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This post was originally written for Private University Products and News (

HETS Burlington Chaz e1500907145409 768x432Until recently the cost of large flat-panels for classroom use was prohibitive, making projectors the preferred presentation technology for most colleges and universities. Now, as monitor prices continue to drop, schools are questioning their traditional or standard classroom technology.  Both projectors and flat-panel displays (monitors, LED displays, TVs) are strong choices for specific types of classroom configurations, each providing benefits that can only be considered when the primary use of the room is well-defined.

Cost vs. Image Size

Above 70”, projectors offer a better value of product cost for image size. That means, in auditoriums, large classrooms, multi-purpose rooms, etc. a projector is more often the preferred technology. In smaller classrooms, conference rooms, group study spaces and in specialty environments, the cost of a flat panel is low enough and the quality is high enough that they become the best option. When calculating the total cost of ownership of a projector (TCO= product, accessories, maintenance over the lifecycle of the product), which will include screens, filters and lamps, we find that projectors are still less costly than 70”+ monitors. Simply put, when comparing cost and screen size, projectors typically win- at larger sizes.

However, the calculation isn’t always that easy. Richard Derbyshire, Consultant Relationship Manager at Christie Digital, reminds us that “when viewing distance increases, so does the cost of image size for both projection and flat-panel displays.” Additionally, there are more pieces to a display puzzle than just the size. While the general cost per size is lower for a projected image, the quality of the contrast, resolution and color acuity is also lower. There are some fundamentals that must be considered prior to a display purchase: audience size, lighting conditions, and image fidelity.

Audience/ Room size

Let’s not reinvent the wheel here. InfoComm, the trade association for the audiovisual industry, provides a standard to its members called  “Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems” This standard was developed to help “determine required display image size and relative viewing positions according to two defined viewing needs: basic decision making and analytical decision making. Image height, image resolution, and the size of image content are all prescriptive elements when determining required image size. The standard also addresses closest and farthest viewing distances, as well as relative horizontal and vertical viewer locations. It provides formulas to design and display content when encountering limitations in an environment.” To support the use of this ANSI standard and to help all users receive the best AV experience possible, InfoComm also provides a calculator, which can be downloaded at their website.

Lighting Conditions

Also called “ambient light,” the light that is already present in the room affects the quality of a projected image more than that of a direct-view image on a monitor. In high ambient light conditions (a brightly lit room), Derbyshire suggests considering three fixes for a low contrast/ low quality projected image: “a specialized screen like an ambient light rejection screen; a high-end, high-lumen output projector; or a flat-panel.”  In these lighting conditions flat-panels offer greater color, greater contrast and better overall image quality.

Image Fidelity

For specialized situations like when viewing medical/ health sciences, simulation and other critical content, Derbyshire reinforces to his clients that “the image must look exactly like what is seen through the MRI, microscope or other tool. Image quality can be the difference between the right medical diagnosis and the wrong one.” In these learning environments, flat-panels generally offer higher quality color and image acuity than projection displays.

What About 4K

Derbyshire thinks you’d be hard-pressed “to find a flat-panel that isn’t 4K compatible today. Whereas, until recently (and now only in a very small number of models), projectors were not 4K.  The projector side is lagging flat-panels in resolution.” The primary product in classrooms projectors offers only HD resolution, and the question still rings: if there is no 4K content, does it matter?  Is 4K compatibility really a win for flat-panels in the education space?  Derbyshire is hesitant to commit, saying, “I don’t envy the technology managers’ need to make a decision on this point. There may not be much content now but with the advent of new technology seemingly coming more quickly, what do you standardize on that gives you the repeatability you need but also gives you longevity to remain relevant until your next upgrade is scheduled?”

Collaboration and Interactivity- BYOD In, Interactive Displays Out

With the trend toward collaborative and active learning environments still gaining traction, many display manufacturers are working to ensure users get what they need. Interactive whiteboards, a staple in many K-12 schools, are not as useful in higher education.  Scott Tiner, Assistant Director for Client Services at Bates College, has “never been in a meeting where multiple people are standing at a whiteboard at the same time. Rather, there may be a single person writing down what others are saying. For that purpose, you don’t need a board in the front of the room. I believe that personal devices, especially those with annotation capability will be the future of [higher education] collaboration.” Derbyshire agrees, adding that in the higher education world, “there is a migration toward collaboration and image sharing through mobile student devices.” From an educator’s view, Tiner points out that, “most major computer manufacturers have started developing touch enabled devices, especially as Microsoft puts out operating systems designed around touch. We have several faculty at my college who bring a Surface into the classroom, connect to the projector and open OneNote. When they are done, they save the file and send it on to the students.”

In other words, students and faculty in higher education learn and collaborate more commonly in BYO (Bring Your Own) spaces. However, the challenge is in supporting different devices and their operating systems which may have varying connectivity requirements or protocols. Many display (both flat-panels and projector) manufacturers offer onboard software to help users connect to the hardware in a form of collaboration. Sometimes this software requires the users to download a specific app to their personal devices, which many are reluctant to do. In some cases the software may not be compatible with an operating system or the software may need an update in order to work reliably.

Even When You Thought Of Everything

There are benefits to both flat-panel and projection displays. The bottom line is that a decision must be based on the primary use of the space, room size, environmental lighting, and specialized content requirements. Cost, while important, can only be one piece of the puzzle. It will not, alone, allow you to create a visually engaging and useful technology-rich learning experience.

I was visiting a campus a few weeks ago, touring an “almost, not quite done” building renovation. The technology integrators were bringing in new large LED displays to hang in some of the flex-rooms. The display boxes would not fit in the elevator. [note: the freight elevator was down at the time.] Projector for the win?

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