Interactive technology for the classroom is one of the fastest growing segments in education, and offers tremendous potential for improving the learning process. Educators may or may not know that the technology currently exists to allow them to annotate and interact with the material they present on their classroom projector. Lesson plans may be easily captured and shared online enhancing their interaction with students and engaging them with a visual component to the intellectual stimulus.

The classic example of interactivity in the classroom environment was always the traditional classroom blackboard. But in recent years the blackboard has given way to the pairing of short throw projectors with interactive whiteboards, allowing the group interactivity of the blackboard to be merged with the content of the PC to form a powerful learning and teaching platform.

Dedicated interactive whiteboards can cost upwards of several thousand dollars each though, and are therefore out of the reach of many school districts. They also are also somewhat limited in terms of flexibility. They cannot be moved easily between classrooms and smaller rooms may not have the necessary space to install one.

Fortunately front projection technology has also been rapidly evolving over the past several years. One of the most significant recent developments has involved the embedding of the interactive function directly into the projector itself, and this has removed many of the limitations of the former solution. First introduced to the market last year, the most obvious benefit came in the form of lower cost. At less than a third the cost of an equivalent short throw projector plus an interactive white board solution, this solution is allowing schools to invest in a greater number of interactive setups on a smaller budget.

The first generation of interactive short throw projectors still had a few limitations left over from the interactive white board legacy including a cumbersome setup and calibration process. This meant that while an interactive projector had better mobility than an interactive white board, it still needed extensive calibration every time it was moved and the interactive surface was limited to a screen size between 59" to 96."

Texas Instrument's Pointblank technology has allowed projector manufacturers to implement an interactive function directly into a projector in such a way that the entire surface becomes an interactive workspace, and no calibration is ever required. An interactive projector should include all of the components needed to complete the interactive set-up, including the software, and a camera-fitted pen that creates a pixel-by-pixel view of the screen that turns any surface into an interactive whiteboard.

Interactivity on a Classroom Budget

Not too long ago, the cost of purchasing an interactive classroom set-up would have been out of reach of many school districts. However, recent advances have resulted in large price declines for interactive technology. This decline has accelerated as more participants join the segment, and content becomes more widely available.

There are two ways to implement interactive learning technologies within a place of learning. The first is a new installation. In this instance, the schools must invest in an interactive projector, a basic screen if they do not have one already and a ceiling or wall mount for the projector itself. For education organizations looking to purchase a new projection solution, they should look for an offering with full network display functionality. This is so that the device will be able to connect globally over the Internet via IP to access other learning sites remotely, while also offering classroom-to-classroom connectivity.

For educators that already have a projection system in place and do not wish to - or cannot - replace their current solution, there are cost-effective technologies that can be implemented to make the benefits of an interactive classroom possible. One example of this is a unique interactive solution from Luidia called eBeam Technology. This portable bar is about the size of a chalkboard eraser and integrates with standard projectors and computers to transform existing whiteboards into interactive whiteboards.

The eBeam system consists of a sensor, interactive pen and software, enabling any projector to become interactive at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated interactive whiteboard solution. The result is that teachers have a portable and affordable solution to bringing interactive learning to their classrooms.

So how much does it cost to break into the world of interactive technology? That depends on if you are looking to purchase a new projector or enhance the ones you have. Currently, there are interactive projectors available from BenQ, Boxlight, Epson, InFocus and ViewSonic.* The lowest cost solution on the market with everything needed to get started, including the projector, interactive pen and software is currently at a street price of around $1,100. To implement a portable solution that can be moved from classroom to classroom to transform existing education technology, the cost is typically below $900.

There are similar discrete interactive solutions available from companies such as Mimio and AverMedia that can be implemented with any existing projectors. While not quite as small and portable as the eBeam Edge solution, these can still be implemented with any existing projectors at just a fraction of the cost of installing a dedicated interactive white board.

Benefits of Interactivity in Schools

From traditional math, to science and social studies to student-created presentations and group projects, interactive technology has evolved into an extremely valuable resource in the classroom. Rather than just being a presentation medium, the projector has become a tool for elaborating upon and annotating digital content, linking to supplemental material online, and serving as an impetus for fostering group discussion, decision-making and increasing students' classroom participation. For instance, an interactive lesson plan in an 8th grade geometry class might include tutorials for using a protractor and compass, providing students the opportunity to test their new found knowledge directly with the virtual tools. This type of interactive lesson helps adds a new dimension to the learning process with audio, visual, and a positive feedback mechanism. But the ultimate benefits will be realized in increased test scores, and more analytical students with the ability to discern problems and solutions.

Interactive technology provides a better forum for teachers to present, instruct, and demonstrate ideas. Going far beyond a simple presentation, lessons on an interactive platform can easily be saved and used again later. Teachers are able to engage with an entire classroom at the same time, and save tremendous amounts of time in preparing the curriculum, which means they can spend more time teaching, and less time preparing to teach. Furthermore, educators can annotate lesson materials while they teach, and save their explanations for future use.

What the Future Holds

Over the next few years, we can expect to see the development of more immersive interactive content, and ultimately 3D visualization technology that will further enhance teaching techniques. This is the leading edge today, but we can expect it to become mainstream as more 3D content becomes available and the methods for sharing and standardizing content are refined. This is just the beginning of a more stimulating and efficient learning environment for our students.

*The ViewSonic PJD7383i is currently the lowest cost interactive projection solution on the market.

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