Few issues get me revved up like this one. I
detest don’t prefer the thought of headphones on my Sunday School kids. Headphones are often the result of a bad concept, poor room selection, too many computers, and not enough teachers. Read this article for suggestions and more of my rant. My book, Teaching with Computers in Christian Education, has an expanded section on this subject. <>< Neil “Get thee behind me Headphones”
“How to deal with Computer Lab Acoustics” without having to dance with ‘the ol’ headphone devil’
A Very FEISTY Article from Sunday Software (1-614-527-8776) and Neil MacQueen. Revised 09/12.
IN THIS ARTICLE YOU WILL HEAR ME RANT ABOUT:
2. Acoustic Countermeasures
3. The Problem with Headsets
4. Understanding what makes for “damp acoustics”
5. Teaching Techniques to Reduce Sound Problems
6. Where to call and tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about.
1. Intro to the Problema
Oooo…..I’ve taken some heat for headphone bashing. But I’m diggin’ in gang and most of you are agreeing.
An email I once received illustrates the fundamental PROBLEM I have with HEADPHONES on STUDENTS. A lab teacher recommended to another church the following:
“Make sure you have headphones for the kids…3 sets per computer. The kids can hear you through the headphones, and the room is blissfully quiet.”
“Headphones for the kids” so the teacher can have a “blissfully quiet” classroom???
…. Hang on Sloopy.
THE model for teaching with computers is TEACHING WITH computers, WITH the kids.
Headphones create a disconnect between student to student and student to teacher. Now some have said “but they can still hear me.” Right. Have you ever tried to carry on a conversation with a kid listening to a Walkman? (I have three daughters….don’t get me started about headphones). Yes, kids can hear you, but they don’t listen to you that well. The sound in the headphones is much more interesting and immediate. They tune you out to a large degree. Sunday School content is meant to be SHARED with each other. It is also rather impractical to ask everyone to pause their program and take off their headphones so you can talk with them. Good teachers like to discuss things ‘on the fly’ as they occur. Headphones get in the way of this. Headphones negate too much of what many of us value, …and there are other solutions.
But sound is a problem…
Competing computer speakers can be distracting and annoying. Many years ago it wasn’t too big a problem –the software was primitive and fairly quiet and most labs were small due to the high price of computers. A lot has changed.
The proper room size and set-up are the two most important issues you can address. I’ve heard from and seen quite a few computer labs that are set up wrong or in too small a space. We wouldn’t put the choir in a closet to rehearse, why settle for the computer lab in a closet size room? The room must be big enough to accomodate your teaching needs. And your biggest teaching need is the ability to communicate (which headphones and noise will interfere with). Larger rooms can handle more sound and allow for greater spacing of equipment.
We used to recommend churches place their computers about four feet apart. Multimedia software, soundtracks, and inexpensive computers have changed all that. We now recommend a minimum of five feet ~plus a number of acoustic countermeasures.but there are other factors that will help just as much.
Before going into this set of changes you can make to your lab to reduce sound, let me first point out something important to ANALYZING the problem. The TEACHER’s experience of sound in the lab may be different than the KIDS’ experience. The kids are usually sitting right by their own speakers, whereas the teacher typically sits back or between computers. The more equi-distant you are from each computer, the more equal in volume they will all sound to you…ie, all the sound will clash. ***To judge the level of your problem and effectiveness of your changes, you need to “hear” the problem from right in front of the computer, not by standing in the middle of the room.
2. Acoustic Countermeasures…
You are not out to eliminate sound. That’s impossible and unnecessary. Kids can learn in sound-filled environments, they do it everyday at school. The mind can tune out background noise. The mind, however, doesn’t do well with clashing, distracting sounds. For example, kids can tune out the computer next to them if that other computer is five feet away and the speakers are angled away. But if the other computer’s speakers are right next to theirs, their brains can’t easily distinguish between sounds.
You want to ‘dampen’ the sound coming from the others computers in the room to allow students to stay focused on ‘their’ sound. And to keep your teachers sane. Dampening means re-directing, blocking, and absorbing. You’ll be surprised what a difference these easy modifications can make: a small divider, carpeting and banners, speakers than can be moved right to the edge of the table in front of the kids. and putting discussion furniture in the middle of your lab.
Put dividers between computers to cut down on overlapping speaker zones. As you can see in this picture below in my own lab, the dividers extend to the floor and the teacher can easily see around them. I also move a two panel hinged divider in behind two of my four computers to cut down on sound trying to go across the room.
Dividers can be made out of hinged light-weight plywood or thick dense foam board covered with cloth. Some people buy (or reuse) those tri-fold presentation boards that kids use for projects. Another GREAT IDEA is to flatten several large cardboard boxes and GLUE them together. Cover them in cloth and people will think you’re a genius.
Put your lab in a larger room. The larger distances betweens walls will immediately affect the physical intensity of sound of computer sounds. Put comfy furniture in the middle of the room as a discussion area. Use a rug in the room and hang banners on those hard walls. Add acoustic ceiling tiles and decorative acoustic foam pad (see the eggcarton idea below). Put fake trees/plants in the corners. Their leaves and branches will break up the sounds which tend to reverb in corners. Add a discussion area in the middle of the room to trap sounds trying to fly across your room from other computers.
Bodies will absorb sound too. Keep the speakers close to the kids, and not in the typical “behind the monitor” location. If you have a table in the center of your room, put a heavy skirt around it. Hang banners, CDs, -almost anything from the ceiling –every little absorption or deflection helps. Experiment. Every room is a little different.
WHERE you put your computers in the room makes a big difference.
