Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is your document camera holding them back?

From the Doc Camera
I walked around the large store looking at all the back to school supplies on sale and I began to notice how many of those things I'm not buying anymore because there is so much less paper in my classroom.  I didn't need...well, paper, folders, dividers, binders, paper clips, staples, pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, etc. Then I realized my document camera was just like many of those supplies, nice to have on hand, but not seeing much action.

Document cameras are great and they have many excellent uses, but I just don't ever have much paper to put under mine. I've moved on. Almost every classroom in my district has a document camera. They are standard issue as part of a digital initiative that is putting 1:1 devices in most classrooms as well. But, I'm finding that when students have their own computers they can spend their class time much more productively than watching me teach from the document camera. 

I used to spend a lot of time sitting next to my overhead projector. This was in my middle school teaching days when I literally gathered the kids on a rug and sat on a low table next to the overhead. We did some great reading lessons, shared writing activities etc. there on the rug together, with that old overhead projector.  But, the document camera is not an overhead projector.  I know that seems like an odd thing to say. In most classrooms the document camera came in and the overhead projector went out, but teachers still using their document camera just like an overhead projector need to know more. They have traded horses for cars, but they are still only moving at ten miles per hour.

First of all, the overhead projector was one tool. A document camera is actually two parts, the camera and a separate projector that it connects with to display the image. Those projectors also connect to computers, most often laptop computers. This is a huge advantage that often gets underused.

Even the best document cameras can not create an image as clear as the projected computer. So, if what you want to put under the document camera was originally produced with a computer, your students would be able to see it better if you just project the computer.  I frequently see colleagues, new to educational technology, print something, run copies and then put a copy under the document camera to model the lesson.  The image is usually poor. Today I take that computer created document, graphic organizer, text material etc and push  it out to my students through Google Docs or a public Dropbox link. No paper at all, so nothing to put under the document camera. 

Once my students have their own computers to work on I want to go see what they are doing. I have fancy software that would let me monitor their screens from an underground bunker five miles away, but what's the point of that? Education is a human activity. I need to get out there. That's probably another reason I hardly ever use the document camera. Document camera teaching keeps me bolted to my teacher table as tightly as it is bolted to the table itself. If I am explaining something with a whiteboard or even a Promethean board I can easily step away from it and get out to my students. Document cameras tend to get set on tables and it seems to makes sense to pull up a chair and sit down at the document camera. If you absolutely have to sit, set a timer for five minutes and then get up. 

Another common sight is the textbook under the document camera. Why? The students have textbooks right? Even if they are sharing a book, the text is right in front of them. Let them read it. Give them a graphic organizer to work with, or a problem to solve, and make sure they are reading with a purpose. If textbooks are crucial to your subject area please get (and read) Reading for Learning by Heather Lattimer. It's a short book that will give you lots of help making reading content material work better in your classroom.

A tip about textbooks and doc cameras, especially for English teachers. Most of what publishers put in literature anthologies is already available for free on the internet. I saw a teacher reading a short story with her students, from the textbook, under the doc camera. It was a visual catastrophe. The same story was on the internet. If she had pulled it up on her computer the text would at least have been clearer. If she had put it into a word processor she could have even modeled annotation skills. When I asked her later why she didn't try that she said it never occurred to her.

I know some teachers (even those who have had laptops and document cameras for years) still put things under the camera because they only have that resource as a hard copy. It's time to scan it. The scan will be cleaner and show up better from the computer. You'll have a digital copy that you can share with colleagues and students. Plus that old newspaper clipping won't get any more yellow than it is already.

In my room the projector is now integrated into the interactive whiteboard. If you are still working with a separate projector please position it to make the screen as large as possible. I know this can be tough because the projector often needs to be a good ten feet from the screen to get a large image. Fight for a ceiling mount. Put the projector on a cart and roll it to the middle of the room when you need it, but please don't make kids squint at a small screen. 

I asked about document cameras on twitter recently. "Do you have one? How often do you use it and what for." The response was passionate and enthusiastic. There are lots of excellent teachers out there using document cameras in great ways: to have students bring their work up and explain their thinking to the class, to show science experiments or math manipulatives, to flip it up and use it as a web camera when skyping, (Yes, many doc camera models will do that.)  I asked lots of my responders if they also had 1:1 devices for their students.  The trend seemed to be that those with student devices had less use with the document camera.

My favorite answer about document cameras came from Shawntel Allen who said she did not have 1:1 devices but still never used her doc camera because, "...I prefer student focused activities with small groups doing the work...not board focused activities. BORING. =)"

How you use a document camera depends heavily on the age of your students, the other technology you have available to you, and your style of teaching, but it is always worth asking, "Is this the best way to teach this material? Could I make this easier to see, more interactive, or more interesting?"  And if the document camera is the way to go that's great, as long as you really thought about it first.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Would you like to play a game?

I'm married to a game designer. I don't think that qualifies me in any way to write this post, but it does explain why the buzz about gamification piques my interest. Some of my thinking about playing school.

A colleague asked via twitter for responses related to “academic entitlement” as described in this ED Week article. Briefly, academic entitlement being the belief that one is entitled to a particular grade for reasons tangential to academic achievement such as attending class regularly or paying for the course.

The article resonated with me because I do see students so often caring more about their points and percentages than what they have learned. Parents too will call and ask for extra credit assignments. In a mastery learning, standards based system, extra credit is rather meaningless. I told one mother that her son was welcome to write an extra essay, but if the new essay didn't score better on the rubric her son’s grade would not change. (He already had a B.) But, despite my best efforts to make my class about growth, passion based learning and self efficacy, I always have that handful of students who make decisions based on their perceived or desired grade.

