Are Document Cameras the Next Big Thing?


The versatile projection technology could be the next recipient of that rarest ofeducational honors: ubiquitous classroom adoption.

IT’S NO EASY THING for a technology to go from introduction to universal adoption. And if trends over the last 200 years are any indicator, the honor is not eagerly doled out, no matter how useful the innovation is. It took nearly 50 years after their arrival in 1801 for chalkboards to become a classroom staple, paving the way for teachers to provide instruction to large classes, eliminating the need to handcopymaterials for each student.

Since then, just one presentation technology has enjoyed the same level of acceptance: the overhead projector. And despite how overhead transparencies have made it practical for teachers to prepare notes and drawings ahead of time to project during class, it took 40 years to get the technology into their hands. Current presentation technologies far surpass overhead projectors, but none has seen ubiquitousclassroom adoption.

Smart Classroom

POINT AND CLICK Affordable and easy
to use, document cameras can work in
tandem with many different technologies.

Enter the document camera. This cost-effective, easy-to-use device works in conjunction with a projector, television, plasma screen, or monitor to display documents and 3-D objects. Capable of capturing images and video to upload to a computer for use in multimedia projects and web pages, some models even allow users to share the screen display or freeze and annotate images. More importantly, students of all ages can use document cameras to share their work. As aresult, schools are purchasing them in increasing numbers.

The growing popularity of the device has not escaped the notice of education leaders in the state of Washington, where document cameras are now more widely used in classrooms than digital cameras. In fact, two well-established regional projects in Washington use document cameras in their professional development curricula. One project is for K-12 teachers, while the other targets secondary school math teachers. Each is designed to help participating teachers make better use of technology to impact teachingand learning.

The K-12 program is led by Debbie Tschirgi. In 2005-06, Tschirgi, the director of educational technology programs for Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver, WA, designed and launched a program called the Sustainable Classroom Project. She explains that the program is a response to the need for educators to“develop a replicable classroom model of technology integrationthat is sustainable and supports research-based instructionalstrategies.”

The technologies used in the program are highly visual and interactive, and can be operated with a single classroom computer. The instructional strategies are derived from the book Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement by Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001). The original program was piloted by 10 technology-proficient K-12 teachers and reviewed by an external evaluator, who concluded that “key decisionmakers for educational organizations and institutions should consider the document camera as a standard technology solution that will provide visually rich learning experiencesfor their students.”

Even before Tschirgi organized the Sustainable Classroom Project, math integration specialist Mary Anderson was working with teachers in ESD 123 (Pasco, WA) to improve mathematics instruction in grades 6 through 12. Seven years ago, many districts in Anderson’s region adopted a reformed math curriculum that required middle and high school students to not only find the correct answer to a problem, but also explain the reasoning they used to arrive at the solution. This approach to mathematics instruction required major shifts inboth teaching and learning.

About the same time, ESD 123 decided to use funds from Title II, Part D of the No Child Left Behind Act to support a program called No Limit!. Designed to develop instructional models that support deeper understanding of mathematics concepts, No Limit! uses professional learning communities to focus on effective instruction and integration of appropriatetechnology. Blending these two math initiatives was a natural.

During the first two years of No Limit!, ESD 123 staff members made no recommendations about technology selection. A handful of teachers opted to use document cameras. In each case, the technology proved particularly effective in helping them and their students implement the reformed math curriculum. In year three (2003-2004), ESD 123 staff beganurging all No Limit! districts to purchase document cameras.

Document cameras initially appeal to end users because they’re easy to operate and similar to familiar tools like overhead projectors. How, then, do school leaders encourage teachers to move beyond the basic use of the tool, and what is the value in doing so? Tschirgi and Anderson identify two fundamental lessons they have learned. First, begin with a thoughtful design for professional development. Second,focus on shifting from teacher- to student-centered strategies.

An Extra Level of Professional Development

All too often, professional development segregates content from the technology that will be used to support it. As a result, educators struggle to make connections between subject matter and use of technology as an instructional tool. Both the Sustainable Classroom Project and No Limit! offer two strands of professional development designed tosupport teachers as they change instructional practice.

While it takes less than an hour to learn basic use of a document camera, the advanced features are what make it an effective teaching tool. In the first strand, teachers learn the fundamentals, then are offered another four to six hours of training on the advanced features, which enable them toextend their use of the document cameras.

The second strand focuses on instructional practice and content. The Sustainable Classroom Project adheres to nine research-based instructional strategies identified in Classroom Instruction That Works. Nine three-week online modules provide background on each strategy and ways technology can be used to support the strategy. Teachers then write and implementrelated technology-supported classroom activities.

The No Limit! model brings professional learning communities together monthly to discuss curriculum and instructional strategies. Technology is not a separate agenda item, but conversations about the content inevitably lead to discussions of ways teachers are using document cameras to improve instruction. Anderson recently asked No Limit! participants to describe how the document camera has changed the teaching and learning of mathematics in their classrooms.The teachers identified four major changes:

  • more class time devoted to discussions of students’ written work and thought processes
  • increased numbers of students, especially English language learners, sharing and explaining their work
  • growing student confidence in their mathematical abilities and better comprehension of concepts
  • increased teacher understanding of students’ thought processes


A series of short video clips showing document cameras in action in the classroom can be viewed on the Sustainable Classroom Project web page.

A Gradual Adoption

Ideally, a technology adoption should change something about the way teachers teach or children learn. But Tschirgi points out that there’s a midway outcome that must be honored as teachers become accustomed to using a technology.“The fact is that many teachers will first be hooked by atechnology that enables them to do something in a different,more effective way,” she says. “Teachers new to documentcameras often focus first on the fact that the equipmentmakes it easier for them to show objects or text to students,or to demonstrate a lesson.”

It isn’t until later that the teachers fully embrace those capabilities that facilitate the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning environments. “Ultimately,” Tschirgi says, “this project encourages teachers to make sure that it’s the students who take the lead, using the document camera for presentations and peer teaching.”

Anderson thinks document cameras are a good candidate for the next universal presentation technology adoption. “In my view,” she says, “the document camera is the single most important piece of technology for all teachers, especially for math teachers who are seeking to understand their students’ thinking about the mathematics they are learning.”

Susan Brooks-Young is an education consultant and authorbased in Lopez Island,WA, and Vancouver, BC.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.