Forum Friday – Are Document Cameras Worth the Expense?

On most Fridays I like to pull an interesting topic from the forum and share it with a wider audience. Quite often, there are many interesting discussions elsewhere on the Internet, and I found one earlier this week that hits home. We’ve been in the planning stages at my school to implement the first round of interactive white boards and document cameras throughout the building. So it was with great interest that I read Richard Kass’s post on whether or not document cameras were for everyone. Richard is a technology director (officially titled the director of information services) for what appears to be an elite private K-12 school in Oregon. Despite the obvious resources that a prominent private district could wield in purchasing new tools for their teachers, Richard plays devil’s advocate with his response to an article entitled “Today’s Teachers Thrive with ELMOs in the Classroom“.

Document CamerasThe article is a fantastic read, and gives examples of how educators throughout K-12 and across the curriculum spectrum are using document cameras (a.k.a digital presenters). Ideas about using the zoom features to explore fine details of objects and raise awareness of observational skills to the convenience of being able to magnify and display any type of document or object at a moment’s notice, without the need to run a copy, make a transparency, or copy to the board. Based on the article, Richard made his own list of pros and cons to consider before making document cameras ubiquitous in our schools. I enjoyed reading his take on the article, but I thought I would add my own thoughts and revise Richard’s to better fit my philosophy.

“Magnification: in classes that work frequently with very small objects, a document camera may show more detail/be more convenient than simply passing the object around the class. Sharing student work: in classes that frequently share student handwritten/drawn work, a document camera may increase the convenience of making the work of an individual student visible to the entire group.”

I couldn’t agree more. Instead of passing around delicate or small objects, a document camera would allow a teacher to show in fine detail what an object looks like without the danger of it being mishandled. Artifacts brought in to study local history, or student created projects in an art room would be great examples. Math manipulatives and scientific instruments or measuring implements would be much easier to model for the classroom. Sharing written work would be much simpler to just place under the camera, instead of having to copy it on the board, and provide immediate feedback rather than having to wait until a planning period to go make a transparency. The immediacy and often frequent “teachable moments” could be greatly capitalized on.

Playing Devil’s advocate, Richard makes a few more statements:

“The class shares objects of larger size (can be easily seen or too large to fit under the camera). Holding the object, not just seeing it, has high pedagogical value. Students complete work to share with small groups, the teacher, parents, or themselves, not the entire class at once. The teacher doesn’t spend much time teaching from the front of the class. The teacher prioritizes aural or text-based instruction over visual. The class is primarily organized around student-led projects. The depth of the object is important (3D vs. 2D). The classroom is physically organized around “activity centers.”

To be fair, I’m cheery picking certain comments so as to make this post flow better, but I’ve tried to pick a few comments that I both agree with and disagree. Yes, holding physical objects like rocks, minerals, artifacts, and manipulatives for math or science are much more powerful than simply viewing them. However, I’ve seen many teachers using those giant rulers, protractors, and massive compasses during math classes and thought it would be much simpler to just use a normal sized tool (in a normal manner and not holding them in awkward positions up on the board). And to say that every single piece of student writing, or object would go under the camera is a bit extreme. Like any other tool, document cameras are best used for the most appropriate situation. If students are working in small groups, then you don’t necessarily have to show the entire class a particular piece of writing to help 5 or 6 students in one writing group. However, if you noticed that several groups were having problems with a particular writing mechanic, you could easily interrupt and show the entire class a good student example and then quickly return them to their work without having to make a copy for each group. That goes double for making transparencies, as the cost of making copies is usually more when turned into plastic film for traditional overhead projectors.

In my opinion, document cameras would be successful in both teacher and student led classrooms, especially in a classroom where the teacher is constantly moving about the room, and is rarely at the head of the room. Calling on a student to share their work by simply placing it under the camera is a no-brainer, and would even encourage the teacher to circulate more around the room rather than root themselves as they do to traditional overheads. Without the mess of overhead markers and cleaning fluids/spray bottles, I would probably be more encouraged to let small groups of students use the document camera to display work to both their own groups and the entire class. In a way, I see document cameras as the next necessary evolution of visual presentation, and would strongly argue that a document camera greatly enhances many forms of teaching in ways that a light blub-powered overhead projector can’t do.

Are they worth the expense then? Perhaps not with the currently dominant modalities of teaching. But as more and more educators become accustomed to visual learning styles, something which I believe most elementary teachers have been doing successfully for decades, you’ll see a greater and greater push for document cameras, digital projectors, and other tools that take visual learning one step closer to becoming ubiquitous.



    1. Document cameras have changed the way I teach! With only two computers in my classroom, thank goodenss I have a projector. Also, the document camera easily allows kids to show their work. When kids bring in an item to share you can pop that under the doc camera for all to see. I no longer have to plan ahead on what I want to copy on a transperency. We all remember times when you wish you had a transperacny of something that you did not think you would need. Also, unlike the overhead the doc camera is in color. I can place picture books under the camera and all can see. I buy books all the time about subjects I teach. For instance, I have a beautiful book on Mesa Verde. I can easliy share these pictures with the kids and we can have a class discussion. I would never want to lose my documment camera!

    2. do you think a projector/document camera is a good option?
      I am wanting to be able to provide powerpoint presentations using the projector but have the added versatility of using a document camera for quotes / cartoons, etc. I am unsure of how easily I can go from the projector to the document camera. Any information you have would be greatly appreciated. I am looking at the Toshiba TLP XC3000A data projector and document camera

    3. Cathy, it’s an easy task, so don’t let this concern deter you. Most brands of document cameras let you shift back and forth from computer to document camera very easily – usually with just a toggle. In both instances, you’ll need the projector – or at least a television or flat panel or something to display your image.

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