If you are a teacher looking for a solution to teaching online that keeps it simple tech-wise and doesn’t involve spending money on devices, this is the way to go. I use this method when I don’t want to use my iPad as a virtual whiteboard. It’s also the simplest solution to teaching online and in the classroom simultaneously.
Are we going to be inevitably forced to teach online this year too? Probably. Whether this means teaching a whole class from home or doing a mix of onsite and remote teaching by separating every class in two groups, as a teacher both can be disconcerting. However, we are not in March 2020 anymore. Now we have to be prepared.
Your pen and paper are your virtual whiteboard
In a classroom you write on the whiteboard, but at home you might not have one. Even if you do, recording yourself while turning your back to the computer is far from ideal, as you would cover the whiteboard, and the computer´s built-in microphone wouldn’t capture your voice well.
What if I sit down in front of the computer and just write on a piece paper what I would have written on the whiteboard in the classroom? How can I record that, so the students can see it the same way I’m seeing it? The answer is by using a document camera.
Document cameras look like a lamp but they don’t have a light bulb, they have a camera that records what’s on your desk. They have a cable to send the video signal to a computer. The ‘document’ you film can be anything from a book, a sheet of paper you are writing on, an object, a calculator, a worksheet, etc. The problem is that they are very expensive, so we are going to use our phone instead to approach a free cost solution here.
It’s like having all the students looking over your shoulders, seeing everything you are writing on a sheet of paper up close.
What do I need?
Contrary to other online teaching methods, you won’t need to buy anything that you don’t already have. You need:
- A computer.
- Your phone. More specifically the camera of your phone.
- A USB cable to connect the phone to the computer.
A tablet/iPad or any external webcam can substitute the phone if you must. And by external I mean it needs to be moveable, not the built-in camera on your laptop. Be aware that the quality of a standard webcam is not as good as that of a phone/tablet.
In case you don’t have a computer, using your phone as a document camera in this way would still be a viable solution. The drawback is that you wouldn’t be able to see the students.
Your phone = document camera + webcam
Your phone is a camera that you can place above the paper (with a homemade stand) and send its video signal as a webcam to Skype/Meet/Zoom/Microsoft Teams or whatever video conference platform you will be using.
I’m going to tell you how you can do these two things.
How do I turn my phone into a webcam?
The easiest way is to use a specific smartphone app. The best ones out there are these three apps:
- EpocCam – Windows/Mac with iPhone/iPad/Android
- iVcam – Windows with iPhone/iPad/Android
- Camo – Mac (coming soon to Windows) with iPhone/iPad
EpocCam covers any combination between Windows/MacOS computers and iOS/Android phones.
All three apps have both free and paid versions available. Free versions limit the resolution and/or show ads/watermarks so you might consider purchasing the paid versions.
All three apps work by installing some drivers in your computer as well as the app in your phone. Drivers are required so the app can send the live video signal from your phone to the computer.
And your phone is a microphone too.
These apps support audio (Camo will support it soon), so your phone works as a microphone too. This is great because as you tend to lean over the paper when you are writing, your mouth is really close to the phone. Much better than the built in microphone of a computer.
How do I make a stand for my phone?
I’m going to give you three DIY solutions for this. You don’t need to buy anything for the first one, it’s completely free. The second solution only works if you have a tripod and a phone holder. The third one is the best solution of all and it costs about 15€. I’m going to explain the three options from tacky to ‘professional’ DIY, but all are practical and functional solutions for what we want to achieve.
First solution: a free DIY stand for your phone.
You just need a ruler, some thick books and an elastic band. Nothing a teacher can’t find at hand.
Fix the phone to one end of the ruler with the elastic band. Stack the books and rest the ruler with the phone on the top. One more book to keep the ruler on there and that’s it, your own free stand for a free document camera.
In this case I used my iPad as weight on top of the ruler. Quick and easy to prepare. The camera of the phone must be pointing downwards at the paper, high enough to frame the width of the paper. The only drawback is that if you want to zoom in/out the paper you need to take out the ruler and fit it between books at a different height.
The image on the right is a screenshot of my computer, this is what the students see. In this example I’m using the free version of EpocCam (see the watermark of Kinoni, the developer of EpocCam).
Second solution: a tripod and a phone holder.
This if you have them. If not, it’s not worth buying them new just for this. It’s cheaper and better to try the third solution. In the images below I’m using a photography tripod capable of turning the vertical bar 90º, so as you see the stand doesn’t take any space from the desk.
This time I’m using Camo app in its free version. The resolution is limited to 720p and there is a watermark on the bottom right corner of the image. This free version of Camo comes with Camo Studio, which allows you to change limited settings for the video. If you want to access all the settings for Camo Studio, this is only possible in the paid version, which costs 41€. More expensive than EpocCam and iVcam.
Third solution: a long term DIY stand for your phone.
A more ‘professional’ solution should allow you to quickly move the phone closer and further from the paper in order to zoom in and out respectively, or just to focus on a different item on your desk. Ideally, the stand should be somehow fixed to the teacher’s desk too.
Do you remember the classic articulated metal flexo lamps that were very popular in the 90s? They are called architect lamps too. One of those is perfect. Buy one and attach the phone to the lamp and you have your own inexpensive document camera stand.
I have a flex lamp similar to the Tertial model and I’m planning to make a DIY stand with it. When I have it ready I’ll post the pictures of the process and the setup laptop+phone+stand here.
These are difficult times. We had taken for granted that teaching was one of those things in human behaviour that would never be jeopardised. Once again, we were wrong.
We need to innovate and we have to be grateful for technology. Luckily, we don’t have to be tech gurus to achieve a practical working solution and that’s what I tried to prove in this post.
I hope this post, and others I’m writing about teaching, can help us to adapt and support in this new situation.
If you are a teacher –or not– who finds this method interesting and practical, I would love to hear from you, so feel free to comment below.