Saved by the Bell: Classroom Audio over IP, Part 1

When IT manager Jerry Boyd set up the computer network at Calvary Baptist School and Church, the school had no way to make announcements or signal the beginning of classes 10/07/2010 12:24 PM Eastern

Saved by the Bell: Classroom Audio over IP, Part 1

Oct 7, 2010 4:24 PM, With Bennett Liles

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Saved by the Bell: Classroom Audio Over IP, Part 2
At the Calvary Baptist School and Church in Conroe, Texas, they needed a way for campus-wide announcements, fire drill signals, and piped music for special events; the Barix Annuncicom and BellCommander Software had the solution. ...

When IT manager Jerry Boyd set up the computer network at Calvary Baptist School and Church in Conroe, Texas, the school had no way to make announcements or signal the beginning of classes, so he went right on and added a Barix Annuncicom system and Jerry is here to tell us how he did it and how it works.

SVC: Jerry, it sure is good having you on the SVC podcast, and you’re not only the IT manager of the Calvary Baptist School, but I believe you’re also a classroom instructor there. Tell me a little bit about that school. What sort of school is it and where do your students come from?
Well, we’re a private school, and we mainly have students that are also members of our church. And we also have students that are members of the community and some other churches, but by and large, we have students from word of mouth advertising. Families enjoy having their children at our school and tell other families about us and that’s how we grow. [Timestamp: 1:26]

Well, you’re the go-to guy when it comes to tech stuff there, particularly computers and networking, and this all revolves around sound over IP networks. So what problem did they have before the new Barix system was installed and what did you propose to do about it?
I started teaching there about two years ago, and the way that the classes were assembled and dismissed was basically done teacher by teacher; prior to that they had a bell, an old electric clapper bell, and the science teacher would leave his class a few seconds early and go hold his finger on a momentary action switch for the bell to ring a few seconds and then let go and he would wait about 3 or 4 minutes and then ring it again. And over a couple of years it just wasn’t convenient for him to do, so when I got there, there was no bell system in place, and our school director began to ask me about some solutions and had been doing some of his own homework looking at some of the 24V panel systems like you would find in some large companies where it has the fire department panel and then it has other alarm systems and the school bell systems and timers and things like that, but the least expensive one of those systems was going to be about $15,000 and we just didn’t have it in our budget to do that. But in doing some research, I found Barix online and also found Acro Vista, and we were able to come up with a solution. Initially I spent way, way less—about 1/5 of what we were going to spend on a hard-wired system. [Timestamp: 3:10]

And I believe you took this thing totally from the ground up; they didn’t even have an IP network for the usual office applications.
Just the summer before I started teaching, I began to install our entire network. The school had two computers that were being used by the office folks, and they weren’t even networked—weren’t even connected. So I had an opportunity to build our infrastructure from scratch, and it worked out really well in conjunction with the Barix equipment that we were installing because I was able to design the network with both systems in mind and I didn’t have to retro fit anything. The hardest part was pulling cable into existing walls, and other than that, the design and implementation was fairly easy. Our campus is a little long as far as the length of it is concerned, the way that the buildings are arranged. So working from a main rack out into the other buildings was a little bit of a stretch as far as impedance and other issues. Signal drop was a concern, but we put a repeater in to deal with that. Other than that, it was nice to be in an application where we could design everything from scratch and design both systems together. [Timestamp: 4:26]

Well, this one looks like you had a unique opportunity. Usually when you want to start sending sound or video, any kind of multimedia stuff, over an existing IP network, you’re going to have people who have been running it for years and they’re going to, maybe, want to have some reservations about how much of an extra load that’s going to put on the network and shake things up a little, but this one looks like it was just stage two of your original project.
It was, and other than the usual trepidation of, “This is not the way we’ve always done it,” then once we got the system in place, everyone was pretty ecstatic about it. There’s a certain regimentation when you got a bell that you know is going to ring on a periodic basis and it’s not reliant on any ongoing human interface. And then the students like it because the Barix equipment and the software that we use allows us to put different tones in. We have a regular bell that we use; it’s like the school bells that you and I remember when we were in school, but then we have a tone one minute before the tardy bell and it’s just a chime and it lets the students know, “OK, got to get out of the locker and get on down the hall and get into the classroom.” So they enjoy that. The administrators really enjoy it because we have a more reliable system of announcements, prerecorded messages that play on a timed basis, and also emergency notifications and fire drills and emergency drills so everyone is well-prepared for most of the occasions that would happen at the school. [Timestamp: 6:02]

