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Reading, Writing, and Technology

Like most first-grade teachers, Shannon Smith at St. Michael Elementary School in Albertville, Minn., never lacks for tasks to keep her busy in the classroom. Wrangling eager students, planning appropriate lessons, and grading assignments are just a few of her daily activities, and with many other "to dos" on her agenda there never seems to be enough time in the school day to get everything accomplished. 

While the promise of classroom technology offers great advantages, for many teachers it often seems like more of an inconvenience than a resource. Using technology to shape lesson plans is important to Smith, but the time it takes to manage the different tools occasionally becomes a challenge. After all, it’s difficult enough to hold the attention of two dozen six-year-olds and keep the lesson plan on schedule, much less figure out how to toggle from one media input to another or adjust the volume.

Located 30 miles northwest of Minneapolis, the 5,000-student St. Michael-Albertville (STMA) School District, where Smith teaches, is not unlike school districts nationwide–eager to bring instructional technology into the classroom, but at the same time somewhat intimidated by the prospect.

Though many districts like STMA have projectors, interactive whiteboards, and sound amplification systems, these tools don’t always realize their full potential, partly because the products were not designed to work as an integrated system. As a result, teachers’ usage of instructional technology tools is compromised. 

At STMA, the district’s technology team was quick to recognize that success required eliminating the disconnect between the technology and teachers like Smith. With a $2 million classroom technology project underway across the district’s eight facilities and 400 classrooms, STMA wouldn’t be measuring success by what technology they’ve installed, but rather by how teachers are using the technology in their daily lessons.

"Teachers and tech directors need to concentrate on the learning environment, not the myriad of potential technical issues," said Wayne Hoistad, STMA’s director of technology. "Technology should be an extension of the teacher and success should be measured by the teacher’s ability to seamlessly integrate technology into the lessons. If it is an inconvenience, then the return on investment isn’t there. It’s one thing to have the tools, but they won’t do much good if they’re not connected and easy to integrate and use in the classroom."

Taking into account teachers’ needs and comfort level, Hoistad and his team developed a technology plan around two principles: the solution had to be easy for teachers to use; and it had to provide the power to harness all of the technology tools available in a seamless manner.

With those goals in mind, STMA determined that a critical factor would be bringing together the various technology elements–from interactive whiteboards to microphones, projectors and computers–through a common control and management platform.

The solution STMA selected was Calypso Systems’ ezRoom Classroom Bundle. The ezRoom solution provides everything districts need to build, manage and use "21st Century Classrooms." Compatible with all standard projects and A/V gear, the ezRoom addresses every classroom technology need. Virtually invisible to teachers and students, the Calypso system would empower the teachers with technology rather than hinder.

Teaching Without 21st Century Technologies  
Before STMA invested in new technology, teachers within the district had the opinion that incorporating technology into their lesson plans was often "more time than it was worth."

"The hassle associated with accessing the available technologies, such as checking out LCD projectors from the library, meant we didn’t use technology everyday," said Matt Rooker, St. Michael-Albertville Senior High School economics, government, and psychology teacher.

In order to use technology in their lesson plans, teachers had to either use LCD projectors, which were shared between multiple instructors, or go to the computer lab, which logistically cut into valuable teaching time. In addition to inconvenience, the LCD projectors and computer labs didn’t accommodate or invite student participation and feedback.

"Information flowed one way–from the teacher to the students–without the option for collaboration," said Roger Bovee, STMA’s curriculum and technology integration coordinator. "Teachers lectured their students, and the students contributed from time to time, but there wasn’t technology in the classrooms that fostered shared teaching and learning."

Although the technology available wasn’t ideal, STMA’s teachers could still see the potential in its use and longed for additional tools that allowed them to share presentations, real-life video examples, and the internet with students in an easier, more engaging manner.

Technology was taking off all around them, yet they weren’t able to bring it into the classroom like they wanted.

A Calculated Plan For New Technology

As the district grew over the years, so did its investment in technology. The district has invested more than $10 million over ten years in classroom technology by incorporating networks, servers, computers, software, printers, scanners, copiers, TVs and VCRs, and, more recently, projectors, sound systems and interactive whiteboards.

