Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Did You Hear Me?

audio enhancement systems

IMAGES COURTESY OF AUDIO ENHANCEMENTS, INC.

Based on gains in student achievement and teacher effectiveness many school districts across the country now include audio reinforcing technology in every classroom.

Most of us can relate to conferences in large hotel rooms where the presenter fumbles with a wireless microphone questioning “Can you hear me now?” until someone in the back of the room acknowledges the volume is satisfactory. We have all been frustrated when a member of the audience states a question that no one hears and the presenter answers without repeating it. As adults we ask for presenters to speak up, adjust equipment or repeat the question because we are there for a purpose and the information is important to us.

Though the audience in a school classroom knows the information is just as important, the confidence and skill set needed to speak up and ask the teacher to do anything different is not likely to exist. If there is background noise, if the teacher speaks in low tones, speaks while facing the board, has an accent or talks fast, or if some children are hearing impaired; it is possible some students will not receive the information. Unlike adults, it is unlikely the child will complain they cannot hear or make a request for the teacher to repeat information they did not hear.

In the early 80’s, educational facility planners began using audio enhancement, or sound field systems in classrooms to address this issue. With nearly 40 years of technological innovations, the equipment side of the puzzle has come a long way. Many districts have long since made a decision to include audio enhancement as standard equipment for all new construction and in many cases, all classroom spaces across the entire district. Lauren Roth, facilities communications manager for Orange County Schools in Florida, stated, “For several years now we have included sound enhancement technology in in our construction specifications. As a result, over half of Orange County’s 257 schools are now equipped with this well-liked and simple technology.”

audio enhancement systems

Typically a sound amplification system for classrooms consists of a pendant worn around the teacher’s neck containing a microphone. There is a wireless receiver that distributes the voice signal to a number of audio speakers mounted in the ceiling throughout the classroom. The teacher is able to speak in a normal tone of voice and the sound is distributed evenly throughout the space. Most systems are also capable of utilizing microphones for student use. Denton Anderson, vice president and director of sales for Audio Enhancement Inc., described his company as a pioneer in the industry. The company was founded by Claudia Anderson in 1978, when she developed sound equipment to be used in the classroom for two of her hearing impaired sons. Since that time, product development has seen many changes, most notably a groundbreaking move in 2000 from RF (radio frequency) to IR (infrared) technology to increase overall efficiency with transmission of the audio signal.

Extensive research on the use of audio enhancement consistently indicates significant benefits for education, particularly with academic achievement and test scores. Beginning with the Mainstream Amplification Resource Room Study (MARRS) in 1981, numerous studies have shown that aside from academic performance there are other benefits as well. Teachers are less likely to strain their voices during the school day as they address the classroom in a normal tone. Because they do not have to raise their voices to reach students in the back of the room, teachers are perceived as less threatening. They report being less tired at the end of the day and more efficient due to not having to continuously repeat their statements. Having equivalent sound levels in all areas of the learning environment reduces the need for scheduling or seating of children based solely on their ability to hear.

Audio enhancement systems in today’s classrooms have survived the test of time. The industry has initiated numerous design improvements and cost efficiencies that offer a product selection that can easily meet the school district’s design requirements at a reasonable price. Most systems can be installed within a price range between $1,000 and $2,000 per classroom. Equipment providers have developed a variety of additional features currently available with sound amplification systems that enable the equipment to interact with audio distribution used for other instructional technology systems in the classroom. There is also an option allowing a teacher to activate a duress notification to the office by pressing a button on the pendant microphone.

audio enhancement systems

Sounds good. Research on the use of audio enhancement tools consistently indicates significant benefits for education, particularly with academic achievement and test scores. Other benefits include the fact that teachers are less likely to strain their voices during the school day and that having equivalent sound levels in all areas of the learning environment reduces the need for scheduling or seating of children based solely on their ability to hear. Consequently, many districts have decided to include audio enhancement as standard equipment for all new construction and, in many cases, all classroom spaces.

One of the greatest challenges with sound enhancement is insuring that teachers are comfortable using it on a daily basis. There are a variety of reasons why this does not always happen. Often, it can be as simple as whether or not sufficient training has been provided. Once all initial adjustments have been made, it is as simple as wearing the pendant and turning it on. Normally, it should not be necessary to make volume adjustments since the initial installation includes a pre-set for each individual learning space. Some teachers express discomfort in hearing their amplified voice and have concerns that it will bleed over to adjoining classrooms, hallways or other spaces. Depending on the acoustical design of the facility, this can be an issue although it is typically less of a problem than expected. Sound enhancement systems are not loud. The teacher does not have to raise his or her voice to be heard. A normal voice tone is simply distributed evenly throughout the room. When operated properly, sound amplification equipment can contribute to a classroom actually being quieter.

It is essential for the equipment to be installed properly and tested. It is equally important to include a routine maintenance and operations program for all components. Pendant microphones are handled frequently day in and day out. As a result, sometimes they are damaged, lost, or batteries become discharged and need to be replaced. An inoperable pendant can be stuffed into a desk drawer and forgotten, essentially wasting the investment of the audio enhancement system. Unfortunately, this will allow the learning environment to return to one where children miss out on key information simply because they cannot hear what is being said by the teacher.

audio enhancement systems

There is another critical management aspect to the successful use of audio enhancement systems in classrooms that also must be addressed. If the district has made the commitment to purchase and install the equipment, it is not likely that use of the equipment was considered to be an option based on teacher preferences. In order for the system to be effective, it must be used. This may require a mandate from district leadership and subsequent enforcement by principals.

We can now easily say that sound amplification systems for education have been around a long time. The research is solid. The cost-benefit analysis is higher than most technology based classroom innovations. Districts that have decided to equip every classroom characterize their decision as a no brainer. Those districts have essentially addressed the issue of hearing in the learning environment and are now looking for any improvement that could yield as good or better return on investment.

For the districts that are still wondering if this is a good idea, maybe they need to adjust their hearing.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

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