The Document Camera: Advancing Classroom Visual Technology

10/1/2008 5:00:00 AM

from Educators' eZine

I stood in front of the classroom and turned on the power to the overhead transparency projector. Placing a paper printout on the projector, I was met with a projected shadow of the paper and advice from a polite student at Austin High School; "Mr. Frisk, you have to use a transparency with the projector. Paper will not work." Twenty-three years earlier, I had graduated from this school and had just returned as a non-certified substitute teacher, in front of a classroom for the first time. I had never appreciated the stand-alone transparency projectors, desiring something that would show an image printed on paper. A generation later, I discovered little had changed in the classroom, with the exception of white boards replacing black boards, a computer on the teacher's desk, and resemblances of my old classmates in the faces of their children I was now privileged to instruct. A few years later, on my first night in graduate school, I found the projector I desired.

A Better Way to Present

The document camera, commonly known as a video visualizer/presenter or Elmo, a popular brand, is a modern replacement for the stand-alone overhead transparency projector, a device first developed to train soldiers during WWII (Crystal, 2008). Document camera technology consists of a video camera mounted on a stand with an illuminated display platform under the camera lens. Material is placed on the platform and projected through an overhead-mounted projector or by way of a television set. The document camera can display almost anything placed under its lens, including transparencies, opaque materials such as black and white or colored paper printouts and 3D objects. There is no waiting in line at the copier to create a transparency minutes before class begins, and no standing in front of the class, getting in the way, while presenting material. A teacher can stand at the back of the classroom or off to one side and display material via an S-Video cable attached to the camera and leading through the ceiling to a projector or TV. Any printout or anything in a book can be displayed by setting it beneath the camera lens, and transparencies can be viewed by turning on a base light. The learning curve with this technology is short, often measured in minutes.

Document Camera Advantages

A dozen document camera advantages:

  • Display paper printouts, slides and transparencies

  • Display text and/or photos from a book

  • Display three-dimensional objects

  • Display and save "live" images

  • Display in color or B & W

  • Zoom in and out capability

  • Long-lasting fluorescent lighting

  • Ease and spontaneity of operation

  • Students pay better attention

  • Students can show off their work

  • Useful across disciplines

  • Does not require a computer or networking
Document Camera Disadvantages

Document camera disadvantages are few but serve to limit their acceptance. They are:

  • Far greater cost than stand-alone transparency projectors

  • Require a projection unit or TV set

  • Lack of familiarity among teachers and school administrators
Content Clarity and Time On Task

The document camera is a marvelous tool for increasing content clarity. A teacher can do live demonstrations under the camera lens to show students exactly what is being asked of them. An example is filling out a standardized test form, under the camera, so students can see how to correctly prepare the form. I did this during student teaching and my mentor teacher commented it was the first time in his twelve years of classroom instruction that students did not pose a question on preparing the test form. Watching me fill out the form, live under the camera lens, trumped any verbal instruction I could have given.

Veteran teachers who have observed my document camera in use have described student time on task as phenomenal. Students pay attention to this exciting technology. I can lecture 8th graders for 25 minutes without a single head hitting a desk, as the nearly unlimited content that can be shown is a huge advantage when it comes to making presentations fun for students of all ages and abilities.

Student Ownership in the Lesson and Equipment

I believe the greatest advantage of the document camera is the increased participation of students in lessons. Students beg for the opportunity to operate the camera! In my classroom, students run the camera and present materials while I lecture. I prepare lecture notes and graphics and divide them into sections by using line breaks in Word-produced documents. I give a student a quick instructional session before he or she presents the material by sliding the paper forward on the camera base, displaying one section of notes at a time. I allow the students to make mistakes as I teach them how to display material and avoid doing anything that might distract the audience, such as displaying their hands. A copy of the material is given to all students before presenting. When students get to college, they will know how to give professional presentations with this machine.

Since students run the camera, they feel a sense of ownership in the equipment and lesson. They respect the technology and take care of it. In one class, students named my camera after a classmate who was fascinated with it. Students can display their work for all to see when a document camera is present. While teaching the Cornell note style, I allowed students to show their peers how they were taking notes so they could learn from each other. This versatility and spontaneity sets the document camera apart from other classroom tools such as PowerPoint and electronic boards. After modeling presentations, the teacher can put students to work creating group presentations using the camera. I believe retention increases when students teach each other.

