Document cameras not for everyone


Should document cameras be ubiquitous in the classroom? A colleague pointed me to the following article, to which I penned this response.

I take away three significant uses of document cameras:

  • Magnification: in classes that work frequently with very small objects, a document camera may show more detail/be more convenient than simply passing the object around the class.
  • Sharing student work: in classes that frequently share student handwritten/drawn work, a document camera may increase the convenience of making the work of an individual student visible to the entire group.
  • Manual manipulation: you can project a piece of work as you draw on it.

Playing devil’s advocate, a document camera would provide little advantage in the following situations:

  • The class shares objects of larger size (can be easily seen or too large to fit under the camera).
  • Holding the object, not just seeing it, has high pedagogical value.
  • Students complete work to share with small groups, the teacher, parents, or themselves, not the entire class at once.
  • The teacher doesn’t spend much time teaching from the front of the class.
  • The teacher prioritizes aural or text-based instruction over visual.
  • The class is primarily organized around student-led projects.
  • The depth of the object is important (3D vs. 2D).
  • The classroom is physically organized around “activity centers.”

I guess I find document cameras a good fit for the teacher-directed or whole-group classroom, not for the project-based, small-group, or student-directed classroom. Your thoughts?


  1. Chris says:

    I agree with your points Richard. I am a tech junkie, but I really find doc cams to be not much more useful than the standard overhead of days past. Many of my colleagues disagree, but not one has been able to convince me otherwise.
    However, an upside to doc cams is that you don’t have to produce transparencies or clean transparencies so there is a cost saving human factor there.

    Beyond that, I’d have to agree that these are really only useful in whole class or teacher directed instruction which I think most progressive educators are trying to move away from. I tried to limit the use of the doc cams when I was working in 1st and 4th grade classrooms because it put too much focus on me and students would always be attempting to copy verbatim every word I jotted down on a paper under the doc cam-. It’s really just a delivery mode and only a visual one at that.

  2. Jacky Fields says:

    Yeah, well, but it is a delivery mode that can be very useful in elementary classrooms to show pictures from books from the library, where the whole class cannot borrow their own copy. A picture is worth a thousand words and can explain many things to young children that words simply cannot do.

  3. Richard says:

    By all means, effective uses of document cameras do exist. At the same time, they are not worth their cost in every classroom. Many would get more out of spending $500 differently.

    For the reading activity you describe, projecting book images on a large screen will shift attention from the reader (teacher) to the screen. Is this desirable in your classroom? If so, then go for it.

  4. Jonathan says:

    My lecturers used these at university in classes of 150 or so for day-to-day handwriting of equations, diagrams and so on – not for displaying images or objects. I prefer this style of presentation to pre-prepared Powerpoint presentations as it is much easier to copy down material as the lecturer writes it rather than to rush to jot down notes from a slide.

    However the flipside for me is that most of the lecturers were not especially tech-savvy and spent a great deal of time trying to get the document camera, projectors (two) and theatre lighting to work. In the end, some gave up, packed the projection screen away and simply wrote with chalk on the blackboard. This is also a perfectly satisfactory solution for me – why reinvent the wheel?

  5. Alecia Berman-Dry says:

    For the it’s the cost-benefit ratio that is irksome. You talk about spending $500 differently–that’s a LOW END model! The ones that are rated well are closer to $1000! And at a small, independent school $1000 goes a long way. The benefits do not seem to outweigh the expense.

  6. Stephanie Babb says:

    As a former college student, I owe a ton to document cameras. I had several classes with professors who were foremost in their field and brilliant people, but to be honest, I probably would’ve not been able to keep my GPA up if not for their use of document cameras. They either had thick accents which I could hardly understand, or (the worst) very low speaking voices and horrific handwriting on whiteboards- but they frequently used typed or neatly written research papers up on document cameras to supplement their lectures (my college was in the middle of a "green" revolution that discouraged printed materials for each student). Now I work for Projector Superstore (http://www.projectorsuperst…) and anytime I speak with a teacher or school administrator I tell them about my own personal experience. I’ve known many whose schools couldn’t afford them and so they purchased them for their own classroom and they’ve since noticed that not only is it easier and less time-consuming to present notes, but some students pay attention better because the teacher doesn’t have to turn their back to write on a board!