 in Addison, Ill., adopted a new emphasis on small-group instruction. Teachers and students alike had to be able to move around freely to accommodate the ad hoc groups.

However, the public school district’s main tools for viewing videos and other types of multimedia were VCRs and TVs — technologies that were cumbersome and hard to move. Also, the TVs didn’t work well for Web pages because the text displayed was too small for most students to read.

“People got tired of the limitations,” says Mary Mehl, a veteran teacher in the district. “A lot of teachers were using it for nothing but videos.”

In a pilot program conducted during the last school year, Mehl and 19 other teachers tested various networked wireless projectors and tablet PCs in their classes. This fall, the district will deploy these technologies in all classrooms in the district’s junior high school, six elementary schools and kindergarten/ preschool center.

The pilot plan was that teachers would walk around the classroom carrying their tablet PC and use the projector to display whatever was on their screen. During lessons, students could borrow the teachers’ tablets as needed.

Last year’s pilot didn’t always go smoothly. However, through trial and error, the teachers, IT staff and administrators ended up gaining insight into what to look for in these types of wireless devices and how best to incorporate them into instruction. Ultimately, they found a solution that was well-suited to their needs.


In fall 2004, the district’s Educational Development Committee established its criteria for the new technologies before deciding which ones to pilot. Jim Frontier, director of curriculum and instruction, says the committee’s requirements included a tablet with Internet connectivity and preferably a CD/DVD drive. It also included a wireless projector that can be used in a fully lit room, can be projected both on a screen and on surfaces such as dry-erase boards, and can be moved easily for better visibility.

The district’s first combination of tablets and projectors did not meet its needs for wireless mobility, recalls Tecia Williams, information technology manager. To her knowledge, no one was able to get the tablets and projectors to communicate with each other wirelessly, so the pilot teachers ended up hardwiring them together, she says.

Making matters worse, the projectors only sporadically stayed connected to the district’s Wi-Fi a/b/g network. The problem could have been caused by a configuration problem with the wireless card, which was purchased separately, Williams says. The tech staff’s unfamiliarity with such devices also could have been a factor, rather than defects in the products, she acknowledges. In any case, the connectivity problems defeated the purpose of the pilot, so the district looked for a new combination.

The school district selected Epson’s PowerLite 765C projectors and Lenovo ThinkPad X41 tablets. Unlike the previous projector-tablet combination, it was simple to get the ThinkPad tablets and Epson projectors communicating, Williams says. In fact, it’s so easy to show the teachers how to set up the devices to work together that it requires only “verbal training that takes all of 10 minutes,” she adds.

The new technologies are a better match for the district in other ways, too. Since the projectors are more than 2 pounds lighter than the previous ones, they are more portable for teachers who move from school to school.

The ThinkPads were considerably less expensive than the previous tablets, Williams says. They also offered some convenient features the pilot teachers requested, including built-in keyboards and CD/DVD drives in their docking stations, says Terri Bresnahan, education and information technology director.


Clearly, technologies are more than the sum of their technical specs: It’s what you do with them that counts. Teachers in the pilot used the flexibility and interactivity of their new multimedia technologies for myriad uses in small-group and whole-group instruction, from showing streaming videos, to letting students use the tablet to circle the correct answer to math problems, to using Microsoft Windows Journal to annotate Word documents during grammar lessons.

One teacher, Sam Berrios, used the technologies in an enterprising way with his first-grade bilingual class. He took pictures of each page of a story and assembled them into a PowerPoint presentation. “Students could read from the screen,” he says. “We could emphasize the sounds we were practicing for the week and the vocabulary for the particular story.”

The large projection afforded better visibility than the book itself. The Windows XP tablet offered the interactivity of being able to mark up the text during the lesson, using a stylus. “I could use the ink feature for PowerPoint to emphasize words, underline and highlight,” Berrios explains. “Students could do the same thing, coming to the tablet and doing it themselves.”