Keep them out of corners. Corners will actually amplify the sound. Don’t set computers at right angles to each other because their speakers will spray each other more directly with sound. See the graphic above for an example of computers improperly close and at right angles. If your room is a rectangle, I recommend putting your computers against the two short walls. That way the two walls with computers are farthest apart from each other.
Use your computer towers to help create additional sound barriers between computers on a table.
Pull your speakers toward the keyboard. Speakers that are closer can be heard better at low volume. Let the kids, carpet, and the table become your sound absorber/deflector.
If you’re buying new speakers, buy the three piece units that have one subwoofer and two satellite speakers. The subwoofer can go down by the feet (kids can ‘feel’ it there), the small satellite speakers can easily be moved around.
Good speakers also sound better at lower volume. Your high frequency sounds are the clash culprit. Cheap speakers don’t sound good at low volume, so kids turn them up, which puts out even more high frequency sound. Some speakers allow you to point them up to the ceiling. If yours don’t, have a handy person in your church make you a little cradle or metal bracket to do point your speakers. One church that had old tables flush mounted their computer speakers.
Deflect or Trap and otherwise Interfere with Sound Waves.
Sound waves lose intensity when they don’t have a hard surface or only one thing to bounce off of. Sound doesn’t seem as obtrusive when it is deflected and broken up. It’s like being on the phone when the tv is on. The simple act of walking around the corner allows you to focus on your phonecall even though you can still hear the tv.
Hang some ceiling banners to trap the sound trying to travel along the ceiling.Place low dividers between computers.
With all this solutions, experiment with cardboard before moving to something more permanent. It’s pretty amazing what results you can get with a few well placed dividers. Make sure your deflectors don’t cut off what the teacher needs to see.
If you’re in a particularly ‘live’ room, try inexpensive acoustic foam panels.
You don’t need to cover every wall. Just hang a few panels. It needs to be acoustic style foam for maximum benefit. Contact a local sound merchant or search the net for companies and catalogs. www.Markertek.com has 54″ x 54″ blue acoustic foam panels for about $20 each.
- Space your computers around the room, but not at right-angles to each other.
- Place homemade dividers between computers to keep the sound from “spraying” between computers and around the room.
- Furniture in the middle of the room helps block sound from traveling ACROSS the room to the other computers.
- Soften walls and floors with banners and other fun materials to cut down on the “livelyness” (reflection/reverb) of the room.
- Realize that the TEACHER’s experience of sound in the lab may be different than the KIDS’ experience. The more equi-distant you are from each computer, the more equal in volume they will all sound to you…ie, all the sound will clash.
Other Absorbing/Aiming and Deflecting Helps:
Put cloth or felt on the tables. If you have two computers on one table, place a thin piece of foam under the cloth where the computer, monitor and speakers sit.
Use utility chairs with upholstery rather than plain metal folding chairs or wooden chairs. I’m not a fan of secretary style chairs with wheels. Kids on wheels presents a whole ‘nother problem!
Get more teachers/assistants. Kids will crank it up when left unattended.
I’ve actually had one person say “get real Neil,” we can’t do these things. My response is ‘don’t let the hardware set-up interfere with your educational objectives.’
3. The Problem with Demon Headphones
a) They cut off teacher-student interaction.
Yes, the kids can hear your instructions….but can you carry on a real conversation about a program? And if they are wired to headphones the teacher must be too in order to teach by their side, and if that is so….how can you ALSO manage the kids on the computer next to you? Headphones interfere with teaching.
b) They cut off student to student interaction.
c) Headphones lead to “turn it on and step back.” Having headsets present in the lab for even one or two programs can lead uninformed or lazy volunteers to start using them for more programs. The kids won’t know any better because they are conditioned by public school computer use to immediately put on headphones (and they think it’s cool).
d) The model is “teacher as co-explorer.” As a spokesperson for TEACHING with computers I’d rather see folks try other more “interactive friendly” solutions rather than first go for the quick headset solution. Acoustics can be modified, tables and computers moved, rooms found IN MOST CHURCHES if they give it some time and thought.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Ok….so you have been forced to go to headsets (you did try everything else, right?). You can buy multi-jacks for two or more headphones per computer. Try Radio Shack. Now you need STRATEGY to be involved with your students as they go through material. You’ll need to schedule ‘breaks’ from the headphones to discuss where they are, what they’re seeing, and ask questions. This isn’t the best way to teach with computers, but it’s better than not teaching with them at all. As a teacher who likes to ‘co-explore’ with my kids, however, I would feel frustrated in your lab.
4. The Science of what makes for Soft or “Damp” Acoustics
Hard surfaces bounce sound back at you –drywall, concrete block, tables, tile floors. Parallel hard surfaces are the worst hard surfaces, -which is exactly what you find in most Sunday School rooms. Volume is loudest when the sound wave has nothing to deflect it. Aiming speakers across the room at each other creates half the problem, try angling them away from others. Distance helps, so does placing a discussion area in the middle.
Not all soft materials are acoustically soft. Certain types of foam won’t reduce much noise. Think of the eggcrate walls they used to have in old sound studios. Not only was the material softer than a plain wall, the niches of the eggcrates “trapped” sound.
I know of one church which put up PAPER EGG CARTONS (the foam ones being too “hard”) for a music room the kids used. They DYED each one a different color. The effect was striking (painting them would harden the surface) …it was like a mosaic.
You DO NOT have to cover ALL your surfaces –just enough to achieve the dampening effect you need. The brain has the ability to TUNE OUT certain types of sound. Experiment with your set-up before nailing anything down.
Questions? Comments? Hoorahs? Aspersions? More Great Suggestions? Email Neil MacQueen