If yours is one of the lucky schools that has received a boost in technology funds, you might find yourself in the position of trying to figure out where exactly to put all those new computers. Or maybe you just need to try and update an existing older lab. Whatever your needs, this month eSchool News brings you the latest ins and outs about instructional media labs.

A Historical look at Computer Lab Configurations

The Pod Shape – Several computers in a circular island table layout

For many years computers were smaller (remember those darling little Mac Classics?) and the configuration of labs was not difficult. The pod design, with a riser table above for printers, worked great when smaller Mac computers were linked through Localtalk. It also worked well for PCs using a shared printer switcher box to the printers above. But several things have happened in the past few years to lessen the popularity of the pod configuration, although it is still used successfully in some schools (see the Roby ISD sidebar, page 41).

The growth of the direct internet connections in schools has meant teachers need to supervise student screens on a constant basis. With the pod design it just isn’t possible to monitor all the screens easily without the teacher using roller skates. Another factor that has led to the decline of pods is the increasing size of computer systems. The growth of Ethernet networks has also meant more cables are needed to run to the pod islands creating even more overhead conduit usage, and remember, too, that peripherals like scanners need table real estate. All this growth has meant that tables need to have greater depth and length to accommodate the machinery and let students work comfortably–not condusive to the pod arrangement.

The Row Shape – Computers arranged in classroom rows of desks or tables throughout the middle

The row shape was the next stage after the pod arrangement began to die out. Prefabricated computer tables (preferably with built-in channels for wiring) were lined up across the center of the room either in vertical or horizontal rows to the teacher’s workstation. Since very few teachers had decent projection equipment there wasn’t any great need to focus the student’s attention at times on output from the teacher’s computer.

Also, like the pod design, teachers experienced numerous blind spots in supervising student activity, and the rapid growth of internet integration made this shortcoming even more troubling.

The V or U-Shape – Computers arranged consecutively along the outside walls

For the money, the arrangement of computers along outer walls may be the best bet. In the V-shape, two walls of computers are easily monitored by the instructor. The U-shape utilizes three or even all four walls for student workstations. The advantages of easy visual monitoring and efficient access to wall outlets and cabling makes this design the fastest growing layout for instructional media labs.

In many cases the schools combine the U-shaped design with the row design to allow for many more computers in a lab. For an elementary lab, more than one educator may need to circulate and help the pupils. For secondary students, it’s much better to have some free space in the middle of the room so the teacher can rapidly assist and monitor all the students and they can also have room to move around.

A small middle section designed for scanner workstations or digital imagery equipment would be preferable to excessive congestion in a jam-packed combination lab.

The Tiered Shape – Computers arranged on split level flooring

The instructional media lab of the future may well be modeled after college lecture halls. Tiered split level rows of tables with theater chairs face a lower staged projection area. These rows of tables may not even contain a desktop computer other than a few designated on the stage or side walls for scanners, CD and DVD burners, and digital imagery equipment. Instead, the upper rows of tables will have connections for laptop computers which the students will either bring to class or a classroom set will remain on the tables. A high quality DLP projector with double or triple mirrors will be ceiling-mounted to provide huge projection images of video and computer output. The instructor will use remote controls to activate demonstrations on the giant screen while circulating behind the students to view their progress.

What’s Hot in Media Hardware

What are the “essentials” of high-tech media labs? Here’s a look at the best of the new peripherals–drives and recorders and cameras, scanners and printers–as well as what you’ll find inside the best lab computers.

Digital cameras & video

Digital cameras–practically a necessity for sophisticated web page development–are becoming an affordable item for schools. There is, however, a vast number of cheap digital cameras that produce low quality pictures. The 640 by 480 resolution you see advertised everywhere is actually considered pretty poor quality for pictures in 1998. The knowledgeable users will tell you to save your money for a camera that delivers megapixel (millions of pixels). Thinking you can’t afford a megapixel camera? Check out Kodak’s web site. You’ll find refurbished Kodak DC 120 models for $399 (new ones are retailing for $499).

If you’re considering producing video clips in the classroom you might want to know about what’s happening in video camera technology. Digital cameras are beginning to slowly replace our older camera technologies. The quality of digital film is quite excellent and when you start editing or making copies you will really see the advantages of digital cameras. Copy degradation is virtually nonexistent in the digital world.

