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In the Spotlight

Projector companies respond to educators' calls for quieter, more cost-effective options.

I don't know how anyone teaches without a projector," says Douglas Johnson, director, media and technology for Mankato (Minn.) Independent School District 77. The promise of LCD projection systems is significant. Teachers can use projectors to display multimedia video and computer content to the entire class, take virtual field trips across the world and through time, and replace videotapes and DVDs with streaming video. The projector/whiteboard combination raises the bar even further and allows students to interact with and manipulate data and objects.

"It's like having a computer at every student's desk," claims Shaun Owen, a sixth-grade teacher at Greenbrier Middle School in Augusta, Ga. Owen relies on a projector and laptop to embed multimedia content into nearly every lesson.

While enthusiasts tout the projector as the Holy Grail of ed-tech, not every district has embraced it. For some, it's a matter of economics. Districts in the projector market a few short years ago may have balked at the $3,000 to $4,000 price tag of a new system. Ownership costs also posed a problem as lamps required replacement in as few as 2,000 hours-at a cost of $200 to $300 each. The lamps generate heat, too, and teachers voiced concerns about the high heat of the systems. Noise is another issue. It's a challenge to cool projectors without sounding like a jet airplane, admits Paul Criswell, global segment manager for InFocus Corp.

The Industry Responds

The two constants in hardware purchases are lower prices and better technology, and the projector market is no exception. "We've been optimizing technology and products to bring projectors into the realm of affordability for school systems," says Jon Grodem, senior product manager for Optoma Technology, Inc. Falling lamp prices combined with more cost-effective light engines have dropped prices for some projectors to the sub-$1,000 range.

InFocus has lowered total cost of ownership by extending lamp life to 3,000 to 4,000 hours and partnering with Digital Light Processing. Other vendors are turning to DLP technology, too, as the architecture eliminates filters and the need to clean or replace them.

Both user friendliness and longer lamp life are part of the latest projection systems. New features include automatic timers to push the projector into low-power mode when there are no signal inputs and a video-mute mode to allow teachers to shut the lamp to explain a concept. Other new developments include slightly larger projectors that help reduce fan noise and an additional low-light power mode to extend lamp life.

These developments are enabling districts like Mankato to invest in a large-scale installation that will equip 100 smart classrooms and computer labs with new projectors. "Projectors inspire and enable new ways of teaching," says Owen. "This is the one piece of technology every classroom should have."

Lisa Fratt is a contributing editor.