Over the span of five years, STMA was in the unique position of planning to open two schools and renovate three others, and in 2004, under the direction of Hoistad, the district took a major step toward bringing technology into daily lesson plans by equipping 25 classrooms in several schools with projectors and interactive whiteboards that were connected to a projector and computer.

A very visible district-wide project, there was a lot of pressure for this transition to be successful. Failure was not an option. For that reason, each step of the way needed to be calculated and tested before rolled out to the entire district. That was why the 25-room beta test was extremely important. The pilot project allowed Hoistad to try out equipment options in real world situations and integrate feedback from teachers as they prepared for the larger-scale district-wide rollout of the technology.

"My team and I had the ultimate plan to incorporate these new technologies into the entire district," said Hoistad. "With this in mind, it was important that the technologies were well received and ultimately used by teachers in the classrooms."

The new SMART Boards and projectors were immediately a hit. Teachers had their own systems and no longer had to check out projectors and share tools with other instructors. Students also enjoyed the freedom and creativity the new technology allowed because it let them to play an active role in the learning process.

Based on the lessons learned in the pilot program, the district equipped its Fieldstone Elementary School (opened in 2007) with SMART Boards, projectors, new sound systems and integrated media control systems.

Eliminating the Disconnect

By 2008, STMA had been actively incorporating technology in the classrooms and the district was beginning to realize the importance of integration as they prepared to install new systems in 150 classrooms.

It was clear that the district needed a sophisticated yet easy-to-use control solution with multiple inputs for audio, video and microphone that allowed teachers to toggle from one media input to another in a seamless manner.

For STMA, affordability, ease of use, and flexibility in programming and expansion were the driving decision-making criteria. After testing a separate system in Fieldstone Elementary that failed to meet the district’s needs, Hoistad and his team wanted a solution with a proven track record. To find a similar but more effective solution, Hoistad enlisted the help of Hallberg Engineering, a mechanical and electrical consulting engineering firm.

The first step in selecting a solution was to determine the scope, schedule and budget allocated for the project, followed by an assessment of the possible solutions. Working together, Hoistad and Hallberg Engineering researched the different solutions available to determine which would meet the needs of the district’s administration, technology team and especially the teachers.

After attending live demonstrations of different solutions and exploring systems that were being effectively used in other Minnesota schools, Hoistad found that Calypso Systems stood out to him above the others because of its cost-effective price. After doing some research, it was determined that Calypso’s products met the district’s other needs by being flexible, easy to use and had a proven track record in other schools.

A complete pre-assembled solution, Calypso’s ezRoom-1000 Classroom Bundle addresses the evolving technology needs of K-12 classrooms by bringing together state-of-the-art control, interface, audio and connectivity, products quickly, reliably, and cost effectively. The ezRoom bundle includes an A/V device controller, A/V switching, audio amplifier, PC user interface and an intuitive operator interface control panel – all fully integrated.

With the addition of a projector, screen and A/V source devices, the ezRoom provides the tools necessary to achieve a 21st century classroom environment. And as STMA brings new technologies and systems into its schools, ezRoom’s open-architecture platform allows for easy integration and expansion.

Before making a purchase decision, Hoistad wanted to test the Calypso solution in the district’s environment, so he put Calypso’s ezRoom bundle in an STMA test classroom to get feedback from teachers.

"The feedback that we received on Calypso was very positive," said Hoistad. "Teachers found it to be easy to use, and Calypso’s solution met all of the district’s initial requirements for a flexible, proven and cost-effective integrated media control solution."

Of similar importance in other districts, the purchase price and the life cost of the solution was a major consideration. What makes Calypso an affordable solution is not only the initial cost of the system, but also the minimal expense of installing the solution in the rooms and the low long-term cost of ownership associated with additions to the system in the future.

ezRoom Makes Technology A Convenience, Not A Hindrance

In the summer of 2008, following the test room set up, the district equipped a total of 150 classrooms in three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school with Calypso Systems’ ezRoom-1000 Classroom Bundle and Wireless Classroom Microphone.