OK, you’ve got that setup and organized a certain way. Now, how many buildings and audio zones have you got in the plan; are they segregated by buildings? Is that the way it goes?
For the most part, yes. We do have one building that has on one side of the building, there are elementary classes and in the other side of the building there are high school classes, so that particular building I do have two zones set up in it. We have a total of eight zones, and they’re about half and half elementary and high school zones, but the elementary class schedule does not require bells to ring throughout the day the way that the junior high and high school does. And we do have two outdoor zones, which makes ours unique. Our classroom buildings are the modular buildings like you see in a lot of schools now and those buildings are connected by a boardwalk. It’s a nice deck type of a system, where the kids are up off the ground when they’re going between classes. We don’t have to worry about weather or other situations. It’s got a nice covering over the top of it, and a lot of the students are in that particular area when the bells are ringing or other announcements are being made. And we have a some outdoor speakers and those zones are tied into some of the high school zones so they don’t miss anything if they’re walking between the buildings. [Timestamp: 7:24]

Right, because now they’re quite mobile, and students just naturally take to that; they’ve got cell phones and texting and so forth. Sometimes I think they’re just a little over communicated.
I think so too. But we do have a total of eight buildings on our campus, and the property is a little over six acres if I’m not mistaken, so there’s some distance between, but the high school classes are fairly close together and elementary classes are fairly close together so one student doesn’t have to go all the way across the campus between classes. But we still have a good amount of time between classes; the students are able to go and exchange their books and socialize with each other before they have to go off to the next class. [Timestamp: 8:09]

Is this system used in a strictly one-way mode for class period notification or do you do other things with it?
It is currently setup for one-way communications. We use it for basically three items: we have the bell schedule, we have prerecorded announcements, and then we also use a paging station where we can make impromptu announcements as necessary, and of course we have the emergency notification system. This is a work in progress, and over the last couple of years we have been able to upgrade this system as we’ve had the funds, and then also as we see some growth with our student population. And occasionally the needs of the system will change from year to year, so our future plans include some infrared communication. Also I want to put in some pull handles for fire alarms and that would trigger an alarm through this same system—looking at some additional of the Barix equipment to help us do that. [Timestamp: 9:09]

Saved by the Bell: Classroom Audio over IP, Part 1

Oct 7, 2010 4:24 PM, With Bennett Liles

Yeah, you used the Barix Annuncicom 1000. Why did you go with that one? What features did you particularly find attractive?
The pastor of the church asked me last summer. He really enjoyed seeing the system with the outdoor speakers and having the opportunity to catch the attention of students that may not be exactly in the classroom where they’re supposed to be, and it occurred to him that, “Well we could have also some music playing during particular times of interest during the day either during their school day or during events that the church would have when we have social events and a time to fellowship there.” So we looked at a couple of options and the Annuncicom and also one of the Instreamers gave us an opportunity to play some music and before school starts and then during the lunch break and then right after school for the kids, we would be able to play some music there and then when the church has particular events where we’re outside, we have dinner on the grounds, we would be able to play some music that would be appropriate for that event as well. [Timestamp: 10:17]

OK let’s get into control on that a little bit. I think it has some contact closure ports on it.
It does, and it also allows for specific streaming to multiple IP addresses at the same time, which we found very attractive. It’s one of the reasons that we selected that particular product. [Timestamp: 10:39]

