Data projectors and bright presentation machines—they’re the overhead projectors of the 21st century classroom, projecting an image from the teacher’s computer and dazzling the students with a colorful display of educational material.

Virtually all teachers are wowed when they see the technology in action at technology fairs and training facilities, but few actually possess the projectors for their own classrooms.

The reason why is obvious; decent quality portable projectors are still in the four to five thousand dollar range. Yet prices are beginning to fall rapidly, and more and more projectors are headed for classrooms. Technology grants also are helping teachers obtain these versatile devices.

Data projectors, which shine an image onto a screen or wall, are the most desirable presentation equipment for teachers. Yet, because they are so expensive, other technologies have emerged to bridge the gap for less affluent schools.

In-line data converters, like Averkey and ProPresenter Plus, are low cost-devices (less than $300) which convert a computer signal into a television signal. These work well for large graphics, but smaller text doesn’t project well onto the poorer pixel resolution of standard televisions.

Presentation monitors

Presentation monitors, large-screen computer terminals that may also have television tuners, have been extremely popular in the past three years. The release of the Gateway Destination line with large-screen monitors and Pentium workstations was seen as a low-cost solution—under $3000—to get a computer and a projection system in one unit. When prices for fast PC computers fell below $1000 last year, some schools bought just the Gateway monitors for less than $1300 and used their own computers to power them.

High school teacher Stan Treanor of Merkel, Texas, has used a large-screen Gateway monitor in his classroom for the past two years. He reports the resolution is great for displaying graphical concepts in his physics and computer science classes: “Flow charts and graphs display well, even to students in the back row.” But Treanor admits that a data projector would be superior for his teaching methods, and this is a common refrain heard among users of large-screen monitors.

I also used a 34-inch NetTV monitor in a small training lab this summer and found it was pretty unreadable for regular text sizes beyond eight feet from the screen.

These big-screen monitors also can be pretty hefty. NetTV’s largest unit is a 38-inch device with 36 viewable inches and weighs 200 pounds (the one I used is the company’s most popular unit, and it logs in at a slightly less staggering 156 pounds). A really strong cart is needed ($550 for a PTC-111 Luxor cart with 8-inch pneumatic wheels), as well as two strong people to lift it onto the cart. You won’t be hauling this unit across the playground to the gym to show The Lion King on a regular basis.

On the bleeding edge of large-screen presentation devices are plasma monitors, which start around $6000 and zoom up to more than $15,000 for a large wall unit. Gateway’s web site sells the Mitsubishi 40-inch plasma monitor for $6099, and even at that price it is frequently out of stock. NEC also has some outstanding plasma monitors, including the high-resolution PlasmaSync 5000W model with 50 inches of viewing area.

Another high-end product is the TFT (Thin Film Transistor) monitor. Sony Corp. sells several models, from a sub-$2000, 36-inch model up to a $9,000 50-inch TFT monitor (which is 24 inches deep and weighs 106 pounds). Only the schools with generous philanthropists or grants will be able to see that 50-inch wunderkind in action.

Data projectors

In the highly competitive data projection market, prices have fallen rapidly in the past several years and they continue to be in flux. There are only about a dozen producers of internal parts for data projectors, and from those few suppliers, more than 120 companies vie for your business. It’s become such a feeding frenzy that many vendors rarely publish price lists, as prices are constantly changing.

Units that were $11,000 three years ago are now selling for half that price, and prices are still headed downward. For data projectors to vigorously penetrate the massive untapped market of the 21st century classroom, though, prices would have to fall below the $1,000 range for a 1,000 lumen projector. If manufacturers can continue to bring down their production costs significantly, there is reason to believe that prices for data projectors could approach those of VCRs in the next few years. How quickly, though, I can’t say.

The new trend in data projectors is toward lightweight portables, called ultraportables. These typically weigh less than 10 pounds and may even weigh less than the average laptop. InFocus has a new ultraportable named the Dragonfly which weighs 4.8 pounds, and the world’s lightest projector, Compaq’s MP1600 Projector, is a tad lighter at 4.2 pounds. But there’s a price to pay for such a small package: these units commonly cost more than heavier ones and have inferior features.

