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Shining Bright

Advances in projector technology are making these machines one of the hottest tech trends in schools

Advances in projector technology are making these machines one of the HOTTEST tech trends in schools today

Everyone knows about show-and-tell. Years ago, students brought in various toys, books or even rocks from the backyard to show the rest of the class. Now, it is the teachers who are conducting show-and-tell, every day with almost every lesson. Only it isn't just a fun diversion, but a professional must.

The new breed of projectors for the K-12 education market is helping teachers incorporate text, pictures, video clips and streaming media into class presentations. These models link to the Internet and notebook computers, and display PowerPoint presentations against a screen, an electronic whiteboard, or-if need be-a blank wall. They cost less than their predecessors, weigh less and are slowly joining the old K-12 standby, the overhead projector, as a necessary teaching tool.

Steven Baule is a believer.

This assistant superintendent for information technology at the New Trier High School District has installed 120 projectors in his Winnetka, Ill., high school's 150 classrooms. Projection technology is the necessary piece that pulls together materials from the Internet and other media, and the existing classroom computer technology, he says.

His goal is to eventually have a projector in every classroom. "Teachers are basically changing the way they instruct," he says. They can display what they've called up on a computer screen to the entire class or ask students, in turn, to project their work. Teachers are not only pulling in material from the Internet and laptop computers but also are incorporating snippets from instructional DVDs and videos and displaying them via the projectors. Projection technology puts one large image in front of all students at the same time, alleviating the awkwardness of students sitting in front of a computer monitor to look at multimedia materials. It also puts the teacher in complete control of the classroom Internet.

Once lessons are captured as presentations at New Trier High School, they can be posted to the school's Web site and reviewed by students at a later date. "The goal is to have all things connected," Baule says.

He knows that his high school is unique in its use of projection technology. Few schools have as many projectors or started as early as he did in procuring them. While Baule started outfitting classrooms with new projectors in 1997-at a cost of $8,000 to $9,000 per projector-he predicts that many more schools will follow New Trier's lead during the next few years.

Who's Using Projectors?

Almost one-fourth of educators surveyed share Baule's vision for the future. According to a study conducted by Quality Education Data for Philips, 22 percent of public school educators say there will be a projector in every classroom in the next five years. Currently, 68 percent of K-12 educators in U.S. public schools are using multimedia projectors, according to the survey, which was released this summer. High school teachers use them more than middle school and elementary instructors. Slightly more than 4 percent plan to purchase this technology during the next 12 months.

Given that there are an average

of four multimedia projectors in each school surveyed, teachers are forced to share with their colleagues. In fact, 27 teachers share the average projector. Survey respondents would ideally like 16 projectors on site.

About 81 percent report using portable machines that are easily moved and hooked up in the classroom. Average usage, according to the QED study, came to nine hours per week for each projector.

Interactive Field Trips

Those already well practiced in teaching with projection technology are stressing the interactive capabilities. Lucy Todd, technology specialist for Union City (N.J.) Board of Education is using various multimedia projectors to conduct virtual field trips for students at 11 schools in her district. "We basically can put 50 to 60 students in a media center and project an educational tour against a blank wall from the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, or the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills, Calif.," she explains.

Her biggest coup, to date, was conducting such a field trip with a school in Northern Ireland. Students from across the Atlantic Ocean shared their daily experiences with her New Jersey students. The virtual field trips are interactive, and kids are encouraged to interact with their subjects.

Tight security since September 11th plays somewhat of a role in the growth of virtual field trips for this New Jersey district, says Todd. The concept was introduced in 1999. That year she arranged for 73 virtual field trips. In 2001, she conducted 330.

In Orinda, Calif., Cheryl Davis, teacher and technology coordinator in Miramonte High School, is using projectors to help with a different kind of field trip. Every year, she helps provide the technical connections for a science teacher and 60 high school seniors who travel to Olympic Park Educational Institute in Washington to study earth science. As they complete their daily studies of weather patterns, tidepools, or conduct interviews with Native Americans about the controversial practice of whaling, they record their findings with digital video recorders and then post text and video to a Web site.

Students back home view the activities via projectors connected to the Internet. They, in turn, post science-related questions for the seniors to answer while at the park.

While Davis is far from having a projector in every classroom, she does have one available for each of the school's eight academic departments.

"We paid between $2,000 and $2,500 for each projector," says Davis. "The prices have really dropped."

