Bringing Education into Focus with Document Cameras
Document cameras bring coursework to life for students and faculty at Florida State University.
Whether it's to annotate a musical score or solve a scientific equation, many professors at Florida State University depend on document cameras as an important teaching tool.
FSU Professor of Music Theory Jane Clendinning says doc cams have allowed curriculum to become significantly more student-directed. For example, she says the cameras make it easier to teach students how to analyze and annotate a score.
In the past, analyzing a score occurred in a fixed order using preannotated transparencies. Now, Clendinning simply plugs an MP3 player into the sound system and uses it in conjunction with the doc cam to annotate the score as the class moves through the music.
“This permits the flow of each class section to be customized to the dynamics of the group because I can change direction, add materials or get students involved as appropriate,” she says. “It also means that each class section is unique to the students who are in it.”
A New Standard
Document cameras have been installed in 190 general-purpose classrooms at FSU. A single doc cam is the minimum; in some popular classrooms, there are two or more.
“If a professor has any inclination to use technology, a document camera is one of the first types of gear to be adopted,” says Jay Willoughby, FSU's assistant director for instructional technology support.
In fact, a recent campuswide faculty poll showed that doc cam usage was second only to computers.
To achieve such strong adoption rates, FSU spent about a decade systematically outfitting each classroom with doc cams as well as a computer, notebook connection, DVD/VCR combo, digital projector, sound system and wireless presenter.
Grouped together in a console, the technology tools are all managed by a controller with a touch screen. They are connected to the FSU network, which permits logging in to access desktop profiles as well as the Internet.
Professors can walk into any traditional classroom with the confidence that a Samsung SDP-900DXA document camera will be available. “We standardized on that camera not only for its feature set, but also because it matches the native resolution of our classroom computers and projectors,” Willoughby explains.
“Additionally, standardizing on a specific model reduces the number and types of spares we need to keep on hand for swapping out when a piece of equipment goes down,” he adds. “This helps us meet our uptime goals.”
FSU administrators say document cameras are clearly improving the quality of education at the university.
“Our math faculty members have changed the way they teach based on the availability of two doc cams in a classroom,” says Kimberly Barber, FSU's registrar.
“They use one as a static camera to show the math problem,” continues Barber, a former classroom teacher. “The other camera is used dynamically to work out the problem. And when a math professor winds up in a classroom without two doc cams by accident, they're somewhat put out.”
Yet ubiquity is only part of the adoption equation, says Barber. Mentoring is also important. She says the ITS team does an exceptional job of noticing proficient or innovative users and making incidental referrals to other faculty members. “This gets educators talking to each other,” she says.
Another reason professors embrace the cameras is the extensive support offered by Willoughby's team, including an online directory of classrooms where educators can drill down to receive detailed end-user information and diagrams.
“Faculty, students or administrators who need a space can click on any classroom to find out exactly what equipment is in it and how to use it,” says John Braswell, the user support administrator in FSU's Academic and Professional Program Service department, an academic unit charged with helping faculty incorporate innovations into their curriculum.
He says users can click on any piece of equipment in the room to learn more, so it's possible for them to be trained even before they enter the room. Plus, if something goes wrong, assistance is a click away.
“A professor just touches a button on the controller's screen to get help,” says Braswell. “A tech will come to the room, usually within minutes.”
The doc cams are well received among students, who report that the cameras are used across the curriculum.
Sophomore Michael Richards says in his science classes, professors use document cameras to teach students how to solve equations. In English, professors highlight the section they're discussing in a text. And in history, they display highly specialized maps, covering certain time periods or groups, that aren't otherwise available on the web.
Richards says document cameras also facilitate student participation. For example, during a group project in a computer programming course, the students drew up the code and used the doc cam to display it during their presentations. He says the cameras improve overall classroom efficiency and effectiveness.
“When you're solving an equation, methodology can be important,” he says. “With a computerized slide, you can't see how your professor came to their conclusion. And, on a board, it takes longer for professors to write out equations large enough for everyone to see.”
Music professor Clendinning says doc cams allow her to involve about twice as many students in classroom presentations as she could with a chalkboard. In the past, only a handful of students could copy their work to a board, compared with placing it on a camera.
Boards are also difficult to see from the back of the room, she adds. With a document camera, she can adjust the size so everyone can immediately see all the fine details of a typical musical score. This kind of immediacy is also superior to collecting student papers, photocopying them and distributing them to the class at a later date, Clendinning adds.
“We can display student solutions in the moment,” she explains. “It's also more sustainable than photocopying. And when anonymity is necessary, it's easier to maintain because I can just shuffle the papers before placing them on the doc cam.”
Another advantage is the freedom to use a wider variety of copyrighted materials. It's cost-prohibitive to obtain photocopying and distribution rights for every type of score, Clendinning says. Displaying scores as transparencies is allowed, but they're not crisp enough for some of the fine details, she says; plus, the need for a particular score can't always be anticipated in advance.
Doc cams solve all of these challenges, Clendinning adds, because they allow her to project scores during class. “Then the scores can be put on reserve in the library for later student use.”
Moving forward, Willoughby expects the next generation of document cameras to improve the classroom experience even more, especially as the university begins upgrading to Samsung HD doc cams throughout 2011.
He says the new HD equipment will include professional video capture rates of 30 frames per second (roughly twice the speed of the doc cams currently used), better illumination and improved zoom functionality.
These new features will help the university enhance its distance and online learning capabilities, such as lecture capture. During spring semester 2011, FSU is rolling out its first general purpose lecture-capture classroom, Willoughby says. Document cameras will be a part of the console, so anything that is projected using a doc cam will be captured.
The native widescreen rectangular aspect ratio of a new family of Samsung document cameras, which is an improvement over the legacy 4:3 square format
Braswell says the advanced recording features of the HD cameras will be particularly helpful for moving math and science classes online. Today, the tools for teaching equations are limited and cumbersome, he says, which is why FSU's online offerings in those areas have been weak.
Regardless, registrar Barber foresees all FSU populations benefiting from the HD upgrade. “Across disciplines, we're already seeing faculty members moving with increasing fluidity from the document camera to movie clips, web images and back,” she says.
New technology features are always welcome, but supplying professors and students with the right tools for teaching and learning is what it's all about for Willoughby's team.
“Document cameras have certainly been widely accepted as a flexible tool,” he says. “And that's always our goal – it's not about the technology itself; it's about the teaching and learning it enables.”
Although the term “document camera” arose from the technology's original application for projecting printed pages, FSU's science faculty use the technology for much more.
Chemistry professors use the cameras to demonstrate chemical reactions. In biology, educators are zooming in on the structure of wasp nests, sea urchins and other three-dimensional specimens.
“I may not have a computerized slide or picture of something available to answer a student's question,” explains Walter Tschinkel, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor in the biological sciences. “But I always have specimens handy.
“Besides, with a slide or picture you lose valuable impromptu capabilities because you can't manipulate them to show a particular structure,” he adds. “With a document camera I can magnify a specific part of specimen that illustrates a point.”
Document cameras have even delivered unexpected side benefits. “For example, they slow me down compared to teaching with computerized slides,” Tschinkel says. “This stimulates student note taking because I'm not going too fast.”
For the future, Tschinkel is hopeful that FSU's planned upgrade to HD document cameras will open up new possibilities. “I'd love to be able to dissect insects while students watch,” he says.