By Tony Church
Over the last couple of decades, there have been significant changes in the use of different levels of technologies, implemented throughout schools to ultimately enhance everyday teaching in the classroom and assist with back office administrative functions, writes Tony Church.
It all started with computer labs in schools, providing students, and even some teachers, access to computers for the first time in their lives. Today, computers and the use of technology have become an integral part of people’s everyday lives, with pre-school learners being exposed to technology even before they master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic.
The introduction of the interactive whiteboard in the classroom has since resulted in an era in which the use of technology was literally moved to the front and centre of the learning environment, with many teachers and educators grasping the opportunity to enhance teaching by effectively using it as an interactive, real-time projection device, resulting in higher levels of student participation and concentration.
A concept that was and is unfortunately overlooked is that the technology (hardware) is, ultimately, merely a means to an end. External school funding projects allowed schools to implement interactive whiteboard solutions in many classrooms and, due to the focus placed on the acquisition of the tangible items, the concept of such devices simply being a means to an end was overlooked by many. This resulted in a significant number of interactive whiteboards either being used as projection surfaces only, or not used at all.
Apart from the lack of basic and ongoing professional development, the technology has been regarded as finicky and problematic, often requiring constant re-calibration, the use of external light sources which impact viewing quality, issues around incorrect software drivers and more. Many of these issues arose as the result of:
- poor service from unqualified installers
- insufficient brightness on projectors used
- incorrect matching of technologies, for example using a 4:3 aspect ratio projector on 16:9 whiteboards
- lack of training and support, both internally and externally
- lack of relevant content and access to resources
Furthermore, in the wake of increased demand placed on teachers to deliver the curriculum to their classes over a limited period of time, it is not surprising that many teachers have given up on the technology, as they simply do not have the time to waste on technical issues.
The single biggest ‘game changer’ in the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) in the classroom was probably the introduction of tablets – more specifically iPads – into the classroom, which, to a certain extent, coincided with a mass take-up and subscription to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and more.
Re-adjusting Settings on Interactive Displays
It is important to recognise the link between the use of technology in everyday social life, across virtually all socio-economic backgrounds, and the use of technology in the classroom.
Firstly, and probably most importantly, teachers have become more confident with the use of technology, with tablets, smartphones and computers now being used as tools to access information and to stay connected to others, whether it be at a social level or work-related level. Secondly, students now have access to these technologies from an early age. Simple touch technologies, including a basic feature such as gesturing (which is used on handheld devices such as tablets and smartphones), is one of the reasons why interactive LED panels have been so successful in classrooms, with even pre-schoolers being able to use the technology without training or instruction.
Most of the current range of interactive panels do not require drivers for either Mac or Windows and they auto-calibrate, allowing teachers to simply ‘plug and play’. These interactive panels are ultimately large, external screens connected to a computer, allowing the teacher to operate and control any program installed on that computer via the interactive panel, using either their finger or stylus, rather than a mouse or track-pad. On-screen keyboards also allow for typing, and character recognition is also becoming ubiquitous in many operating systems.
Total cost of ownership for interactive panels is also significantly lower when compared to conventional interactive whiteboards with projector solutions. The expected lifespan on an A-grade LED panel ranges between 30,000 and 50,000-plus hours. To put this in context, if a panel is used for an average of six hours per school day, one could conceivably achieve a lifespan in excess of 25 years out of one panel. Obviously, newer and different technologies will emerge in years to come. However, the use of LED panels is not encumbered by the kinds of ongoing expenses that might typically be incurred when using data projectors such as bulb and filter replacements.
Features for the Future of Education
In the years and months to come, it is expected that more emphasis will be placed on developing greater interconnectivity between devices and panels, which currently occurs via an HDMI or USB C port. Improved connectivity will enable more effective wireless streaming and interaction to the panels from teacher and student devices, irrespective of the platform they are using.
An example of the trend toward expanding connectivity can be seen in existing devices such as a recently released interactive display that allows up to 64 devices to be simultaneously connected, thereby allowing any of the device screens to be displayed on the panel and even wirelessly controlled from the screen. Teachers can interact with students without having to go to the students’ desks, thereby keeping all students included and focused on the lesson.
