Tag Archives: connected classroom

Connected Classroom: Integrating the Best Audio Solutions for Advanced Classroom Installations

Systems Contractor News Audio IssueAs published in Systems Contractor News and on AVnetwork.com, March 24, 2015

Imagine this all-too-familiar scenario: Your child comes home from school. You ask him “How was your day?” You get the usual answer: “Ok.” You ask him what he did, and get the usual answer: “Nothin. We learned stuff.” With that, he buries his head in his iPhone, and off he goes to his room.

Now, imagine the same opening question, but with this answer: “It was awesome. We had a conference call with The President of the United States, The Prime Minister of England, The Dalai Lama, The Pope, and another fifth grade class from Perth, Australia. And I got to ask the Pope a question.”

See the difference? In the second scenario, we have an engaged, interested student. That’s what the connected classroom will do for education. This is not a futuristic dream from a science fiction magazine; we have the technology to do this today. In ten years from now, almost every classroom in the U.S. will be connected.

There are many technological challenges in building the connected classroom. Things like bandwidth, internet connection, and hardware will offer integrators and manufacturers challenges never before faced. In my mind, the biggest challenge will be audio. We all know a videoconference is only as good as the ability to hear the people speaking.

There is no perfect solution, or one-size-fits-all. With every audio solution, there is an advantage and a drawback. Below are a few ideas I have for setting up microphones in the classroom. This is based on an interactive, two-way conversation, not a “sage-on-the-stage” lecture. I believe that a webcam with a pinhole mic on the top of a TV is not a good solution. It is good for the consumer setup. Remember that the goal of setting up a mic is to get it as close to the subject speaking as possible.

1. A single mic on a stand—In this set up, the person asking a question steps up to the mic. The advantage, only the person speaking will be heard. The mic can be turned on and off when needed. Disadvantage, there is a lot of getting up and down during the meeting. In some cases this disruption is manageable, but not likely with a classroom of fifth graders.

2. Ceiling mics—Mounting mics on the ceiling, in a permanent installation. The advantage, audio is unobtrusive and there is no need to set up and take down. You can pick up anybody in the room, and the wires are hidden. The disadvantage is that ceiling mics tend to be difficult to work with due to room acoustics. An expensive DSP is required to tune the sound properly, but it is probably too expensive for a school district on a budget when outfitting a large number of rooms. If it’s always on, it will pick up every sound in the room, which is distracting.

3. Stick mics for each desk—There are systems mics that daisy chain to a master system. Each mic has a mute switch, so it can be turned on only when needed. The install is most likely temporary. The advantage is that everyone can be close to the mic when they speak, without getting up from their seat. No extraneous noise, since the mic is off except when needed. The disadvantage is that temporary setup means wires all over. There is also time needed before and after the conference to setup and break down. These systems tend to be expensive, and difficult for the novice to set up and work.

4. Multiple boundary mics—Boundary mics can be set up in front of the class, with a master mute switch for the teacher to turn on and off as needed. The advantage includes very few wires, and all of them are in the front. The disadvantage, set up and breakdown take time, since it’s a bit difficult to set up, but not as difficult as the stick mic solution. Also, the people in the back of the room may not be heard well, depending on the size of the room.

I know there are variations of any of these. Wireless systems can be integrated into any of these, eliminating wires strewn all over the place. However, wireless systems can pick up noise, and are difficult to manage for the novice sound engineer.

The most important thing to consider here is that the schools have limited personnel resources. Most likely, there will not be technical support to set up these systems, which will leave it up to the already overtasked teacher. The solution must be easy to set up and use, offer quality sound and it must be inexpensive.

 

Connecting the Classroom

Pretty, young business woman giving a presentation in a conferen

I was recently invited to present at a conference for tech managers in higher education by Infocomm. It was a very interesting and enlightening day. In the room was a collection of tech managers from universities small and large. In some cases, the person in attendance was the lone member of the tech staff at their university. Generally, those were small campuses. In the case of USC itself, they had a full staff, as the campus is quite large.

I presented on the Connected Classroom, since that is a hot topic for today. Campuses are starting to share their lectures and classes in order to:
1) Record, archive, and share their lectures for their own students to review at a later date, via methods such as YouTube.
2) Connect to remote facilities for their internal use.
3) Stream live for anyone interested, either for self fulfillment or for actual credit.
4) Conduct two-way conferences, via services such as Skype.

My presentation was centered around new hardware devices for the purpose of recording and streaming, such as cameras, microphones, and related products. The goal for these products is to enhance the current experience of a basic web cam with pinhole mic. I discussed new ideas, such as multi-cam production using the new MXL AC-2200 four-camera seamless switcher (coming soon!) and the HDMI to USB 3.0 converter, which gives options of a better camera and lens.

These new ideas and products were very well received. What I heard back from the group, however, was unexpected. It seems that many campuses are not ready for the connected classroom. The single biggest reason is the network itself. Most campuses have not yet upgraded their infrastructure to accommodate increased traffic.

There are a number of roadblocks to the connected classroom. The single biggest reason is bandwidth. The other reason is access to a secured line. Most facilities do not want to allow anyone behind their firewall. This brings up an interesting challenge.

The technology to electronically connect classrooms is here. The hardware is very affordable. On the low end of the cost spectrum, a classroom could have a simple web cam with built-in mic for under $100. If they wanted to improve the sound, they could add a separate mic for around $100. With an Internet connection, the classroom could be connected. For around $500, they could upgrade the camera and mic system. An encoder for live streaming can be purchased for as little as $500.

So the real issue is getting a signal out of the classroom. The cost of adding a parallel network for streaming and conferencing is very expensive. It would require wiring up the classrooms or a series of wireless routers and repeaters. But, there is one inexpensive solution. The school could invest in a 4G cellular network box.

It is really quite an elegant solution. The 4G signal is robust enough to handle an HD signal. The cost is under $200 per month for unlimited data. It is portable, so it can be shared by many users. There is no need for expensive infrastructure wiring. And, it is separate from the campus network and fully secure.

If you are looking to stream or two-way conference, and your facility network cannot accommodate it, consider this solution. The 4G cellular network box is inexpensive and practical. Use it as long as you need, until your facility can set up a parallel network. They may find that this solution is enough, and another network is not necessary.

The demand is growing for the connected classroom, the hardware is affordable, the software is ready for prime time, and the general public understands the applications. The time for the connected classroom has arrived. Don’t let the network stop you.