What Influences Educators' Choices

Davis brings up the most important aspect for K-12 educators. This education market, first and foremost, is price sensitive. Educators have typically ordered the most affordable units, which means they usually can't buy the lightest models or even the ones that yield the brightest images. While the corporate market is rife with high-end, lightweight portable projectors that are small enough to fit in a briefcase and that display the crispest images, educators have traditionally used models that weigh more and that produce serviceable image quality, but cost less.

Improvements in projection technology, though, are putting lightweight models and projectors that yield better picture quality in the hands of more and more educators.

It was just six years ago that manufacturers introduced a projector that weighed less than 10 pounds. That same year, Texas Instruments developed the Digital Light Processing chip that fits a number of projector functions onto an internal chip. By using chip technology instead of larger internal panels, DLP models weigh less, while providing good image quality.

DLP advances have spurred improvements in the established LCD projector market as well. LCD projector manufacturers were motivated to make lighter machines with better image quality for less money. Now it is common to find LCD and DLP projectors that weigh in at seven pounds or less.

These advances, coupled with a competitive market that is driving down prices, are putting better quality projection technology within the K-12 budget.

Sales trends reflect this.

"The numbers are definitely up for K-12 education," says Sweta Dash, director of projection and LCD research for iSuppli/Standford Resources "The street price on projectors is down a lot." As savvy buyers know, the street price is often less-sometimes far less-than the manufacturer's list price.

Last year, the education market invested a total of $249 million in projectors, with educators paying an average price of $3,600 per unit. Vendors sold a total of 69,500 units to the education market. In 2000, educators bought 6,500 fewer units, but paid an average price of $4,200 per projector.

Vendors are obviously selling projectors for less, while quality is improving, Dash says.

Several lightweight projectors are offered at prices that hover in the $3,000 to $4,000 range. These units make it easy for educators to move them from classroom to classroom.

Lightweight models come with their own problems, however. Projectors that can be easily carried from class to class can also be easily swiped by a student and stuffed into a backpack. More manufacturers are aware of these challenges. Many vendors are building in anti-theft devices. Some projectors can be seated into a holder that is bolted into a ceiling or wall and can't be stolen without ruining the machine. Some Epson models for K-12, for example, won't work unless the user punches in a security code.

The Price Point

QED's research shows, though, that while price drives the K-12 market's purchasing decisions, there are other values educators seek. Image quality ranks No. 1. Long lamp life is second. Replacement lamps for projectors can retail for $200 or more. At a use of nine hours per week, or 468 hours per year, most projectors will have to have lamps replaced every two years, explains Michael Gay, director of marketing for Philips. During the total time the projector is in use, the lamp may need to be replaced two or three times. These costs add up.

For this reason, some technology companies are offering projectors with lamps that operate in "high" mode or "low" mode. "A lower brightness mode extends the life of a lamp by 1,000 to 2,000 hours" explains Dash.

Resolution and brightness, while often emphasized by vendors, hold lesser importance for educators. The same is true for zoom lens features and remote control.

The Next Step

As projectors complement or even supplant some of the older display technologies in K-12 education, other technologies will be used to round out the lesson plan. Teachers, such as Robert Barrick, physics instructor at Carlise (Pa.) High School, are incorporating electronic whiteboards and document cameras into the multimedia teaching styles. Barrick, who has been using an electronic whiteboard for four years, projects shapes from the Internet onto the whiteboard and rotates them so the students can actually see them in motion. He also captures written problems and equations with the help of the electronic whiteboard's "save" function. A day's lesson then becomes a digital file that is posted on the Internet and later reviewed by students. Gone is the worry that work is lost as soon as a board is erased, explains Barrick.

He even goes one better with the help of a visual presenter, a type of document camera. He uses this technology to digitally photograph diagrams and project them onto the electronic whiteboard. He can then adjust size and resolution that allows students to see them in great detail. A fellow biology teacher at the school uses the document camera to digitally photograph 3D objects and project them for better viewing.

"I am still learning," says Barrick. His enthusiasm and knowledge have combined to earn him the district's designated instructor to teach his colleagues. His advice about incorporating new technologies? "Don't think you are going to jump right into this." Like any smart teacher, Barrick has set up workable goals for his colleagues. His first year of using the electronic whiteboard was dedicated to simply learning about how the technology works. In subsequent years he added more complicated tasks.

According to QED's study, Barrick has good company. Almost one-quarter of educators surveyed use electronic whiteboard for instruction. Another 4 percent say they plan to purchase one during the next 12 months.