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Picture Perfect: Enthusiasm For Visualizers Continues to Grow

Schools find document cameras motivate students in classrooms across the country.

Schools find document cameras motivate students in classrooms across the country.

After two sixth-grade teachers at Chaparral Elementary pooled their funds to buy a document camera in 2006, the technology began spreading swiftly throughout California's Chino Valley Unified School District.

“Other teachers quickly discovered that working with projected images of such things as math problems allowed them to keep an eye on their students,” recalls Karyn Keck, then a Chaparral teacher and now a districtwide technology trainer. “More importantly, doc cams motivated students by encouraging interactive learning. For example, instead of using cardboard coin mockups, a student could go to the cam and manipulate real money.”

Also known as visual presenters, or visualizers, the document cameras vividly reproduce anything placed beneath their lens – in real time and with ultra-fine detail.

“Visualizers are simple to understand, and the benefits of bringing interactivity into the classroom are easy to see,” says Colin Messenger, senior consultant for Futuresource Consulting in Boston. “At education trade shows, there are always hordes of educators around the cam displays because they make sense, and most models are plug-and-play.”

Indeed, enthusiasm for the technology was strong at Chino Valley, but deployment was ad hoc. The resulting patchwork of models and vendors began causing some service bottlenecks.

“We have only one equipment service technician for everything,” Keck points out.

“By late 2008, there were so many different models in the shop, it was taking too long to get them back into the classroom.”

Keck and her two fellow trainers began a standardization initiative in early 2009, which involved teaming up with the district's Technology Advisory Committee for a solutions evaluation. “Since the committee included one representative from each of our 36 schools, this strategy helped ensure we were selecting the best model for our teachers,” Keck says.

Of the models selected for testing, the portable AVerMedia 300AF+ rose to the top. “It came down to overall reliability and three specific features,” says Keck. “First, the jointed mechanical arm seemed more stable. Plus, it has a dual-direction zoom, whereas others zoom in until they reach the maximum, and then begin zooming out. And the unit's 270-degree rotating head means teachers can stand on either side of the camera or behind it and have a paper or book facing them – they don't have to read upside down or sideways.”

Choices Abound

Although AVerMedia was Chino Valley's choice, other schools have their own favorites.

At Woodland Elementary of suburban Minneapolis' Independent School District 279–Osseo Area Schools, the district's provision of a projector led to purchasing a single document camera. Shared
by the entire building, it was an instant success.

Rojanne Brown, technology integration collaboration teacher at Woodland, says the camera can display authentic objects, such as one student's handwriting, another student's painting of the Ethiopian flag, a projectile point found on a child's vacation or a page in a textbook.

“Touching real stuff motivated kids beyond expectations,” Brown says. “Soon, teachers in all 33 classrooms began clamoring for their turn to use the cam. So our PTA jumped on board and began raising money to purchase document cams for each classroom.”

Although the district had standardized on and bought advanced models with video-capture capabi­lity, Woodland's Technology Committee decided to survey its teachers to discover how they typically used the cameras. “Since video capture was used infrequently, we decided to look for a more affordable day-to-day solution to complement the high-end building camera,” Brown says.

After selecting the Epson DC-10s in late 2007, Woodland was able to provide a camera for every classroom. “Even the reluctant adopters now can't imagine a school day without their Epson,” says Brown. “Today, we're working with our PTA on an initiative to put doc cams and projectors into the various small-group learning spaces scattered around our building.”

Complementary Technology

Further along the curve is Alvarado Independent School District, southwest of Dallas. “In 2004, we tested doc cams in a couple classrooms,” recalls Kyle Berger, executive director of technology services. “We attached them to computers but discovered we needed the other piece of the puzzle: projectors.”

Today, 90 percent of all Alvarado classrooms have document cameras paired with projectors. “During the past five years, feature development and affordability sped up, which definitely accelerated our deployment rate,” Berger notes. “When we started, visualizers were either clunky and expensive or so cheap they weren't much better than a webcam on a stick. But, they quickly became more education-centric.”

Document cameras were first developed for the classroom and later appeared in courtrooms.

For Alvarado, the Elmo TT-02 line provides the best fit and improves the flexibility of how the technology can be used in the classroom. “Among other features, we found Elmo's focus quality higher,” asserts Berger. “Plus, remote control allows teachers to be anywhere in a room. And the built-in lighting gives outstanding image clarity.”

Berger suggests schools re-evaluate models and manufacturers often to maximize technology improvements. “We've discovered more visualizer features can be used when they are connected to the classroom com­puter, rather than hooked up to the projector on the projector cart,” he says. “So we're working with teachers to rethink and redesign their workstations because students are now coming up to their desks to use the devices.”

Evangelizing Adoption

At Chino Valley, Keck's department is encouraging adoption by stressing savings. “We help schools with tips for working projectors and cams into their budgets,” she says. “For instance, one school was upgrading its wall maps. Instead, they could get a free map from the Internet and use a doc cam to enlarge it for the class.” Other efforts to further deployment include articles in the district newsletter and posting PDF files of information sheets on the website.

After only a few short months of promoting the devices, orders are flowing in, Keck says. “We're up to about 10 to 15 percent of the district overall, mostly in the primary grades.”

Keck is now concentrating her attention on secondary school classrooms – for instance, showing sociology teachers how to clip a cartoon that's immediately relevant from the morning paper. “The possibilities are truly endless,” she says.

A Brief History of Document Cameras

1974 – early 1990s
Classroom document cameras evolve from rudimentary fixed-mount to early portables with lighting and auto focus.

1999
First fully digital model is introduced, enabling full-color; image rotation/manipulation; 8-frame-per-second motion capture; and saving images to a connected computer.

2002
Portable models break the 6-pound barrier.

2005
Internal image storage eliminates the companion computer requirement.

2006
Hi-resolution CMOS digital cameras debut. Annotation software arrives. Motion capture increases to 20 fps, providing video quality sufficient for practical uses.

2007
Image storage on portable media appears. LAN integration for portable models debuts, permitting classrooms to share lessons with one another.

2008
30 fps motion capture barrier is broken, virtually eliminating blurring and distortion.

2009
A/V recording and storage can be made directly to USB flash drives.

Sources: AverMedia; ELMO USA

Possibilities for Engaging Students

  • Brushstroke art: Instead of passing around an 8-inch-by-10-inch sheet, a parent art volunteer projected Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers at 4 feet by 6 feet, revealing the painting's details down to individual brushstrokes.
  • Closing achievement gaps: Without straining teachers or budgets, document cameras can deliver learning materials for a range of students, from those who need additional instructional time to visual learners who require specialized programs.
  • Discipline: Pointing the document camera toward classroom misbehavior enlarges the activity and quickly restores order.
  • Home-grown video: Creating a full-motion narrated movie of a sheep's eye dissection permitted a teacher to share the lesson throughout the district, including grade levels where a live demo would be inappropriate. The replayed video can be edited, slowed or stopped, which allows commentary, questions, testing and other interactive learning.
  • Life skills: Tying a shoelace can now be viewed from as many angles as students want to see while everyone stays in their seats.
  • Playground science: Insects found during recess instantly become relevant, real-time lessons in biology and environmental science.
  • Remote learning: Absent students receive live and recorded lessons, tests and more, delivered via the web to help them keep pace with their class.
  • Safe transport: By broadcasting color-coded bus-shaped cutouts, matched to cutouts placed on the buses themselves, educators ensure students get on the right bus at the right time.
Dec 10 2009

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