Choosing the Right Classroom Display System

Schools ready to replace their existing classroom display systems have some good options to consider, but none are without drawbacks.

by / August 14, 2018 0

Many schools and districts have invested heavily in interactive whiteboards (IWB’s) for their classrooms. But when these IWB’s reach their end-of-life and are ready for replacement, schools must decide whether to purchase new ones or go a different route for their classroom projection systems. 

When I was a school district educational technology director, I was involved in purchasing many IWB’s. And, unfortunately, they became one of the standard items for schools wishing to reinvent themselves as “high tech.” I say “unfortunately” because, too often, the primary purpose of these IWB’s was as a glitzy marketing tool for the school, and the boards didn’t serve an instructional purpose equal to the high cost for their purchase and maintenance. 

Also, getting teachers trained to use their boards for instruction was a challenge. Our ed tech staff spent a disproportionate amount of time providing IWB training sessions, but too often the participating teachers’ buy-in was minimal. Using their IWB either wasn’t well suited to the teachers’ instructional methods, or they didn’t have the time to invest in learning how to use their boards’ interactive features. 

However, when the teachers did engage and used some of their boards’ interactive functions, it was usually in the “all eyes towards the front, pay attention to me” model. I rarely saw students using the boards, which continues to be true today when I visit classrooms with IWB’s. As schools increasingly move to personalized learning and small group instruction, school leaders should consider the real need for expensive technology, which is often just used for whole class, teacher-led instruction. However, there are some features in new IWB’s that could promote their use in different and better ways. For schools ready to replace their old IWB’s, there are also some other good alternatives to consider:

Flat Panel Displays  

Essentially large screen televisions, when connected to a computing device — wirelessly or with a cable — they offer a clear, high-definition (HD) image. The LED technologies used in these displays continue to advance, and the display costs are going down. 

Interactive Flat Panel Displays 

They appear to be flat panel displays, but they have touchscreen features that make them interactive in the same manner as IWB’s with mounted projectors. 

Flat Panel Display Pros:

  • Can be securely wall mounted at minimal expense.
  • Provide a clear, high-resolution or HD image that works especially well in rooms with glare from windows or overhead lighting.
  • Most flat panel displays come equipped with built-in speakers, or a speaker bar can be attached.
  • With a wireless system feature, teachers or students can project to the panel from anywhere in the classroom, and potentially with any wireless laptop or tablet device.
  • Minimal ongoing maintenance. 
  • Can be easy to set up, maintain and use with minimal teacher training. 

Flat Panel Display Cons:

  • Unless the panel is sized appropriately, viewing throughout a whole classroom can be a challenge, especially for text. The larger the panel, the greater the expense and mounting weight. 
  • Initial cost and installation, especially for large-sized panels, can exceed that of IWB’s.
  • Some displays only connect wirelessly with devices running certain operating systems and apps, such as GoogleCast (Google’s app for wireless screencasting).

Interactive Whiteboards

Since the early days of IWB’s when SMART and Promethean dominated the market, there are now more IWB vendors, and the newer boards have features with the potential for use beyond whole group instruction. In newer IWB’s, special pens are no longer needed and one can operate the board with just the touch of a finger. Also, projector bulb lifespans have increased and their costs have dropped, addressing a major headache in earlier models. And some projectors are now lamp free, doing away with bulbs altogether.  

IWB Pros:

  • Due to the large size of the boards, they can usually be viewed from anywhere in the classroom.
  • Like flat panel displays, newer IWB’s allow users to connect to them with wireless devices to project their screen image on the board from throughout the classroom.

IWB Cons:

  • Initial cost and installation.
  • Separate speaker system purchase and installation are often required.
  • Ongoing maintenance is periodically needed — replacing projector bulbs, cleaning projector fans and board calibration.
  • The brightness of the IWB’s projected image may require window blinds to be closed and overhead lights dimmed, making them less conducive for impromptu use. 
  • Teacher training on the use of the boards’ software and interactive features can be extensive. 

Interactive Projectors

There is also another interesting alternative to IWB’s: Interactive projectors — like the Epson BrightLink — that display an interactive image onto almost any clean, flat white surface, like a classroom wall or whiteboard.

In the final analysis, selecting the right classroom projection solution will depend on teachers’ needs and their willingness to become skilled in the systems’ use. For some teachers, a non-interactive projection solution will be fine. While for others, the interactive features will be important. 

Here’s a dilemma for schools and districts wanting to uniformly outfit all classrooms with a single classroom projection system: Spending the extra funds for interactive classroom display systems when the interactive features will only be used by a portion of the teachers. Though not a perfect solution, I subscribe to the “only put ‘em where they’ll get used” method for the distribution of interactive classroom displays. And in the other classrooms, go with less expensive non-interactive display systems. 

It has been disheartening to see so many districts make significant financial investments when they jump on the IWB bandwagon, only to discover, as I did, that they were widely underused. As a result, many district leaders, school boards and taxpayers are justifiably wary of repeating that mistake. 

On a promising note, digital display and projection technologies are advancing at a rapid pace, and there are more and better options than there were five years ago. And one can foresee a not-too-distant future with excellent and affordable wall-size classroom display solutions. However, in the interim, schools are still faced with making hard choices.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.