TechFront: Updating Classroom Displays

I’ve been asked in different contexts lately to explain why we are moving away from SMART Boards in classrooms. Here are some of my answers.

Why we are moving away from SMART Boards. 

SMART Boards were great technology 8-10 years ago, before the emergence of touch-sensitive tablet and laptop screens. They were made to complement the standard laptop/desktop at the time which had a 4:3 aspect ratio with a maximum 1024×768 display. The image from a standard projector was 4:3 and would fill the SMART Board screen completely, providing teachers with an amazing 60” display that would incorporate material from their computer on the screen.

Unfortunately, as we know, most teachers never adopted the full range of use for the SMART Board and use it simply as a projection surface (many still refer to turning on the projector as “turning on the SMART Board”). So, in most classrooms, there will not be a loss of functionality because it was never adopted.

Computers over the last 5 years have moved from a 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9 with HD displays (generally 1280×720 or higher). Even our 4-year old teacher laptops have this problem. So a teacher has 2 choices—go with the 1024×768 image (which reduces the size of their image on the teacher laptop) or force the 1366×768 (best image on the old laptop), but doing so letterboxes the projected image.

1366x768 1024x768
Old teacher laptop with 1366×768 recommended resolution Old teacher laptop with 1024×768 image for projection onto 4:3 SMART Board (notice black borders on the sides of the display)
1366x768 Letterbox 4:3
Projected image from old teacher laptop with 1366×768 image size—notice the substantial letterboxing at the top and bottom which results in a smaller projected image in the classroom Projected image from old teacher laptop with 1024×768 image size—provides the largest possible 4:3 projected image

Is it absolutely necessary that we move away from SMART Boards?  And if, so, why? 

If we want to stick with smaller images, we can keep the SMART Boards. But why would we want that limitation?

SMART changed their software licensing model. They used to offer free perpetual upgrades. That ended 2 years ago. In order to use the SMART Board AS a SMART Board (with its own software and drivers) we would need to purchase annual maintenance agreements (which seems like a waste of money if teachers are not using  the SMART Board functionality currently).

Again, the big issue is NOT the SMART Board, it’s the projector.

But we MUST replace the current end of life projectors, even if the decision is made to continue using the SMART Boards as projection surfaces.

Besides being not high enough resolution, the old projectors are 2,000 lumens, the new ones are 3300 lumens. The replacement bulbs for the old ones are prohibitively expensive ($315 or more) and increasingly hard to come by. We need to use adapters to connect new DVD players because the old projectors don’t have HDMI input.

There is some concern that we have to move away from SMART Boards because they don’t integrate with our Surfaces.  Which begs the question of why, then, did we go with Surfaces as our choice of faculty computers?  (And if they don’t integrate with SMART Boards, what have the MS teachers been doing all year?)

The Surface can be used with the SMART Board as an interactive device (using the pens to write on the surface, touching the screen to move objects, etc.), but doing so would require the teacher to plug a USB cable into the Surface and be stationary in the classroom (much as they are now with docked laptops near the SMART Board).

Rather than a touch sensitive classroom display device (which was revolutionary in its day), teachers now have a touch-sensitive portable device on which they can write and show content from anywhere in the room to the main classroom display or, through LanSchool, to individual student device screens. Teachers can project student screens, through LanSchool, to the classroom display.

Again, the big issue is NOT the SMART Board, it’s the projector.

All of the 7th grade classrooms, except for XXXX’s (which was the next classroom on the list to be updated), have had the displays updated. The last one completed was XXXX’s. She had a SMART Board that was off-center in the classroom (located at the end of her whiteboard) and a very letterboxed image on it. The forced change in resolution caused by the projector (not by the SMART Board) made it almost impossible for her to write on her Surface (writing would show up randomly on the screen as the Surface tried to compensate for the distorted image). Once we got a new projector that would project the true image, the problem went away.

When we purchased the SMART Boards, they were the BEST game in town. They offered the potential for teachers to use them interactively in the classroom (I certainly used it for that when I was still teaching). But no one foresaw tablets or touch-sensitive laptop screens when that investment was made. As to the projectors, they were the best offered at that price at the time.

But as we know, technology has changed and our options for classroom devices have changed as well.

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