For a traveling presenter who needs to keep his projector safe on a plane trip by carrying it in a Targus Universal case along with a laptop, the ultraportable may be a great projector. But if your projector will be on a cart with wheels or mounted on a ceiling, then a heavier unit would be much more cost effective.

Typically, the small breed of projectors is powered by DLP (Digital Light Processing) technology. DLP is a technology developed by Texas Instruments that involves the use of mirrors (DMDs, or Digital Micromirror Devices).

Critics of DLP projectors say the color hues are slightly worse than a comparably priced LCD projector. Some of that color disparity is noticeable when you compare projectors, but with higher lumen DLP ultraportables like the 7.4 pound InFocus 435z (1,000 lumens and true XGA resolution), the output is exceptionally crisp and clear even in well-lit classrooms.

At a street price of less than $5,000, the InFocus 435z is hot—so hot, in fact, that it is currently one of the most back-ordered units on the market, with a wait of up to two months for delivery. Vendors in Texas report a supply problem originating from Texas Instruments. The DMD chips are being requested by manufacturers faster than TI can make the chips.

Interactive electronic whiteboards

This fast-growing segment of the data projection market uses a freestanding or wall-mounted whiteboard in conjunction with a projector device (DLP or LCD) to provide enhanced interactive capabilities to the presenter and students. Commonly called SMART boards, after the equipment produced by Smart Technologies Inc, the units utilize a touch-sensitive screen to enable a user to click on the computer menus or write with their fingers digitally.

Mary Bell, a public school librarian in Conroe, Texas, uses an interactive electronic whiteboard in her library regularly. She had this to say on how the device benefits her teaching efforts: “I used it today to demonstrate our online library catalog to our new sixth graders. As with previous ‘first’ uses of the board with classes, it was a big success. I used it almost daily last year with ongoing success.”

As part of her doctoral studies at Baylor University, Bell conducted a study of the whiteboard as a teaching tool last winter. The study is online at http://www.baylor.edu/~ Mary_Bell/doccumentss/surveymain.htm.

In her survey of 30 educators who use whiteboards in their classrooms, Bell concluded that, among its users, the whiteboard was favored for presentations over more traditional devices such as overhead projectors, chalkboards, or TVs. In addition, respondents indicated a high degree of positive response from students.

However, some educators who took part in the survey also reported logistical problems with wires, positioning of the boards and other equipment, or moving equipment from one location to another. Some participants who liked the equipment also said they weren’t satisfied that they’d received enough training from the suppliers or from their own institutions.

From her study, Bell made the following recommendations:

1.Training should be considered a high priority. Users should be confident and comfortable with the equipment after initial training, and ongoing discussion with tips and ideas for use would be productive.

2.Colleagues should plan ahead and work together to minimize problems related to the sharing and relocation of equipment.

3. Students should be included in lessons as participants at the board, at the computer, or at both locations in order to fully realize the interactive potential of the boards and in order to gain maximum student response and enthusiasm.

One of the biggest obstacles for widespread integration of whiteboard technology is the expense. The devices come in several flavors: free-standing rear projector models; front projector models; and wall-mounted models with rear projection. The prices range from about $2,000 for a 47-inch model (without projector), up to $13,000 for a complete six-foot rear projected unit.

Smart Technologies founded a grant program in 1997 in partnership with the dealers that sell their products. The program helps schools cut into the expense of the technology with a 25 percent discount on the price of SMART boards. Full details are available at the grant program’s web site: http://www.smarterkids.org.

The recommended brightness for a data projector to shine on the boards is at least 300 to 600 lumens, although a brighter projector will achieve superior performance in a well-lit classroom.

Final observations

Picking the right presentation equipment requires a lot of careful research and pre-planning. Know your operating environment (room lighting conditions, user skill level, positioning of the unit, travel considerations, level of maintenance expected, computer system requirements) beforehand. Factor in the variables of brightness (by far the most common factor mentioned by data projector customers), quality, price, vendor reputation, weight, bulb life, and bulb degradation.

For well-lighted rooms, a 900 to 1,000 lumen projector is fast becoming the minimum standard for mid-priced, portable data projectors in late 1999. By next spring, the 1,250 to 1,400 lumen projectors should assume that role. Try to buy the brightest projector you can for your money, while considering other factors as well.