Investment in the future

AUTHOR: Inavate

Chris Fitzsimmons reports on exciting new developments at a Southern English secondary school, the Marsh Academy, whose sponsorship from both Microsoft and Tonbridge School has enabled it to invest in new learning spaces and technology to match. The installation of the latest phase has been carried out by RTS, a company which appears not to understand the meaning of the term “off-the-shelf”

Since being granted its Academy status in 2007, the Marsh Academy in New Romney in South East England has undergone a technological transformation. Successive phases of IT development are gearing the school up for its greatest leap yet, the opening of a brand new teaching building in 2012.

In the latest iteration of the development, the academy has transformed the ground floor of one of its newer teaching spaces into a mathematics and general purpose learning block known as MLS2.

During a visit to the site in mid November, Chris Fitzsimmons met with vice principle Lynn Burrows who is responsible for IT in the school, as well as IT technician Oliver and Raj Patel director of systems integrator RTS who carried out the work.

Lynn Burrows began by explaining the background to the project.
“Our vision has very much been about trying to use technology to enhance the learning of our students, rather than having equipment for equipment’s sake. It’s about what we want to achieve in our learning environments, and how the technology can help us with that.

“In 2007 we started off by redesigning some of our older buildings to make sure that what we put into the new buildings is exactly what we need. We’ll only get to spend this money once, so its got to be right.

“The first part was what we call the Marsh Learning Stage. We called it a learning stage because we wanted to rehearse, to try out the props and see what we needed in future. It’s very much the prototype for the space we are in today.”

Following the MLS project, Marsh then moved onto a second phase, called TLS (Theatre Learning Stage) which occupies the first floor the building which now houses phase three MLS2 (Maths Learning Stage).

The ground floor of that building has been reconfigured from a traditional classroom block to accommodate a new open plan arrangement. It features a central plaza space and seven teaching rooms. Primarily designed for maths learning, it can also be booked by other departments who want to take advantage of the new facilities.

Raj Patel went about explaining how his company got involved: “We first met with Lynn at the BETT show in January 2011, and we were then invited to submit a tender in April. At the time it was a fairly lose collection of aspirations and a total budget. We felt that before just sending out a bid into the ether that we should visit the academy and understand what they needed.”

The approach clearly worked as Burrows remarked: “The best response was from RTS. I was very impressed because Raj and his team kept coming down to visit us and match everything to what we needed. He really understood us. It’s very hard for people outside of education to understand what you want to achieve and catch onto it.”

“That’s what we’re all about,” Raj replied. “One of our first projects was a theatre in a performing arts college. I got the team to sit down and read the BTEC syllabus for drama to make sure they understand the requirements of the client and the kids.”

Installation finally began in the second week of august, with the classrooms being completed in time for the start of term in September. The Plaza was delivered a week later once programming was finalised.

The stand out feature of MLS2 is the Plaza area. It’s a flexible learning space, which in total can seat around 90 students in a variety of configurations. It can also be divided into two separate teaching zones.

It benefits from a trio of NEC M230x projectors, two on one wall either side of the teaching position, and a third in zone 2. Each delivers XGA resolution at 2300 lumens. There are also additional displays in the shape of a trio of wall mounted Samsung 42” LCD displays.

The display system, along with the rest of the installed kit, is managed from a central teaching podium. A 55” touch enabled, LED backlit display is mounted on a Unicol parabella mount. The Samsung screen is fitted with a Next window infrared touchinterface, and it acts as the GUI for an AMX TPI-Pro presentation controller fitted to the podium.

But that’s not quite the whole story, the TPI-Pro is commonly used to work with much smaller interactive displays, and certainly isn’t designed to cope with the resolution of a 55” LCD. RTS got around this by building their own custom control circuit board to get the two to talk nicely to each other.

The interface is designed by RTS’s own experiential specialist who tracks user inputs and behaviour on all of the company’s interfaces and feeds that information back into each new design. Simple button presses allow different display configurations and source selection output options. It also displays the source device controls as you would expect and manages the room zoning. From the podium it’s also possible to send the presentation to any of the seven classrooms, and receive their content and allocate it to a display or displays.

