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Control Systems in the Classroom

I'm About to Get Control – and I Think I Like It!

Having an integrated control system in today’s more complex, technology-rich classroom environment can eliminate frustration for both teachers and students while increasing effective teaching time as a result of properly addressing added complexity in operation. This can also have financial impact from an operations and logistics standpoint for maintenance and troubleshooting.

Integrated controls will only continue to become more important as we move forward. As a society, we have come to expect things to be smart — smart phones, smart TVs, smart cars — and there are many applications that help us manage these technologies. Quite often, we have integrated controls at our fingertips in the home and on the go.

Today, school children are more likely than their teachers to expect some level of automation and control as a result of growing up with a higher level of sophisticated technologies. In some home environments, there are multiple remotes for electronics such as a TV, Blu-ray or stereo system. Now add a projector, motorized screen, document camera, SMAART Board or other commonly introduced technologies in the classroom and the complexity of requirements is compounded, with the teacher at the front line. Smart school districts manage this by using integrated classroom control systems.

The phrase “integrated classroom controls” can have different a meaning depending on to the user and his or her expectations. Teachers may only consider what is in their classroom, while the IT/AV department may look more globally at the campus or even the district. Ultimately, the goals should be to increase usability, promote simplicity and minimize user error, while enhancing the educational experience in an ever more crowded BYOD (bring your own device) world.

The challenge is to understand what level of control you are providing, how much of it is stand alone, how much is applied and how much of it is integrated.

In its simplest form, integrated control may be as easy as a single-button control unit that turns on a projector and lowers a screen.

These types of control systems run the gamut among manufacturers, cost and feature sets, but basically are a way to simplify the experience. Quite often, without these basic integrated controls, the instructor must use what we consider applied control, such as the hand-held remotes mentioned previously or wall switches that may not be in close proximity to the teacher. These devices have the potential of interrupting the teaching/learning experience, and, in some cases, significantly reduce the available teaching time within a given period.

Also, remotes have a tendency to get lost or have dead batteries and require line-of-sight to the equipment. Depending on the classroom or auditorium size, applied or hand-held control may not be practical. Simple integrated control systems help manage this by providing a single point of control that is often locked down in a wall-mount rack, desk mount, podium mount or a wall box, and usually has power supplied to it, avoiding dependency on battery life.

From the teachers’ perspectives, these types of systems are also within the four walls of their classroom environment. The technologist for the school may have to manage several of these stand-alone systems and often seeks to unify them for budget and maintenance obligations.

As technology becomes more complex, the control system is even more necessary as a tool to manage that technology. Quite often, multiple levels of technology are now allowing for various types of inputs and displays along with sophisticated sound systems, distance-learning systems and lighting control. Being able to efficiently manage what content is being displayed is critical to the flow of the teacher’s ability to teach without distraction.

When moving up to this level, it is often necessary to have staff allocated specifically to managing and maintaining the classrooms. Issues that can arise often are a result of user error, due to complexity of the systems.

This often leads to frustration from the faculty, as there is a perception that they need to be experts in technology just to teach their class. Integrated control helps to resolve these issues by automating many functions that would otherwise need user input. This could include turning on the projector, lowering the screen, turning on the sound system, changing the lights and lowering the shades.

The more inclusive of these systems integrate control features and information sharing of various other systems alongside the audiovisual control over a school’s IT network. This can include uses such as bell scheduling, mobile device monitoring, utilization of the IT network, digital signage, mass notification, asset management, HVAC and lighting control, as well as security and access control, and more. These features, along with classroom AV control and other initiatives such as energy management and operations cost control, provide a significant level of sophistication that, until recently, was managed through the use of individual systems.

The advancement in Internet Protocol- (IP) based controls, coupled with managed software and hardware, has provided significant benefit to school districts by reducing the complexity of the non-integrated solutions. In addition, tight (and shrinking) operating budgets require critical strategies to manage efficiencies related to power use, HVAC control and the stretching of technology budgets.

Improved centralized control and monitoring, and the ability to have mobile accessibility for your technology team and administration, bring a significant measure of savings to implementation and operations.

This benefit also allows opportunities for improvements in effective emergency management notifications and interclassroom communications. It is now possible to control what is displayed within classrooms during an emergency situation such as fires, tornadoes or earthquakes to more effectively impact response time.

While these solutions can cost significant up-front dollars, working with a competent system design team can demonstrate anticipated return on investment and potential reduction in operating costs, along with increases in productivity and learning potential. By identifying what the key desired outcomes are, costs can be minimized and even reduced, since these types of systems work over the network.

Recent advancements in solutions that foster better presentation, collaboration and content sharing capabilities over wireless networks using both user-supplied (BYOD) and facility-owned devices are going to increase the need for integrated classroom controls.

Several companies recently released content sharing and collaboration products that, coupled with centralized control systems, will get teachers back to what they are being asked to do — teach. These newer solutions offer potency within small form factors and work over the school’s existing IP network, creating a platform that your IT staff can manage as part of the network with little-to-no foreign protocols to integrate. Installation has also been simplified, and extraneous infrastructure such as AV-related cables, have been reduced or eliminated.

The proper integrated control systems can result in a true “smart school” capable of providing a facility that can be monitored and controlled, technologists who can manage multiple solutions and rooms at once, and teachers who can effectively teach, knowing that user errors have the potential to be significantly reduced.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

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