To Connect or not to connect….

…that is the question. Perhaps it should be more a question of how to connect? Teachers at my school use their iPads every day in the classroom, and connect them to projectors using a variety of different ways. While I know this is a bit more technical than pedagogical, I thought it might be useful to run through some of the advantages/disadvantages of each method. As I hope you’ll also see Airplay is a potentially very powerful tool in the classroom.

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1. VGA connector. By far the simplest way to plug your iPad into a VGA projector for example. Lots of projectors in school don’t have an HDMI input, and we cannot simply get rid of projectors that work perfectly well but are missing this newer connection standard. One of the downsides of the 30 pin dock connector in particular is that it can fall out easily, something which often then upsets my iPad and usually leaves me quitting and restarting apps as I fill during a presentation. The new lightning VGA connector seems much better at not falling out though….

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2. HDMI adaptor – Very similar to the VGA connector above, this connects directly to the iPad and allows you to connect via HDMI cable to a suitable projector or display screen. One of the advantages over the VGA connector is that HDMI can carry audio as well as video, which removes the need for a separate audio cable being plugged into the iPad’s headphone socket.

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The HDMI adaptor also allows connection of a standard dock connector cable to allow charging whilst connected (and new lightning versions of the HDMI and VGA adaptors also include this feature).

The main problem with the connectors above is that the cables essentially tether a great mobile device to a point near the VGA cable, and as mentioned the cable has a tendency to come detached at inopportune moments (I actually use a very low tech elastic band to hold the connector in place when I have to resort to presenting from an iPad in this way).

Airplay technology allows you to mirror the iPad display through an Apple TV or airplay software, freeing you up from having to use cables in your classroom at all. Older projectors without an HDMI slot can prove to be a bit of a challenge, although the next gadget may help solve this challenge.

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3. HDMI to VGA adaptor – There are a variety of boxes which will convert an HDMI signal into a VGA one, sometimes with varying degrees of success. The ATV Pro by Kanex (more info) has given us the best results with a variety of different projectors, giving a good picture without any obvious distortion of image (many convertors we have tested seem to squash the image in the horizontal plane). This simple box features an HDMI connector on one end and a VGA female socket and audio socket on the other end. At around £40 this is a cheaper alternative than replacing the projector, and will give the full Apple TV experience in the classroom.

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4. Apple TV – I’m sure most people are aware of this little black box and how it works to allow you to mirror your iPad (or Apple computer display in Mountain Lion) to an HDMI input such as projector or TV.

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5. Airplay software such as Reflector. This software turns your computer into an airplay receiver, just like an Apple TV. Now available for both Mac and PC, single licenses cost around £10, and discounted volume licensing is also available. You can read more about it here, and you might also be interested in looking at air server (read more here), another piece of software for Mac/PC which allows you to airplay to your computer.
Reflector allows you to airplay multiple iPads (4) to a single computer, which can bring an interesting new dynamic to presentations and other classroom workflows. Combined too with screen recording in an application like QuickTime Player, it is also possible with Reflector to do professional looking iPad screencasts.

Interestingly, many of our teachers use a variety of the above, dependent on the room they are in, the activity the class are undertaking and/or the way in which the iPads are being used.

One challenge on school networks can be that bonjour is often disabled by security conscious network managers who don’t want user devices to be able to “see” each other. School networks may also be set up behind some kind of proxy server, or devices be separated onto different subnetworks. All of these reasons can make seeing the Airplay device difficult or impossible, however, they are all pretty much surmountable. Correct security settings on your network make bonjour safe, and enterprise grade wireless networks are increasingly incorporating tools like bonjour gateway and bonjour directory allowing devices on different parts of the school network to communicate using airplay technology. Support for proxies is also built in to the Apple TV itself. I’ll share more about this and some other thoughts about wireless in schools in a future post, as with the increasing number of wireless devices coming into our schools, this is fast becoming the most important piece of our school network.

Anyway, back to airplay…..

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One other consideration can be “airplay abuse”. Apple TV by default allows any airplay device on the same network to connect, so students can connect to an Apple TV and projector just as easily as the teacher. In the first instance, most of our teachers start with their Apple TV in the default open airplay set up where no password is required to access the device via airplay. We have shown all of the teachers how the security pass code setting can be applied and this can be used to take more control of who can connect to the Apple TV if required. Recent updates to the Apple TV have added the ability to create an adhoc session pass code, ideal for use in a lesson/ classroom situation. Reflector could be set up using the create network feature on a Mac to create a “private” network just for the teacher if you needed it (I have used this on several occasions at conferences where I wanted to make sure I had control of the screen). I’m sure the same thing is also possible on a Windows PC too.

We currently have around 30 learning spaces with Apple TV set up and are gradually adding more as we update projectors around school. In the meantime, teachers all have Reflector installed on their MacBooks. We do also have a number of dock VGA connectors too (less than 10).

If you are currently purchasing new projectors at school make sure they have at least 1 HDMI connection to be able to hook up an Apple TV, and I also know of a number of schools replacing projectors with large LCD displays, as these become much more affordable in large sizes. Perhaps several smaller screens would provide a more effective collaborative learning environment, allowing groups of students to spread around the classroom sharing ideas with their group on a shared display screen through airplay?

One thing is for sure, devices capable of airplay change the dynamics of the classroom, and make it much easier for all classroom participants to quickly share content in the moment, which also enhances the classroom flow too.

If you haven’t already looked at airplay for your classroom, why not experience what life can be like without wires? Even without an Apple TV, software such as Reflector gives you the power to airplay through your laptop connected to your classroom projector.

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