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Texas District Drives Collaborative Effort to Upgrade Document Cameras

Looking to make the most of its technology budget and corresponding initiatives, a large Texas school district has taken the initiative to spark a collaborative effort between two ed tech providers, and the results could lead to cost savings and technology benefits to schools everywhere.

Plano Independent School District (PISD) of Plano, TX, wanted to leverage a pending purchase of new document cameras for all of its classrooms into a broader, more valuable solution. The decision to purchase new cameras grew out of an "old school" need for basic presentation technology. After a 2008 local school bond issue received voter approval, the district solicited a good deal of feedback from teachers on ways a portion of the money might be spent to improve overall classroom education.

"We were looking for a single-solution Web and document camera that would fit our budget and also meet our need for real-time 30 fps full-motion videoconferencing," explained Mary Hewett, PISD executive director of instructional technology. Partly because of the size of the district and the commensurate technology investment being proposed, Hewett said, she was able to turn to Safari Montage and request some targeted software development.

"I told Safari, I'd like this to interface [with our document cameras] so I can leverage the [video capability] that's on the Elmo P30S. Then all I'd have to is attach the mics, which the teachers already have, and use the speakers that are already on the cameras." This led to PISD's development of a dual-use technology: the in-class presentation functions for which the district was already interested in purchasing document cameras, and, with Safari's additional accommodation, a fully-functional videoconferencing tool in every classroom.

The result: The district recently purchased 1,800 P30S digital document cameras from visual presentation equipment provider Elmo USA, and the cameras are fully integrated with the Safari Montage Media Player, allowing users immediate access to all functions of the camera from the player's interface, including image capture and POV adjustment.

(Hewett did qualify that, in order to function as intended, each P30S camera must be equipped with a video frame grabber, a separate, low-cost, external device installed by the school that digitizes video frames from analog signals.)

Given the extent to which the district already engages in videoconferencing, the payoff, said Hewett, is likely to be extraordinary. She cited PISD's extensive cooperative learning projects, a recent live conversation with a PISD alumnus who is now a noted author and lives in New York, and the district's participation, very popular with both students and teacher, in an annual nationwide event. "There's a national book event, Read Across America, that we've always participated in, often involving authors of books that are big with the students, and we've always wanted to get further involved in via videoconferencing." Now, she said, all PISD teachers can have on demand access and even control in which events their classes participate, based on their instruction plans and schedules.

The initiative is currently in its implementation phase, with the cameras being installed so they will be ready to operate in all classrooms when the fall semester begins. However, said Hewett, this is only the first phase. "The big purchase we just made was just for grades 6-12, and we're in installation and implementation mode right now. The next step is to outfit all the elementary classrooms the same way." She said all grade levels should have access to such technology, which expands the educational environment immeasurably beyond the classroom. "We could have videoconferencing from class to class within the school, within the district, or even outside the district, with the teachers having full control over the instructional planning, the scheduling, and the technology itself. Ultimately, the opportunities available with videoconferencing are unlimited."

The district also expects there to be an unusually low level of difficulty in its teachers learning and using the technology. "We're going to do a lot of teacher training, starting in the fall, and go from campus to campus, to make sure everyone knows what's available and how to use it. The learning curve is pretty quick. [The software and cameras are] very simple, user-friendly, and easy to learn."

About the Author

Scott Aronowitz is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. He has covered the technology, advertising, and entertainment sectors for seven years. He can be reached here.

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