Even if you can’t swing $2,000 for a digital movie camera there is another bridge alternative. The newest camcorders from Sony and other camera companies have incorporated DV (digital video) interfaces for their analog cameras. A connection technology originally invented by Apple Computer called FireWire has evolved into an interface standard called IEEE 1394. Sony has developed an interface using IEEE 1394 that has been adopted by virtually all of the leading video camera manufacturers in the world. This little connector (smaller than a USB connection) allows for a complete digital connection and removes the need for separate video, audio, and control connectors while at the same time improving the video and audio quality. You need a separate video editing card at this time to utilize this feature, but in the near future computer motherboards will incorporate the new connector much like USB has moved into the standard motherboard.

CD-ROM/DVD

CD-ROM burners have dropped to low prices (although you’ll still spend $500-$700 for the better rewritable CD units). The CD blanks have also gone down in price, although be forewarned that the production of CDs by consumers is still far from an easy task. Later on, DVD-ROM recorders will become the next generation of consumer recorders, but that’s still a remote blip on the radar.

What about DVD-ROM drives? Are they ready for prime time? A lot of people wouldn’t buy a new system now without one. DVD-ROM is backwardly compatible with regular CD disks, and if you get the MultiRead DVD drives it will also read your home-burned CD disks. Virtually all DVD drives should now come with an MPEG-2 decoder to view DVD movies, but double-check your vendor to ensure you get this necessary feature (which may be hardware or software aided) on your new system. Another good thing to know is that the 2X number seen on DVD specifications means they will read regular CDs at the speed of a 20X CD-ROM drive.

Now, there isn’t a lot of software yet for the DVD-ROM, but it’s coming … and soon. Most of the major software vendors have already quietly begun making DVD versions of their popular CD titles and the greater disk space will allow for huge multimedia content. According to Jim Taylor’s FAQ for a popular newsgroup (rec.video.dvd), more than 100 titles are expected to be available by March of 1999 with over 250 available by the end of the year.

Scanners

One of the stories of the year has to be scanners. Prices are dropping to new lows. In some cases computer stores are giving them away for buying a new hard drive. Yet you’ll get what you pay for with a cheap scanner. They may work fine on simple photo scanning, but for better OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to convert hard copies of text documents you may find their bundled software is pretty lame. Even the more expensive scanners don’t have full blown versions of OCR software. To really excel in that area you will need one of the full versions like Caere’s best-selling Omnipage Pro or Xerox’s Textbridge. Both are excellent products, but Caere may have an edge in ease of use and accuracy.

Hard drives

The well-equipped computer lab is also going to have huge hard drives–bigger than 5 Gigabytes as the average size in 1998 — and an external Jaz drive to help backup and move large files. With hard drive prices at an all-time low it now makes sense to consider buying a second hard drive on “mission critical” machines like your file server and do a full mirrored backup on a nightly basis.

What about RAM, and CPU speed? In 1998 we have seen PC and Mac alike move toward 64 MB as being the minimum amount of RAM. To be sure there are lots of machines still coming with 32 MB or less (the iMac being a notable example), but with RAM prices at an alltime low it doesn’t make much sense to scrimp on RAM.

Buy as much as you can afford, because schools will be using these machines for the next ten to fifteen years. More RAM now will help those machines age gracefully. The same goes for CPU chips. Buy the fastest you can afford for your budget and try to get motherboards that have the ability to upgrade later on when high speed upgrade chips finally drop way down in price. Extending the life of a computer with a RAM and CPU upgrade is one of the most cost efficient procedures you can do for older computers.

Printers

Of course, computers are worthless without a good printer and in 1998 schools have a great selection of printers at the lowest prices in years. Top-of-the-line honors go to Hewlett Packard’s 890 Deskjet, which runs about $375. For fast network laser printing, it’s hard to beat HP printers, although the Lexmark printers are certainly a class act. Color laser printers are still a little steep for most schools, but that may change in 1999 with new printers from Tektronix and Xerox. It would be nice if manufacturers would hold down the costs for printer consumables, but unfortunately ink resales have become 60% of their business and a huge profitmaker for those companies.

Caere Corp.
http://www.caere.com

Digital imagery links
http://camalott.com/~rssmith/digital.htm

DVD Frequently Asked Questions
http://www.videodiscovery.com/vdyweb/dvd/dvdfaq.html

Hewlett Packard
http://www.hp.com

Kodak
http://www.kodak.com

Lexmark
http://www.lexmark.com

Tips on successful CD production
http://camalott.com/~rssmith/cdr.htm