The learning environment is important to the academy, as has already been noted, and one aspect of that is the lighting and sound environment. Even early in the process the academy were experimenting with what lighting levels and colours as well as sound scapes that affect student’s learning.

“I’ve found that sound and lighting can have quite a profound effect on kids learning, and on their attitudes,” commented vice principle Burrows.

To aid in that, RTS installed 10 JBL Control 1 speakers and a matching sub woofer in the main plaza, driven by a Crown CT4150 amplifier. Overall DSP on the system is performed by a BSS Soundweb BLU102 audio processor, which Raj describes as “The best DSP unit we work on”.

The lighting control provided Raj and his team another chance to show off their software and integration skills. RTS developed the concept of using a colour wheel on the touch screen to control the colour and temperature of the LED luminaires. However it was then realised that tracking touch locations on a round shape using the AMX controller required more mathematical logic than was available.

“We had to perform trigonometry on circles in order to calculate the positions appropriately, using Cos, Sin and Tan functions which don’t exist on the Netlinx processors. We therefore wrote a whole new software library for it before proceeding. That was pretty complicated, but I understand the feature is going to be incorporated into future releases by AMX. That should make it much more efficient and responsive than our solution which is purely running in software.”

However, all the bells, whistles and custom integration are secondary to the learning and teaching experiences. As Lynn Burrows is quick to remind us.

“The thing is that the technology might be really complex and clever in the background, but it has to be simple for the staff. If you’re putting a member of staff in the class who is not technical minded it has to be simple or they won’t use it.”

Aside from the central area are seven classrooms. These are each equipped with an Epson EB456i interactive projector and a pair of NEC M230x units. Three projectors might seem somewhat excessive for a space that caters for perhaps 30 children at most, but apparently it’s not.

“One of the things that surprised me was that the maths teachers have managed to find a use for all three projectors in their classrooms,” commented Burrows. “They use them without fail.”

Due to some previous bad experiences with the use of touch panels, and also budgetary restrictions, the Marsh Academy opted for push button controls in each of these teach spaces. Poor interface design in the past has led to staff being sceptical about touch systems.

The AMX Novara keypads provide basic source and display selection and power on/off and volume control. Sources can be sent to any or all of the projectors, and can include staff or student laptops or visualisers.

This occurs via VGA input plates built by RTS, and mounted in the wall. These VGA signals are extended over Cat5 to the central rack room, where they are switched using a Magenta Mondo 2 switch.

Also, any content annotated on the interactive projector can then be distributed to the other two and then frozen before returning control back to the primary display.

Audio in the classrooms is provided by Atlona stereo amplifiers paired up with more JBL Control1 speakers.

But what about the people who have to use it day to day? One of those people is Oliver Stelly, an IT technician who has taken a particularly keen interest as he is the one who receives the call when things aren’t going as smoothly as they should.

I wondered if he’d had any particular expectations or requirements for the project.

“We were looking for something that was really structurally sound at the back end, and wasn’t going to have to be looked at daily. Things like an interface from which we could control the whole area, and a reset function to take us back to the original configuration is something went completely wrong.

“Another important issue was to get the cabling laid out well and colour co-ordinated so that we could easily track issues.”

“We're obsessive about cabling,” remarked Patel. “We often find that electricians don’t think carefully about which cables are laid with what, and issues such as mixing power and signal. We prefer to pull our cables ourselves.”

On the maintenance front, RTS also stepped up. “You can VNC into any of the control panels, or the projectors via the maintenance interface. If a projector fails to come on it’s all monitored and reported on the admin interface as well.

“All the equipment is running on the Academy’s IT network, that’s the only way it makes sense to us. Going forward it opens up opportunities to talk about connecting kids laptops to the system via wireless.”

The thousand or so students of the Marsh Academy have benefited greatly from the investment of the sponsors so far and if the work at MLS2 is anything to go on the new building due to open in 2012 will be a truly impressive learning space.