Camcorders Revisited: Why Didn't I Think of That?

My district has tried quite a few new approaches to technology integration in the last few years. In this we are like many other districts trying to come into compliance with the technology portions of No Child Left Behind.

The first approach, and one in which I was lucky enough to be involved, was getting a computer for each of our students. Because of our Title 1 status, we won approval to take out a large loan with which we bought an impressive list of hardware: student computers, modified desks to house the computers, teacher laptops, data projectors, and larger projection screens for all regular classrooms. All fourth grade teachers across the district had also been given ELMO video imagers, with the reasoning that the shift to open response and essay questions in fourth grade benchmark tests warranted the instant feedback of the ELMO.

Our district also used Compass Learning software to offer skills practice across the curriculum, and one of the first signs of technology implementation in our school was a greatly improved use of Compass to assign work custom-tailored to individual needs. The students were excited about the decrease in written drill assignments from a textbook, and the teachers were thrilled to have instant feedback about what lessons students needed most. Also, the one-on-one student interaction with computers allowed teachers the flexibility to meet with small groups whenever the need arose because the rest of the class could stay actively engaged with ongoing projects.

Meanwhile, I had been using a Digital Video camcorder at home to record and edit movies of my two young children, and by the time I received my classroom computers, I had used the camcorder to record a couple of school music programs. With access to a data projector and student computers in my third grade classroom, I decided that we really ought to make the most of our high-tech equipment by shooting and editing a DV movie. The first one we made was of students making balloon animals to wrap up a how-to essay about balloon twisting. The students loved making it and with the data projector, it was easy to involve the whole class in the editing process using Pinnacle Studio. I was really struck by the amazing parallels between video editing and the editing process for a piece of writing.

This led me to think about using DV for a writing workshop as well. If only I had something to hold the camera, I thought, I could use a camcorder with my projector just like the ELMO across the hall. That’s when I discovered a product called a Lightsmith, and learning has not been the same in my classroom ever since. A Lightsmith is a multi-use platform that utilizes a gooseneck arm and camera mount to hold a DV camcorder in position to be used as a video imager. I simply thread on the camera, attach the A/V cable and the AC power cord to the arm with cable clamps, and I’m in business! A second gooseneck arm provides light using a standard light bulb, and a wire sculpture serves as a transparency pen and remote holder.

But that sounds so simple — does it actually work, you ask? Amazingly, the answer is that it actually works better than a traditional — and much more expensive — digital imager. I looked into what makes DV camcorders work so perfectly for this, and found that it all has to do with their CCD auto focus mechanism. In a nutshell, the camera determines the distance to the subject by computer analysis of the image itself. It actually looks at the scene and moves the lens back and forth searching for the best focus. The microprocessor searches for the point where there is maximum intensity difference between adjacent pixels — that's the point of sharpest focus. Typical document cameras are manual focus, which means a lot more fuss and ho-hum picture quality.

When I excitedly brought this idea to my school librarian, I found that the library had a DV camcorder in the closet and I was welcome to use it until someone came asking for it. But people rarely did. Camcorders, I’ve found, are present in almost every school but are drastically underused. Needless to say, that camcorder has become a workhorse attached to my Lightsmith. It has modeled editing, captured group reading from a single copy of a book, examined old photos, studyied rock and mineral features, demonstrated math problems, filmed tadpole development over time, etc. We’ve used it as a tool in our classroom for over 6 months now, and I feel that I’m still finding new uses for it. We’ve also used the camcorder separately on many occasions, and our sixth DV project, this time about Stone Age Skills, is now in the works.

One of my favorite uses for Lightsmith last year was to capture my students reading aloud the books they had written for the Young Authors contest. They had a chance to showcase their illustrations and careful penmanship to the whole class while we also were able to capture their presentation style and reading fluency. Later we edited these together to produce a class collection of video “books on tape†to add to our class library. It is hard to describe the charm and power of hearing students read from their own work like authors at a book signing. Another time we used our Lightsmith for a botany lesson, dissecting fruit to examine and compare their seeds. The whole class was able to watch and sketch in great detail as students took turns dissecting fruits and interpreting the results. Someone remarked that using the camera to see fine details of the seeds was just like modern microsurgery, and that we could probably train others to ‘operate on fruit’ if we taped our procedures. As a practical matter, the simple fact that I don’t have to make transparencies anymore saves me hours of time and countless trips to the copy room. I’ve also noticed that I now show my students many more sources of information on a topic, because I don’t have to worry about conserving transparency film. This causes me to better use the resources that I already own, because even small pictures in books can be used well and stimulate exciting discussions.

My district’s Technology Integration Specialist was so impressed with the results in our classroom last year that she has purchased a new DV camcorder and Lightsmith for each of 15 campuses this year. Since camcorders are familiar technology to most teachers, she thought very little professional development training would be required to get teachers using this tool effectively in their classrooms. And with a Lightsmith selling for $200 and an entry-level DV camcorder selling for about $350, this is the most cost effective and flat-out fun technology investment I’ve come across.

Greg Wenderski