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.


  1. Jennifer,
    This article is so insightful and timely in regards to collaborative and inquiry-based learning in general. As we move further into this decade and the greater integration of mobile devices, the document camera and the Interactive White Board(IWB)will move to a lower digital status much like the current low-tech white board in classrooms. These items just mentioned will still have a place in the 21st century classroom, it will just be for the smaller percentage of front and center type of teacher/student presentations as our national K-12 pedagogy moves from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning.


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