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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


A backwards look at the evolution of the classroom

By Paul Burt, on 20 January 2014

I started planning this blog post with the intention of writing about our current strategy for classroom Audio Visual (AV) equipment and teaching facilities. However it soon became clear to me that any discussion about the current state of play for classroom equipment is so intertwined with the recent history of the equipment that it would be helpful to first share some thoughts and observations on what we have gained, and possibly lost, in the name of progress in recent decades.
The equipment installed in UCL classrooms, and in classrooms throughout the country, has seen a marked evolution over the past twenty years mainly as a result of the development of the LCD/DLP data projector in the latter half of the 1990’s. Although video projectors had been around for about twenty years prior to that date they had been prohibitively expensive three-lens behemoths that needed regular re-calibration and were typically too heavy to be moved around. For these reasons video/data projectors only really started to appear in the classroom with advent of LCD/DLP projector technology and the resultant shrinking of both the size and cost of the units.
Data projectors either quickly replaced or at least called into question a number of other technologies that were previously commonplace in the classroom:
  • 35mm slide projectors – these went pretty quickly from most classrooms which was probably somewhat premature as this technology offered an image quality that is only just being achieved by today’s best data projectors. However from a support perspective they were prone to jamming and mechanical failures. It is also a fair observation that for many subjects the convenience offered by the data projector was worth the compromise in image quality. The slide projector’s days became numbered as a result of the data projector’s ability to display images when used in conjunction with a PC or laptop
  • Televisions – often mounted on a trolley and combined with a VHS video recorder, these units were a convenience upgrade from 8mm or 16mm cine film projectors. However in the classroom the television always suffered from a number of drawbacks including the fact that the CRT screen was incredibly heavy (resulting in giant trolley bases) and gave a screen size only adequate for smaller learning spaces. Now video content played back from a dedicated video disc player or from a computer can be displayed via the data projector to the whole class in good quality (even in full HD in some of our classrooms).
  • Overhead projectors – from the perspective of AV teams across the country this was the one technology that refused to die when told to. Prior to the data projector the overhead projector (OHP) was the primary way a lecturer could present pre-prepared materials in the classroom. Typed or printed material, including diagrams and images, could be photocopied onto transparency material that was then projected. Areas of the materials could be highlighted by masking off portions of the light source with a piece of card and annotation could be easily added to the slides with pens of any colour. Blank transparency roll could be used as a writing surface that would be progressed throughout the session and then rewound if recapping or a question on earlier material was raised. The technology was inherently simple and thus relatively reliable (most units even held a spare bulb that could switched into play via a lever). In comparison the saved PowerPoint presentation could be seen as a constrictive and non-agile teaching tool. The requirement for either a computer already in the room (a much more recent milestone for most institutions, UCL included) or for the lecturer to own/carry a laptop and know how to perform the apparent black magic of matching resolutions and setting the display to mirror often proved such a barrier that staff would protest at the removal of OHPs (some still linger in the corners of our classrooms). The natural successor to the OHP is the document camera/visualiser linked to the data projector. On first impressions this technology should fulfil most of the purposes people had for OHPs and offer further benefits such as being able to zoom in on objects and for the display to be captured in a lecture recording. However the usefulness of visualisers has also been overplayed in some institutions where they were also looked upon as the solution for the live display of writing which is where the physical design of the visualiser can let things down a little. I’ll expand on this subject, and the importance of the display of live writing, in a subsequent posting.
One general observation that results from the progress that has been achieved by convergence of all classroom presentation technologies onto the data projector is that now it is critical that this one piece of equipment is working. Luckily the failure of data projector lamps is somewhat more predictable than previous projector technologies meaning that good maintenance should prevent interruption to classes and in the near future there is the promise of ‘lampless’ projectors (with non-replacable LED/laser light sources).
As I say at the start of this post, my intention in looking backwards is to ensure we don’t lose sight of some of the good points, along with the many bad points, of what is now the obsolete.

3 Responses to “A backwards look at the evolution of the classroom”

  • 1
    Matt Jenner wrote on 30 January 2014:

    While the data projector did make some substantial leaps forward it also has two malfunctions – you can’t stand between it and the board (unless you’re Professor Shadow Marionette) and you can’t normally write on the board you project on. These two issues may go away, but they’re still hampering the experience. I would have hoped, that by now, we could be looking at short-throw, overhead projectors that are much harder to obstruct (and the angle is all different) or large screens affixed to the wall which can be written on from another panel, say a tablet device which is mirroring the screen.

    Of course there’s further options, such as tablets embedded into every desk space – but this hasn’t really taken off yet.

    Still, hopefully it’s all moving forward and UCL is investing in teaching spaces, so it should only get better… 🙂

  • 2
    Mike Allinson wrote on 1 November 2014:

    Interesting blog it capture the essence of what happened in a simplistic way there were other factors that pushed the dimise of the 35mm projector HE was one of the early adopters of LCD panels using 400w OHP to display them. With out that early adoption the industry may not have gathered pace so quickly. There are those outsid the AV industry who do like to be slightly negative about the visualiser. There is not very much you can’t do on a visualiser that you could do on an OHP. People wrote screeds of information on acetate rolls and refered back to them during the seminars you can can write screeds on paper and fip between pages on a visualiser
    The high of the writing surface is roughly in the same plane as it would have been on an OHP. We have the possibility of Vari height tables these days. The visualiser gives us more options than an OHP ever did we can capture straight to the VLE use 3d objects Change background colours do live demonstrations with out the need for setting up cameras and lighting. It is a better teaching tool than it is given credit for so let’s stop knocking the visualiser and start promoting it as teaching tool it can be

  • 3
    Paul Burt wrote on 3 November 2014:

    Mike, I don’t think I was ‘knocking’ the usefulness of visualisers and in fact I identified most of the same benefits you do. What I was pointing out is that they, in their current form, are not a solution for writing that suits everyone. I know from the email lists I’m on that some institutions, not UCL, had gone as far as removing writing surfaces in classrooms because there was new visualiser to write under and it was this view that I was criticising.
    I’m all in favour of continuing to install visualisers in our teaching spaces and agree that the promotion and training of how to use them effectively is important.

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