Because the combination was successful in the pilot, the district purchased 168 Epson projectors (one for every classroom this fall) and 298 ThinkPads (218 for teachers and 80 to go on mobile carts for student use in the upcoming school year). So far, the district has spent about $842,000 for the technologies, as well as software, operating systems, speakers, utility carts and other supplies, Williams says.

At this early stage of the project, the ROI has been mixed, Williams says. “There are so few people who have used it, and they’re just learning how to use it,” she points out. However, since Williams’ IT staff and the technology vendors provided training during the summer, all the teachers should be up to speed this fall. In addition, Bresnahan and others will conduct year-long staff-development training on incorporating the recent technologies into instruction.

While teachers are enjoying the new possibilities, the students benefit the most, says Mehl, who used her projector and tablet during at least 40 percent of her instruction in her special-ed preschool class last year. Her students “love to interact with the computer,” she says. “They love to be the one going up there and using the mouse and making the choices. They feel so empowered by it.”

Those early steps toward digital literacy are especially significant in a district where around a third of students are from low-income households. “Right now, maybe only 50 percent of kids in Addison have access to computers,” Mehl says. “I know a lot of our lower-income families have not purchased them, or if they have, they may not have Internet access. In a community like ours, it would be problematic if we were not able to put these [tablet PCs] in the hands of our children.”


Here are some lessons learned from Addison School District 4’s experience with networked wireless projectors and tablet PCs:

• Shop around. “Don’t settle for the first piece of equipment someone presents to you as being wireless — try a few options,” says Tecia Williams, information technology manager. Give the devices a test run in several locations in your district to make sure they work well in your wireless environment, she advises.

• Don’t assume wirelessness equals portability. Size and weight are important considerations, especially if some teachers will have to transport tablets and projectors between schools.

• Make sure your tablet has all the features your teachers are likely to need for the long term. A comfortable built-in keyboard and CD/DVD drive are big pluses.

• When you’re budgeting, remember to factor in items that may have to be purchased separately. These include wireless cards, external speakers, carrying cases and carts for the projector.

• Learning from mistakes is great — especially when the mistakes aren’t yours. “It’s very beneficial to go to other districts that have implemented these types of technologies and see what their pitfalls have been,” says Terri Bresnahan, education and information technology director.


The staff of Addison School District 4 offers words of advice on training teachers to use networked wireless projectors and tablet PCs:

• Give teachers hands-on time to become familiar with the tablets and projectors during training sessions, says Tecia Williams, information technology manager. Any anxiety will soon be replaced with enthusiasm about the technologies’ potential to improve learning.

• Consider enlisting the technology vendors to assist with technical training sessions. Sometimes, “they’ll work with you to bring [the products] out, model them and give examples of how they can be used,” says Terri Bresnahan, education and information technology director.

• Ask teachers what they’d like to do with the technologies, then work as a team to find ways to make it happen. Time-pressed teachers often have great ideas but no time to develop them on their own. Addison School District 4 is planning train-the-trainer sessions in which teachers and other staff will brainstorm together to find ways to turn some of those ideas into realities, says Mary Mehl, a teacher in the district.

• Remember, training sessions are only a starting point. A lot of learning will take place on the job, as teachers experiment with using the technologies. Mehl offers this advice to other teachers: “Take what you’re already doing and figure out a new twist to it. Do it a little bit better; do it a little bit more.”


By Jane Soung

In 2005, there were an estimated 200,000 projectors sold to K-12 schools in the United States. In 2010, annual sales to classrooms across the country are expected to grow to more than 400,000 units. As the market continues to grow, projectors keep improving as well. From 2000 to 2005, the average projector became more lightweight and nearly twice as bright, and prices fell by more than 50 percent.

Average projector brightness:
1100 lumens
2100 lumens

Average projector weight:
10 lbs.
8 lbs.

Average selling price:

Most popular segments of SVGA resolution and XGA resolution projectors*:
SVGA ultraportable, 1000- 1499 lumens ($2,850); XGA microportable, 1000-1499 lumens ($4,500)**
SVGA microportable, 1500- 1999 lumens ($757); XGA microportable, 2000-2499 lumens ($1,214)


Lisa Delgado is a copy editor for EdTech.