Before the implementation began, Hoistad was concerned about having to install the systems in so many classrooms in such a short amount of time–150 classrooms in just three months, to be exact. This broke down to four rooms a day. If this schedule was not met, the district would not be ready for the school year to begin and would have rippling ramifications for the long-term acceptance of technology in the classroom–it would reinforce the view that it was a hindrance.

To Hoistad’s surprise, the ezRoom-1000 Classroom Bundles were incredibly easy to install. The solutions came as pre-assembled bundles that included all the technology pieces necessary to build out the classrooms. Almost all of the wires and working components were neatly packed inside of a metal box, which took the guesswork out of the installation. Once the ezRoom bundles were in place, the solution start-up was also simple. 

"The pre-assembled, packaged aspect of the ezRoom made installation a breeze, so the installer didn’t have to waste time dealing with cumbersome wiring. This was one of the reasons we were able to finish the installation on time," said Hoistad. "Once in place and ready to be tested, everything with the ezRooms went smoothly with very few bugs to work out. Anytime we encountered any sort of issue with the products, Calypso always provided a solution."

Like most of the recent technology upgrades, the ezRoom-1000 Classroom Bundle and Wireless Classroom Microphone were exciting to teachers, yet there was still some hesitation to dive into another new technology. Roger Bovee provided staff training and mentoring to facilitate the integration of the new technology into the curriculum, demonstrating to teachers how effortlessly Calypso Systems’ solutions made using instructional technology.

For teachers, the ezRoom bundle is an invisible component–both physically and functionally. Secured neatly above the projector, just inches from the ceiling, the box that contains most of the ezRoom’s working parts integrates with the other technologies out of sight from the teacher and the students. A button control panel on the wall is the only immediately visible indicator that a control system is in place.

In terms of functionality, the things that the ezRoom can do–such as power and drive different technologies and help teachers quickly and easily switch between multiple inputs–are "invisible" as well. The integration of the existing technologies provided by the ezRoom bundle is so seamless that many teachers have a difficult time distinguishing where one technology tool ends and the next begins.

The solution also allows teachers to do things that previously seemed too time-consuming. Debra Middleton, sixth-grade teacher, no longer uses her TV and VCR. Instead, she uses the ezRoom bundle to stream daily audio and video announcements directly through her projector. "The ezRoom bundle is simple and reliable," said Middleton. "Not only does it make navigating the technologies easier than before, I can also trust that it will always work."

Calypso’s Wireless Classroom Microphone was also a part of the technology upgrade and now acts as an extension of the teachers. Used by both teachers and students, it allows teachers to be heard over classroom chatter and allows students to speak up and participate during group activities. Students pass the microphones around the room to help them share information with the class, amplifying quiet voices and making them easy to hear by the other students.

"My students and I use the microphone system frequently to create interactive lessons," said second-grade teacher Stephanie Al-Rifai. "The student microphones allow the children to be more engaged in what we’re doing, and the teacher microphone lowers the stress level for me since I don’t have to raise my voice to be heard."

Al-Rifai even jokes that because of the wireless microphone she now experiences fewer sore throats.

Integration That Works

With the Calypso Systems solutions in place, the STMA district is finally able to measure its success by not only what technology they have, but rather by how easily and how often teachers are using technology in their daily lesson plans.

With the new Calypso Systems solutions, first-grade teacher Shannon Smith can now focus on teaching her students and not worry about how to manage and control the different technologies in her classroom.

"I want the best learning experiences for my first-grade students, but fighting with the technologies to make them work together was not something that I had time for," said Smith. "The ezRoom bundle and wireless microphone solutions allow me to forget about how the technology works, and focus on actually using it to teach the students."

As the glue that holds the pieces together and drives the easy integration of instructional technology in classrooms, Calypso Systems’ ezRoom-1000 Classroom Bundle and Wireless Classroom Microphone have provided the return on investment that the district wanted.

"In the end, the success of a project like this is measured by how often the technology is used by teachers to improve their instruction and ultimately student achievement," said Smith. "In our district, we now use technology to shape lesson plans everyday."

Wayne E. Buse, RCDD, is the senior technology consultant with Hallberg Engineering, Inc., located in St. Paul, Minn.  He has an extensive background in technology systems design and integration, and using detailed plans and specifications for clients within and outside the Twin Cities metro area.


Calypso Systems.

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