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Case Study: Innovative School Bell Application Adds Music Streaming, Security Features

December 05, 2007 - Article
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Excelsior Education Center is a public charter school based in Victorville, Calif., with a student body representing grades 7-12. The school operates independently from traditional public schools in and around Irvine. Excelsior Education Center has a tradition of embracing new technology, and its independent status has nurtured an innovative environment for both students and faculty members.

A prime example of Excelsior’s innovation is its ongoing efforts to virtualize its entire curriculum. The school’s forward-looking approach extends beyond the curriculum to areas where many schools pay little attention. The case in point here is Excelsior Education Center’s new automated classroom bell and paging system.

Needs

Since its inception, Excelsior Education Center has developed into a hybrid campus that offers both traditional schooling and independent studies and workshops. The student population has increased as more workshops have been added to the program. This made the installation of a classroom bell and paging system a priority.

“Instructors previously announced dismissals inside each classroom, while the security guards outside used bullhorns to make announcements,” said Steve Benedict, network administrator at Excelsior Education Center. “The school was small enough to rely on these methods, and it was a pleasant difference from other schools where bells were required. But as Excelsior Education Center progressed, it became clear we needed to change our ways.”

Benedict looked at several options and initially feared that the cost of a traditional bell system would exceed his budget. The lack of innovation on the market also seemed to lock the school into a system limited to basic tone generators. Benedict and his team not only were looking for an affordable solution, but one that could incorporate features such as live paging and music streaming.

The Solution

The school discovered an automated solution that was both flexible and affordable through two companies: Barix AG of Zurich, Switzerland, and AcroVista Software of Texas. AcroVista provides the software portion through its BellCommander product, a scheduling system that resides on a central PC. BellCommander communicates with 28 Barix Exstreamer audio decoders to stream signals over IP to the school’s indoor and outdoor PA systems. Excelsior Education Center used its existing Ethernet and fiber infrastructure to operate the school-wide system, saving nearly $40,000 compared to a traditional bell tone system with audio wires and tone generators.

The BellCommander software automatically sends bell alarms to the Barix Exstreamers in classrooms and outdoor areas to signal the beginning and end of each class. The Barix Exstreamers receive and decode the signals for broadcast over the PA systems. What makes the system special is its ability to playback audio files over the speakers, providing a more interactive environment for the students as they head to class.

“Traditional bell systems limit you to tone generators, and we wanted to do cooler things than simply fire off bell tones,” said Benedict. “The Barix devices provide more innovation through streaming music and announcements to the PA systems. We use music for passing bells, such as the theme to “Jaws” for our one-minute warning bells. The Jaws theme sends the signal that everyone needs to start heading to class, and the traditional classroom bells ring at the end of that audio clip.”

The musical aspect of the system is supported by a Barix Annuncicom IP intercom device. The Annuncicom sits at the BellCommander PC, accepts MP3 files from an iPod or computer, and streams them to the Exstreamers for audio decoding and PA system playback. The musical aspect is more prevalent outdoors, where continuous music is streamed over four Peavey loudspeakers in the mornings and at lunch.

Inside the classrooms, the Exstreamers are mounted to a wall with a single, self-powered York speaker, receiving the BellCommander signal over the Ethernet/fiber backbone. Outdoors on the split-level campus, the school installed two Peaveys on each level to provide a true stereo sound output. One Exstreamer is assigned to each loudspeaker to receive bell signals from BellCommander and music from the Barix Annuncicom. Benedict added that the school was able to purchase better quality speakers inside and out due to the money they saved on the Barix and BellCommander system.

“The Annuncicom is the element that allows us to stream music both indoors and outdoors,” said Benedict. “The Annuncicom performs the function of a media server, taking in the MP3 files and streaming them directly to the Exstreamers for playback. A priority port on the Exstreamer takes action so that when the bells fire from BellCommander, they take priority over the music from the Annuncicom.”

Results

The Barix and BellCommander system has been well-received by everyone at Excelsior Education Center.

“This system creates a far less sterile environment for the students, and makes it more fun for everyone involved,” said Benedict. “The Barix devices have allowed us to achieve this goal, one because they were extremely cost-efficient, but also because of the innovative capabilities that are built into the technology.”

Benedict plans to do much more with the system, starting with an expansion of the music streaming aspect before moving on to the security potential. For audio distribution, Benedict and his team plan to stream holiday-oriented music when relevant. They also plan to add new music files on different days and times instead of following the same schedule each day as they become more comfortable with the BellCommander software.

The presence of 28 Barix Exstreamers throughout the school means that the system can target specific messages to address a single classroom, a group of classrooms, or the entire campus. This makes it ideal for everything from basic live paging to broadcasting pre-recorded emergency messages in critical situations. Still, these applications remain a work in progress.

“We definitely plan to use the Annuncicom for live paging applications, which would include the Pledge of Allegiance and morning announcements from students, in addition to basic student and personnel paging,” he said. “We have purchased a microphone system specifically for this application, and hope to get it off the ground shortly. The BellCommander system will be used to send pre-recorded announcements to the Exstreamers for PA system playback. That would be more for emergency messages, fire drills and other alarming applications.

“The decision to purchase this system was truly about cost and innovation,” added Benedict. “The potential of what you can do with the Barix devices, like playing music and incorporating paging, is impossible in traditional bell systems.”

Barix www.barix.com

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