Useful Across Disciplines

Document cameras can be used across disciplines. Science teachers can greatly improve their presentations. A teacher stated it would be perfect to display his meteorites, items he did not like to pass around the classroom. Small specimens of just about anything can be clearly displayed under a powerful zoom lens. A biology teacher can show various animal, rock and plant specimens. Dissecting animals can be done under the camera with students following along on their specimens. X-rays can also be displayed.

Math teachers and students can work problems under the live camera lens. Placing math problems on paper and displaying them via the document camera works well when the white board is full. I found the classroom "smart board" to be clumsy for working out problems and school districts are putting them to that use. Electronic boards have a place in education but document cameras are more versatile and do not rely on a computer. If there is a networking or software problem, the smart board goes down with the computer. When subbing in geometry, a teacher forgot to give me access to his computer so I could run the lessons he had ready for his smart board. I had to track him down to gain computer access.

The camera works well in the language arts classroom. English teachers display a lot of text, and the camera is best at showing text. I use size twenty font when putting together presentations, but the zoom feature allows most any font size to be easily read, even from the back of an auditorium or by vision-impaired students. Tiny font sizes often used for the captions of photos can be zoomed in on and easily read. With automatic focus and one-touch zoom, zooming in and out is not a distraction and is nearly instantaneous. In contrast, electronic boards I've used convert imported text files to pictures and blur the text.

In social studies, the document camera can replace map sets. Students enjoy looking at wall-mounted maps and these should be provided, but when it comes to presenting maps in the classroom, nothing beats a document camera. I place maps into three-ring binders and organize them to coincide with my lessons. I can zoom in and out on various parts of a map and show detail that would otherwise be difficult for students to clearly see, especially those sitting in the back of the classroom, and I don't have to worry about getting in the way while displaying a map. I had a professor who would not use the camera, and his presentations suffered. He'd stand to one side of his map and get in the way as he pointed to various locations. To show a photo in a book, he would hold the book in his hands and walk around the classroom. I opined the document camera would help him display maps and photos. He stated he was too old to change.

While I am newly licensed as a secondary school teacher, I have taught in the elementary schools and have found ways to use a document camera in teaching younger children. I believe this technology would be a boon to teachers willing to give it a try, as children enjoy visuals and are not afraid of new technologies. Document cameras are simple for youngsters to operate and are also tough enough to stand up to little hands.

Underutilized Technology

In spite of advantages the document camera offers teachers, I found only one in use in fourteen Minnesota public schools. I believe this is due to cost and a lack of familiarity among school personnel. A school district can purchase ten stand-alone transparency projectors for the cost of a document camera. The document camera is best utilized in conjunction with an overhead projection unit, another costly piece of equipment. Still, with many schools installing ceiling-mounted projection units, it makes sense to take full advantage of the situation by incorporating the document camera. The two technologies are complementary and most electronic boards support document cameras.

What to Look For

I have used cameras by Elmo and Canon with complete satisfaction. A 12X or greater zoom with automatic focus is fine for the classroom. The camera should have a large and unobstructed base with a backlight for displaying transparencies and bright florescent side lamps for showing everything else. Most cameras allow for a variety of hookups, but I prefer to use an S-Video cable. Controls should be on the front of the camera and be easy to operate. The camera should have a nice color display with minimal screen flicker. A small table will easily accommodate it.

Camera Costs

Camera prices run from under $1,000 to $4,000. I used ebay to purchase my camera, in unused condition, for $167.50 but schools are not going to be buying on ebay. Teachers, being professionals, should consider weighing the camera cost against the tremendous results and timesaving a document camera can procure for them. Though the cameras are not cheap, prices are falling and costs of not upgrading to them are even greater. For districts looking to provide their educators with the best visual technology currently available to advance content clarity and familiarize students with college-level technology, the document camera is an investment worth making.

Looking Back

8th grade student operates the document camera.

Looking back upon my first day as a substitute teacher, I acknowledge transparency projectors helped to educate students since the Greatest Generation, but something better exists and educators owe it to themselves and their students to try advanced technology. As I walk the schools and observe teachers using traditional methods to display content, such as PowerPoint and transparency projector presentations, I see teachers, not students, presenting material and mainly text being displayed to bored students. In contrast, the document camera opens up a world of colorful possibilities! I have had test scores increase dramatically, close to a full grade, possibly the result of students paying attention to better presentations made possible through the use of advanced technology and a bit of ingenuity.

Additional info. can be found at:

Biographical Information

I am recently certified in 5-12 Social Studies and completed my Master of Arts in Teaching degree out of Minnesota State, Mankato. I have been a part-time substitute teacher in the Austin, Minnesota public school district since 2002.


Crystal, Garry. 2008. What is an overhead projector.

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