This week, I was privileged to be present for a keynote presentation from  Gabe Zicherman (@gzicherm) about gamification in education. It’s a hot topic, and I hear lots about adding gamification to classrooms. Gabe gave it to me from a new angle, though. It’s not about making your classroom more like a game. It’s about understanding the psychology of gaming and motivation and applying those lessons to the classroom in an intelligent way.  Because in reality the classroom is already implicitly gamified. I said as much to my colleague who asked about the ED Week article.  Me: “As soon as there are grades students become more interested in points than learning. School is already gamified.”

Her response, I think, reflects some of the hope by many that gamification is some kind of magic bullet that will fix classrooms. She replied, “You think school is already gamified? Games only give points that are earned and many kids get promoted that don't deserve it.”   And here we have a fundamental breakdown in understanding about the way games work, the assumption that they are always fair and always merit based. Most games are not. In fact a huge motivating factor in many games is the element of chance. This is why the lottery works, but there are hundreds of other games that rely on an element of chance, from free parking in Monopoly to easter eggs hidden in video games. We keep playing because there is always the hope of the unexpected bonus points. Many points and game rewards are unearned.

Fairness is likewise a myth. In any game there are always some players who have an advantage over others. Many times these are inherent advantages such as prior experience, age, physiology, distance, strategical knowledge and money. (Seen Moneyball?) Anyone who teaches knows that students come into their classroom with a wide range of readiness. In the game of school there are some kids who start ahead and others who start behind. This becomes a challenge for those attempting to apply gaming principles to classrooms. Should rewards be based on specific achievements or on progress? Even the question reflects the reality of an unequal starting line. Imagine being the player who joins a Monopoly game after several other players have already gone around the board a few times already. You’d be more than a bit behind. (This is an actual activity done in my local writing project to make a point about inequality.)

So, if game theory does not fit some idealized notion consistency and fairness how can gamification impact classrooms positively? I think the answers are psychology and transparency. Understanding gamers can help us understand our students, (often one and the same). And as I said before, school is already a game. The smartest students know that (they sometimes refuse to play along) and the kids with the best grades have learned how to play school so well that they draw self esteem not from learning, but from earning good grades. Player motivation is something we need to understand.

Gabe Zicherman explained the four player types as described by Richard Bartle, Achievers, Socializers, Explorers and Killers, (his word for those who must not only win, but need to make sure others lose.) Achievers love to win, but only if winning means something. An achiever is satisfied with winning only if there are very few winners. If everyone gets an A then that A is worthless to an achiever. Socializers and explorers are the types who will enjoy collaboration, process, and have that passion based learning experience I want for them. I think the killer group have gotten a lot of press lately by another term, bullies. Their success is measured not by how well they do, but by how poorly others do.

I don’t know that thinking of students through this lense is any more useful than multiple intelligences, learning styles or any other social behavioral/learning theory label. We are all a bit of everything. But, I can tell you I see students who fit those player types quite often. So, if knowing about player types helps me understand their motivation a bit better, then I’ll try it. I also found John Radoff’s model of player motivations helpful.

One fear, besides the romanticism about the fairness of games, is cheating. In the gaming world cheating is an accepted practice. I’m not saying it’s okay, just that it has become normal in many areas. Just as steroids were once the norm in some sports, cheat codes, player walkthroughs (step by step directions for how to beat a game), youtube videos and entire websites are devoted to helping players win in the video game world. The goal is to win, and while it may be more satisfying to win based on effort, it is still nice to win. When we make school even more game like, we open ourselves to the mentality that the ends justify the means. As educators we try to tell students that cheating and plagiarism are wrong, but the game like nature of school implicitly encourages them to use every resource they have available to them to win. When winning becomes more important than learning we have lost.

I'm looking forward to the discussion this post may generate. I'm excited for the possible applications of game psychology and game theory to education. Much as game designers have to think through all the possible player behaviors and possible loopholes in game play, we must be thoughtful about the design of our classrooms lest we get played.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I’m hoping to go to TEDx San Diego this year.  My husband, Kris, went last year.  I didn’t apply because I was presenting at an educational conference the same day, but I followed some of the live stream before my session started.

When he came home he said, “You really should have been there.” I agreed and told him I would apply this year. He said, “No, you should have been there at lunch today.” and then he told me this story. It’s been told and retold a few times, so I hope these details aren’t too embellished.

During the lunch break he had been sitting with a group and education came up. Kris mentioned that I use a blog to manage my classroom interactions to the woman sitting next to him. Another woman, across the table, paused, looked up and peered for a moment at his name tag. “Are you Jen Roberts’ husband?” she asked. Surprised, he acknowledged that he was.

To hear him tell it the woman from across the table went on to tell him that I do way more than blog. “She’s a Google Certified Teacher.” (As if Kris didn’t know this fact.) She told him she followed me on Twitter and (to hear him tell it) raved about me for a few minutes.

I asked her name. He couldn’t remember. I asked my twitter followers. None acknowledged being at Tedx San Diego. I still don’t know who she was, but I need to thank her. Not only did she create a memorable family story that will often be retold, but she also made me realize that my blogging and sharing provides value to many people I will never meet.

Through Twitter, Nings, Conferences and blogging I have connections to thousands of other teachers and they are connected to thousands more and so on and so on. All of them constantly pouring resources and ideas into this great lake of knowledge that I can draw from. But, unlike a real lake, the more knowledge I take out the deeper the pool gets because we are all constantly passing those ideas on to others.

I’d like to see a study done about connected educators. I bet it would find that teachers with strong connections to other educators through professional social networks are happier, more effective (if you can measure that), and experience less burnout than teachers without any professional social network.

I’m looking forward to the TEDx San Diego applications being available this year. The lake just gets deeper and deeper.