OK, when you set this up you probably didn’t have a lot of space. Where’s the control rack and all that gear located? Did you challenges installing that?
No, there again that was one of the golden opportunities that we had installing the network infrastructure for the IT systems and we did some restructuring for the telecom at the same time and the Barix equipment. We’re a small enough facility where we don’t have a computer room or a network operation center, so we used a communications trunk—a closet basically, and in that trunk, we have a standard 19in. rack. And our rack holds our firewall equipment, our routers, and hubs and switches, and patch panels close by holds our servers and the computer that we use to control the bell system, which we use Bell Commander software from Acro Vista. So setting that up and having it centrally located was not any stretch at all for us; making sure that we had the correct wiring for our backbone and things like that was just a matter of course in setting up the network. [Timestamp: 11:53]

Now at the receiving end, you’ve got the Extremer decoders; I believe you used the 100s.
Right, Extremer 100s, and we have eight of those so we have eight distinct zones and are able to vary the schedule so that the appropriate sounds are going to the appropriate zones at the right times for the events that are going on through the day. For example, the elementary school students, they start their day with a 5-minute-til bell, and that just lets them and the parents know, “Got to get in the classroom, get seated, get my backpack and my books, and my lunch box where they’re supposed to be.” And then there’s an 8 o’clock bell for, “OK, now it’s time to start our class,” and the students and the teachers know that at 8:04 and a half there’s going to be a tone that lets them know that it’s time for pledges and they all stand and they say the pledge to the American flag and pledge to the Christian flag and they also have a time of prayer before they start school—which is unique for our school. It’s something that you may not see in the public school setting, but that’s all prerecorded and scheduled. But then the high school students are on a separate schedule, so they don’t hear any of that. So the Extremer 100s allow us to assign the static IP addresses to each individual piece of equipment and then schedule all of that through Bell Commander, and the only thing that I really have to manage throughout the year is special events if we have a half day schedule or if we have a special event. Other than announcements, I really don’t have to have hands-on management of the system; it runs itself. [Timestamp: 13:44]

I know the Extremer devices are a snap to set up. How do you have those powered? Was there any additional cabling you had to put in?
On the modular buildings, there were some NEMA boxes that were already in there, and we bought the modular buildings secondhand, so I have no idea what they were originally for, but I’m using them for routing and for powering this other equipment. It’s nice because they’re up all the way up against the ceiling, so they’re out of reach of the students hands and it’s enclosed. So the only thing that I had to do was I found an electrical junction box and with the help of an electrician friend of mine, we were able to pull an outlet over and install a brand new outlet up there next to the shelf that contains the amplifier and the Extremer 100. So everything’s way up; the students can’t reach it and get to it, and there wasn’t some terrible additional cabling that we had to do; we just had to put an outlet in. The amplifier that we use and the network switch is all up there in that NEMA enclosure. [Timestamp: 14:55]

And when you put these in when you installed the system, was there a particular type of twisted pair for the Barix system, say shielded or unshielded?
Well, since it was audio, I did want to go with the better quality cable. On the backbone of our network system I’m using Cat-6 cable, which is just a standard twisted-pair cable. I use a little bit higher quality brand than the run-of-the-mill, but the only other place where I had any concerns was in two places the fire marshal recommended that we use a plenem cable. But other than that I used a standard Cat-5e/Cat-6 cable. [Timestamp: 15:35]

Well, it sounds not all that challenging to set up but something the school really found to be a huge improvement.
Oh yeah. tThe principal of the school is tickled over the changes that were made and the administrators just like to see things happen on time when they’re supposed to happen and don’t have to deal with too many extras or changes or special events, but just having the bells ringing on time has been a huge lesson for a lot of the staff members I think we have probably 3 or 4 students that jump still when the bells ring but other than that… [Timestamp: 16:10]

Well that’s a minor price to pay, I mean. Well, I appreciate this Jerry. It’s been great having you on the SVC podcast for part one. You were talking about the Barix system installed in Calvary Baptist School and Church in Conroe, Texas, near Houston, and in part two I want to get into the control software application and what you did for amplifiers and speakers and the receiving end of things. But thanks for being here for part one.
Well, thank you Bennett. It’s been a pleasure being on.

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