The previous article identified some of the challenges to maintaining a large number of high-tech classrooms constructed with traditional presentation technology, namely that the exorbitant cost of upkeep transforms great classrooms into “fiscal alligators” that ravage funding pools. Let’s take a closer look at one big-ticket item: the display system.
A few assumptions
- Until digital wallpaper is perfected, there is no getting around the need for a projected image in a classroom or conference room with more than twenty seats or so.
- Integral to learning (and dominating every aspect of our lives), the big-picture genie cannot be put back into the bottle. In the near future, expect to find large digital displays everywhere.
- For text to be readable, the height of a projected image must be at least one-sixth the distance to the farthest viewer (one-fifth is even better). No one takes binoculars to class unless they’re on a bird watching field trip.
- For any image to be easily readable, it must offer sufficient contrast (black text on white background) and color clarity. A bright projector (greater than 3500 ANSI lumens) is needed. No one ever complains that the projected image is too bright. No one should have to dim the lights while teaching unless they’re teaching 20th-Century photo processing.
- It is unclear whether flat panels offer greater practical longevity than projectors, despite manufacturers’ claims to the contrary. Let’s play it safe and assume they also have a useful life of about four or five years.
- DVI is not going to solve all our problems. 99.9% of the classroom systems currently in place utilize analog video processing. Most laptops in service still have VGA (analog) video outputs. Hoping to solve a plumbing compatibility problem withyet more plumbing seems counter-intuitive and costly.
|A projector’s replacement is precipitated not by the exhaustion of its innards, but by its advancing incompatibility, which diminishes trouble-free operation.|
As a primary contributor to unsustainable conditions, consider the data projector (or any type of large-format digital display, for that matter). Much like computers, data projectors have a useful life of less than five-years: after four years, a projector’s replacement is precipitated not by the exhaustion of its innards, but by its advancing incompatibility with outboard signal sources (i.e. computers), which diminishes trouble-free operation.
Take that shiny new ThinkPad or iBook: It contains everything Professor-X needs to teach class. The first time he tries to use it in class, he encounters difficulties. Valuable class time is lost and, though initially enthusiastic, over time, Professor-X may grow disinclined to use tech for teaching in front of students after wasting time fiddling with cryptic screen resolution “compatibility settings” to coax the 5-year old classroom projector to display properly.
Is the projector “broken”? Hardly. It is doing exactly what it was designed to do. What no projector manufacturer can (or is yet willing to) bake into its product is the ability for the device to guess what crazy combination of video frequencies and resolutions Lenovo and Apple laptops may use five years in the future.
(Note to self: How is it that computer companies are able to utilize Flash-ROM to upgrade firmware, but not projector manufacturers?)
And so, once a year, classroom hotlines at campuses all across the country replaces perfectly good (or at least not entirely worn out) four-year-old projectors at a cost of up to $3-4k per unit. For example, if a campus has about 200 projectors in service, one-quarter of their installed units (50 projectors) must be replaced annually at a cost of about $200k. That’s $1M every five years just for projectors!
So, what happens if a large institution like UNC skips a year? When faced with a host of unpopular budget cuts, what if the powers-that-be put their foot down and just say ‘no’ to pesky requests for lifecycle money? These days, budget constraints compel many campuses to adopt a “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach by deferring lifecycle activities in order to mitigate short-term funding shortages. In doing so, support personnel cross their fingers, hope for the best, and pass over the replacement of a finicky old LCD projector for an additional year.* Over time, lifecycle deferments contribute to a ripple effect…
Class time delays. Users (faculty and students) who attempt to connect new computers to old, finicky projectors are likely to encounter (what they perceive to be) malfunctions because older projectors have difficulty rendering foreign video signals into a digital image.
Increased service requests. Users who encounter projection difficulties place service calls to “fix the broken projector that won’t display my laptop image.”
Reduced operational capacity. Service calls consume man-hours and, these days, personnel are in short supply. Busying support staff with outbound service calls that result in “no trouble found” depletes support organizations of reserve capacity essential to address real emergencies and high-priority activities such as video conference support, calls from customers who have pre-paid Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and scheduled event support.
Diminished confidence in classrooms and support operations. What conclusions do customers draw when they experience technical difficulties, file service tickets and receive the message that the technician found “…nothing wrong with the projector, it could be your laptop…”? What do they conclude when the same problem occurs the next time they teach in the same room? Then, once again in a different room? With the accumulation of “negative press” what is the probability that a service unit under scrutiny can make a compelling case for increased funding?
|Short-term tactics to contain costs may impact students and faculty who suffer from lost learning time.|
Reduced use of technology in teaching. Once bitten, twice shy. It is operant conditioning. People prefer not to use stuff that fails, and will stay away in droves when burned (and embarrassed) repeatedly. Welcome back to the 20th-Century.
Arbitrarily lengthening critical equipment life cycles by decree may not serve to reduce total costs as much as to shift operational costs from hardware (replacing clunky with compatible) to labor (furnishing self-service classrooms with on-site technicians to mitigate hardware quirks). Short-term tactics to contain costs may impact students and faculty who suffer from lost learning time. Classroom operations (classroom systems and support personnel) may be jeopardized as a result of a justifiable loss of customer confidence — a consequence of bad experiences with finicky technology beyond its functional duty cycle.
*For many readers, rejected lifecycle requests are the status quo. Ask yourself, for how many years might the fates protect you from catastrophic system failure before system usability has deteriorated across-the-board with little hope of catching up?
||by Joe Schuch|