Camera Ready


An influx of presentation technology inspires a third-grade teacher to put the school camcorder to a number of innovative educational uses.

Fifth-grade teacher Kim Shivers discusses the function
of a fantastical machine.

I'D BEEN WANTING a visual presenter in my classroom for a long time and had narrowed the choice to a few of the least expensive models. Then I ran across a product called a Lightsmith Video Platform ($199.99;, and learning in my classroom has never been the same. The platform utilizes a gooseneck arm with an ingenious reversible camera mount to hold a compact camcorder (sold separately) in position as a document camera. Simply mount the camcorder, connect it to a projector or TV with an A/V cable, and plug in the power cord. Just like that, you have a document camera. The platform also includes cable clamps, an adjustable florescent light, and a pen organizer.

It sounds so simple, but does it work? The answer is that it actually works better than a traditional (and several times more expensive) document camera. The key lies in the camcorder's CCD (charge-couple device) auto-focus mechanism. It analyzes the scene and moves the lens back and forth, searching for the point where there is maximum intensity difference between adjacent pixels-that's the point of sharpest focus. Many low-end document cameras are manual focus, which means a lot more fuss and ho-hum picture quality. The optical zoom capability of the latest camcorders is 20X, which is more than enough to match the 12X zoom of most document cameras and visual presenters.

The Lightsmith Video Platform also comes with short MovieMaker II and iMovie tutorials on a Resource CD, so that any teacher with Windows XP or Mac OS X can get started making movies with software he already has. While there are more sophisticated editing programs out there, my district tech people were grateful not to have to install new software on my networked machine. The Lightsmith package also includes a microscope adapter, and amazingly, it works not only with a microscope, but also with binoculars or a telescope. I have to admit, neither the adapter nor my camcorder stays at school over the weekend very often. In a way, that seems like the whole point: Our laptops and PDAs go everywhere with us, so why not our presentation tools, too?

Needless to say, the camcorder has become a workhorse attached to my Lightsmith Video Platform: I use it for modeled editing, group reading from a single copy of a book, examining old photos, studying rock and mineral features, demonstrating math problems, filming tadpole development over time, etc. On one occasion we used it for a botany lesson, dissecting fruit to examine it and compare the seeds. The whole class was able to watch and sketch in great detail as students took turns dissecting fruits and interpreting the results.

Having the use of a camcorder has brought some unexpected benefits, as well. Rather than sell candy bars as a fundraiser, we sold CDs of our classroom videos and had great success. Selling out quickly, we had to burn another batch to keep up with demand. My students were very proud of their work, and it made for an outstanding business lesson as well. We calculated our expense/profit ratio, handled real money, truly personalized the issues of copyright law and digital piracy. It was a real eye-opener for all of us. We've definitely sold our last candy bar.

Over time, we've refined our video-making process. For starters, all group projects have to begin with a written proposal and a completed storyboard sheet. This is not to say we don't tape interesting events when they come our way, but the best learning happens when a project is well researched on the front end. This is one of my favorite stages of the process, because it's so much like the process of writing an essay. It's easy for me to point to a cell of the storyboard and observe that some missing detail leaves me wondering. Students end up practicing the same skills that they would for a written assignment, but they have a lot more fun with a video project and they catch more of their own mistakes. I also select an appropriate rubric and give the group a copy at our first group meeting. On the Lightsmith Web site, there are several links to planning sheets, storyboards, and rubrics, and the company throws in a few customizable versions of its own on the included Resource CD.

We've also learned to burn an archival copy of our finished video projects in avi format on DVDs, because it lets us better use our video clips in the future. We found out the hard way that simply saving a compressed wmv file of a project before deleting the original footage doesn't cut it-it's fine for watching on a computer or hosting on a Web site, but the compressed video has lost too much quality to ever be viewed on a big screen or shown on a cable-TV station. Saving an avi copy preserves all your options.

Just when we thought we'd seen it all, we recently found out that digital camcorders also can be used as FireWire Web cams to help students to take part in great programs like NASA LIVE ( or to videoconference with local experts. Canon ( and Sony ( both offer free drivers on their Web sites that let you use their cameras as Webcams with Windows Netmeeting (, and Macs will do the same thing with Quicktime Broadcaster (, also a free download from Apple. And the folks at Lightsmith have thought this one through--they offer the optional service of linking up their customers as videoconference pen pals.

I've always loved camcorders, but I'm still amazed at how this familiar tool has been transformed in our classrooms. Our district is now using more than 30 Lightsmith Video Platforms with either Digital 8 or DV camcorders, and new ideas just keep coming. And with a Lightsmith Video Platform at only $200, and digital camcorders running about $350, it's the best presentation technology bargain we've seen.

Greg Wenderski is a third-grade teacher in the Fayetteville Independent School District in Texas.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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