Such technology also allows educators to display up to four device screens via the panel simultaneously, which is ideal for a cooperative group setup, such as four groups of students doing a math quiz on four different devices, or presenting their group projects simultaneously.
Another important consideration for interactive panels is their size, and selecting the correct size for a classroom is critical. Interactive LED panels are widescreen devices – generally with an aspect ratio of 16:9, whereas most interactive whiteboards installed at schools are 4:3. The width of a 65-inch panel is very similar to the width of an 85-inch interactive whiteboard and, in addition, the clarity of a full-HD LED panel is significantly better than that of projectors.
Wireless connectivity is fast becoming the most desired feature amongst interactive classroom solutions. It can also be one of the greatest areas of disappointment due to issues around lack of response and lag. Problems with connectivity are often caused by an already taxed Wi-Fi network. Alternatively, they may simply be the result of inadequate Wi-Fi connections built into some panels.
As an alternative to a wireless connection, some users may consider connecting and displaying an iPad screen directly to the display. However, this may enable display-only functionality, meaning the iPad cannot be controlled through the screen. The main reason for this is that the interactivity on panels is driven through USB, and therefore the control of devices from the panel is limited to compatible devices with USB ports, as effectively a wireless USB bridge is created from the device to the panel.
Ultimately, the decision for many educators will come down to an understanding of the differences between the new generation of interactive LEDs, when compared with standard LED TVs, which are used as projection surfaces only.
This is an area that requires careful consideration; some of the major differences are summarised below. Anyone considering the next generation of displays for use in classrooms should take extra precautions in understanding these pointers and accounting for them against their school’s needs and budgetary expectations.
- LED TVs do not have anti-glare screens, which makes viewing in many classrooms problematic due to reflection caused by external light sources.
- LED TVs purchased from mass retailers are not generally commercial-grade panels and therefore are not intended for extended hours of use and only intended for use in-home. It would be wise to carefully read the warranty disclaimer on any TV.
- Interactive LED panels, or at least the more mainstream brands, are designed for use within the classroom and are therefore more robust and durable.
- Interactive LED panels enhance classroom teaching and their interactive capabilities ensure more engagement with the class.
- Interactive LED panels provide greater flexibility due to their connectivity and built-in operating systems.
- Important factors to bear in mind when considering interactive LED panels include:
- budget – over the last 12 months, the most popular size for classrooms has been 65”.
- size – current popular sizes available are 55”, 65”, 70”, 75”, 84” and 98”.
- warranty – onsite service or back-to-base? This is an important consideration as freight costs are high.
- mounting options – fixed wall mount, fixed wall mount on swivel bracket or height-adjustable wall mount, manual or automated?
- mobility – mobile with manual height adjustability, mobile with automated height adjustability, mobile with automated height adjustability and automated tilting (interactive table), fixed height mobile and a laptop arm or bracket?
- built-in PC or use own laptops/notebooks?
- operating platform – built-in systems like Android allow usage of the panel’s basic features without having to have a PC connected. Basic features include writing, connecting to the Internet, storing and opening files including MP4, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, Word documents and more.
- connectivity – wireless connectivity or connectivity via Ethernet cable?
- glare and scratch resistance – look for anti-glare and anti-friction toughened (MOHS 7) glass.
- LED quality – A-grade panels will have no dead or light pixels.
- support – this may include relevant content pre-installed, training manuals and clear levels of additional support outlined.
- future firmware support – the reason most panels do not require drivers for Mac and Windows computers is that the drivers are included in the operating systems. Future updates to operating systems are therefore not necessarily covered and will therefore require an update to the firmware on the touch overlay to ensure proper operability.
Tony Church is the CEO of IG3 Education, a small Gold Coast company focusing on Maths, English and Phonics solutions in Australia. Tony began working in IT in 1986 and started focusing on ICT in education in 1994. He was the Divisional Director Education for Mustek Ltd in South Africa, where he was directly involved in the planning and rollout of computer systems, software solutions and training in more than 1,800 schools on the African continent, before relocating to Australia in 2006.