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Emerging Technology

Charged Up and Ready To Learn

Most of us have now learned to begin each day with fully charged phones, notepads and laptop computers. Miraculously, through a tangled mass of cords, chargers and adapters, we maintain our battery power at operational levels throughout the day. Similar to other habits we develop for our personal benefit, battery maintenance has become a matter of survival. Not surprisingly, an identical need has made its way into the classroom with an expanding requirement to have a mobile network-capable device and Internet connectivity in the hands of school children and their instructors. But the question is, as the number of devices increases and teachers and students develop their individual battery charging habits, will our existing school buildings be ready to accommodate them?

Many may recall how long it took for airports to provide easily accessible power outlets to accommodate passengers between flights. Finding a seat in a crowded boarding area within three feet of an electrical outlet was like having a hotel on Park Place. Airports responded in a variety of ways, including a greater number of accessible outlets and other battery charging options. The airport experience offers an important insight to educational facilities professionals. Will we adapt our buildings to the technology, or will technology adapt to our existing buildings?

We see some evidence of technology providers meeting the challenge. Districts with programs using school-owned devices are investing in bulk charging stations or specialized rolling carts that are scattered around classrooms, media centers and workrooms. The stations are plugged into outlets to recharge devices overnight. District bid specifications require devices with battery packs to hold a charge throughout the school day, although this is a somewhat elusive requirement since it is also dependent upon usage and battery age. And, charging protocol may vary if the devices are school-supplied or owned by the student. If students are allowed to bring schoolowned devices home, they are expected to bring them back to school fully charged as a homework assignment, bringing new meaning to the phrase, “The dog ate my homework!” Students allowed to bring their own device may keep their batteries charged through the school day using a variety of external battery packs, some of which are actually integrated into specially designed book bags.

Simply adding more power to classrooms may not be the best answer either. School districts with aggressive energy conservation programs conduct routine “plug load surveys” to uncover unnecessary costs on their monthly power bills. Often referred to as “Phantom Loads,” the electricity consumed by chargers and other electrical appliances switched off or in standby mode, can be substantial. Walk into any classroom today and you will find one or more battery chargers continuously plugged into the wall. Building codes that do not recognize the lower amperage loads of charging batteries are another barrier to adding more outlets, and additional outlets require more infrastructure (conductors, transformers, etc.), thus impacting already strained construction and maintenance budgets.

A better solution has been discovered by the airline industry. Delta Airlines and others now provide USB ports at each seat in their newer planes, allowing passengers to keep their batteries charged during flight. Perhaps 21st-century classrooms will include USB ports with student seating, or cafeteria and media center tables, or even on school buses. Leviton, one of the primary suppliers of power outlets used in school buildings, now provides standard-sized, wall-mounted receptacles with USB ports. These outlets include technology that recognizes and optimizes the charging power of specific mobile devices, eliminating the need for power adapters.

As the quality of battery performance improves, this issue could disappear, but for now, program delivery is increasingly dependent on the use of rechargeable batteries and existing facilities that were not designed for this type of demand. And as we increase usage beyond one device per person, we may not yet understand how to effectively accommodate them throughout the day. We know our resourceful students, teachers and school administrators will find a way. However, it will be up to those of us who plan, design, construct and operate educational facilities to find the best way.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Andrew LaRowe is president of BAISCA located in Winston Salem, N.C. He can be reached at andrew@baisca.com.

Mike Raible is founder of The School Solutions Group in Charlotte, NC. He can be reached at mkraible@gmail.com.

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