This past summer, Byron Center Public Schools in Michigan became the first school district in the country to install a new technology that lets users schedule and manage multiple remote information resources–like internet, DVD, satellite, and distance learning–from a desktop computer through a single graphical interface.

The technology’s developer, Innovative Communications Inc. (ICI) of Freeland, Mich., claims to have created “information on demand” with the touch of a computer screen.

“This will be like being able to select and display any piece of information as if it were contained in one giant jukebox,” said Dr. William Skilling, principal of the district’s high school.

Called the “Classroom Resource Management System” (CRMS), the technology evolved from Skilling’s ideas of six or seven years ago. He wanted a way that teachers could access multiple information delivery systems from one PC automatically, at any time and with no difficulty. “The level of difficulty had to be minimal–if an elementary student couldn’t do it, it was too complex,” Skilling said.

He also wanted a system that could incorporate remote information sources as well as site-based ones. “I didn’t want to end up with a glorified media retrieval system,” he said.

Skilling took his ideas to ICI, which specializes in building distance learning and multimedia systems, and ICI created the CRMS system.

How the system works

Using CRMS software, Byron Center teachers can find, schedule, and display information from cable or satellite channels, VHS or DVD titles, distance learning or videoconferencing networks, and the internet from their desktop computers. A touch-screen interface shows a list of all the different media available to them. Touching the satellite icon, for example, calls up a schedule of programming on every available channel, along with the times when each is being used by other teachers in the district.

Teachers can schedule a particular medium for future display or tap into something that’s already in use. At the selected time, or instantly if desired, the information is broadcast into the classroom on two 32-inch monitors.

Videocameras in the classrooms allow students and teachers to participate in videoconferencing and distance learning opportunities. These can be scheduled or initiated directly from the teacher’s desktop, with no special knowledge required.

Ron Reisterer, an educational consultant for ICI, said the system is a useful tool internally as well, since teachers can schedule conferences between multiple rooms inside the same building. “It’s a very powerful tool for team teaching and collaboration between classes, because it eliminates the down time of moving classes into the same room,” he said.

The CRMS software runs on Windows NT, and the system requires three sets of cabling–category 5 cable for the local-area network linking PCs to a server in the head-end room, coaxial cable for radio frequency broadband distribution from the server to the video monitors, and audio cabling to carry sound from the microphones in the classrooms to the head-end room.

Byron Center Public Schools installed CRMS in 29 high-school classrooms over the summer. The entire system–which includes an overhead camera to broadcast documents, two cameras to capture the students and teacher, two 32-inch monitors, and a microphone with echo canceling in each classroom, plus a multiplexer for outside videoconferencing, a file server, satellite dishes, and a system for automatic loading and playing of VHS tapes and DVD discs–cost just over $1 million to install.

But the CRMS system is modular, Reisterer said, so schools can custom-build a system to meet their own needs and budgets. For example, a district could opt to build a CRMS system with just videoconferencing scheduling, or a combination of videoconferencing and satellite scheduling.

“There are other scheduling services that have pieces of [CRMS], like videoconferencing or tilt-rack,” Reisterer said. “But to my knowledge, this is the only one that pulls them all together into one interface.”

Byron Center Public Schools
http://remc8.k12.mi.us/byroncen

Innovative Communications Inc.
http://www.innovativecomm.com