Although they’ve been tinkering around the education world for the last few years, visualisers have not had as big an impact as some of its technological rivals such as the interactive whiteboard. In this article I’m going to try and explain what a visualiser is, how they are used in the classroom and finally, why your school would need one.
I first landed my eye on a visualiser when I was in college around 1999-2000 in UCD. It wasn’t called a visualiser then and I remember it cost the university a hell of a lot of money. It was used once in a lecture like a fancy overhead projector, in that, the lecturer simply placed his handwritten notes on the visualiser’s surface and they showed up on a big screen. As far as I can see now, it simply meant that sales of acetates were the only things going to suffer as a result of this fancy device.
It was about 6 years later when I was at an NCTE (now PDST Technology in Education) seminar that I saw a the device again. The seminar was all about eLearning plans. I don’t remember very much about it. I vaguely recall at that time, everyone was very excited about Interactive Whiteboards and much debate was had about including them in the eLearning template. However, I do remember the “oohs” and “aahs” when one of the trainers showed us a visualiser.
In a nutshell, a visualiser is a piece of hardware used for presenting. In almost every way, it is a modern overhead projector. An overhead projector consisted of a surface to place a document and a “stick” with a strong light at the top. The document that was placed on the surface had to be copied onto an acetate and when one shone the light on the document, it projected it on to a large surface.
A visualiser is not too different. Generally, there is a surface to place a document on. Then there is a stick. The difference to the OHP is that on the top of the stick is a camera (rather than a light) which when connected to a projector, displays whatever document is on the surface. The document doesn’t have to be on an acetate or some other transparent sheet. Essentially, you can stick anything underneath the camera of a visualiser and it will show up on your big screen or wall.
There are now a number of designs of visualiser, each with their own quirks and sales points. I would divide them into two categories – large-based and small-based.
Large-based visualisers look a little bit like Overhead projectors. They are large devices with a base roughly the size of an A4 piece of paper. The base is usually white and sometimes can be backlit.
The small-based visualiser is one that holds the stick with the camera on top. You have to provide the surface, such as a table. These visualisers are much smaller in size.
The “neck” or the stick with the camera on top are generally designed in two ways. The first type, usually found in large-based visualisers is similar to that of a crane. It moves up and down and left and right. Smaller-based visualisers have a “neck” similar to that of a goose. It can bend in almost all directions.
The next part of a visualiser is the camera itself. Like all digital cameras and webcams, they are measured in Megapixels. To sum it up briefly, the higher the number of megapixels a visualiser has, the better quality the image will be and the more expensive it will cost. The cheapest visualisers will provide a reasonable quality image when projected onto a screen. The most expensive visualisers will not only show the crispest and clearest of images, it will have the power to zoom into objects..but more about that later.
Another aspect of a visualiser is its input socket. This is the socket that sticks into a projector. Much like you plug a projector into a laptop to show what is on the laptop on a big screen, the input socket connects to a projector to show what the camera is pointing at on the big screen. Some visualisers have several input sockets so they can be used alongside other devices like laptops and interactive whiteboards. Some just have one input socket which means if you wanted to show something from a visualiser then something on a laptop, you would have to plug wires in and out and swap them around devices. This isn’t good as the pins inside the sockets are not particularly strong.
The final part of any visualiser are its bells and whistles. These are the buttons, lights and wheels that you’ll find to make your visualiser show the best quality image, they let you record videos or they make things appear in microscopic detail. Often they are called the “Control Panel.” I’ll go through some of these when talking about how to use a visualiser in the classroom.
Most visualisers also come with a light or set of lights which shine on whatever is underneath the camera. This is particularly useful in a darker room. If your visualiser doesn’t have a light, it’s going to restrict you somewhat unless you buy a study lamp alongside it.
Now that I’ve described what a visualiser is, what do you do with it?
Most obviously, a visualiser can be used to show a page of a book on a big screen. Let’s say the class are all doing page 25 in the Maths books. The teacher can stick page 25 under the visualiser and it will show up on the whiteboard. The teacher can then fill in the answers and explain things along the way on the big screen, which becomes the focal point of the classroom. Children can then self-correct. I see this suiting the classroom with the teacher’s desk in front of rows of tables where the teacher is the sage on the stage. A tiny step above this scenario is the teacher can take a child’s page 25 and show it as an example of fabulous correctness in maths book work. A step in the other direction would be to take little Johnny’s scrawls on page 25 and show them as an example of what not to do….but no teacher would dream of doing that!
Going away from the maths book, a child’s handwriting in a copybook could be magnified for all to see as a shining example to his/her classmates or a piece of art or a diagram or some other piece of work. The child might place their work under the visualiser and talk to the class about it, which isn’t a bad idea at all.
What else could you stick under the camera? How about doing a science experiment under the visualiser’s camera? No more would 30 children have to stand around a table squabbling for the best view of their teacher playing with magnets or whatever. Now they could be sat in their desks staring at the big screen while the teacher did the experiment before allowing them the privilege of doing it themselves.
Or what happens when young Johnny finds a centipede out on yard? Couldn’t we stick him (the centipede, not Johnny) under the visualiser’s gaze and the class could gaze in amazement at the poor minibeast?
I cannot really see much more benefit to visualisers than sticking things under the camera and making them look bigger. While the above examples might suit a certain type of teacher, I feel a visualiser needs to have more pedagogical benefit that just being a fancy OHP.
Like Interactive Whiteboards don’t make a bad teacher good, similarly, there must be some ways to make visualisers useful for innovative teachers. How can they be used in such a way that children’s learning can improve as a result of using them? I believe some of the bells and whistles that come with visualisers can help.
Bells and whistles add cost to visualisers. If a teacher is happy enough using a visualiser as a presenting tool, then paying €75 is more than enough. When a teacher wants to try out more interesting ideas, they’re going to need to invest a bit more. Here are a few bells and whistles that I think could make visualisers a worthwhile addition to a classroom.
Many visualisers allow the user to place an object or a page under the camera and capture an image of it to be used later. For example, if I placed page 25 of my maths book under the camera and pressed a button on the visualiser to save it, later on I could import this image into my IWB software and use it at another time. I find this boring. I think video is much more impressive and engaging but it requires the visualiser to have a built-in microphone and video-recording capabilities. Let’s say a teacher wants to show a science experiment. For the sake of an example, let’s do floating and sinking. With a cheap visualiser, the experiment can be done where children can drop things into a bowl of water and everyone can see the outcome on the big screen without crowding around. However, once it’s over, that’s it. If the visualiser had the capability of videoing this experiment live, one could save the video and some fun could begin. Firstly, it could be shared on the Internet on something like YouTube so parents and children could watch the lesson at home later on. However, if the teacher was able to take the video file and play it back at another time, pausing it just before a child drops an object into the water, we open all sorts of prediction skills, memory skills and communication skills. If this experiment was done by lots of schools and shared with each other, schools can begin to start communicating with each other, discussing and predicting outcomes of each others’ experiments.
Some of the more expensive visualisers have very powerful cameras. Some are so powerful that one can zoom into an object really closely when placed under the camera. When you are buying a visualiser, you’re going to be paying big bucks for big magnification. Expect to pay well over €1,000 if you’re looking for very decent magnification. Cheap visualisers aren’t going to give you much magnification.
As a Webcam
A visualiser is simply a camera on a stick so why not allow it to be used as a web cam for video conferences? Simply point the camera at your class and hook up to another school and host a video conference. This may work best with a cheap goose-neck visualiser as it gives more flexibility for where the camera is pointing.
As a bit of a motivational treat, I’ve used the visualiser as a “great behaviour cam.” You can probably guess how this works. The class are working in their groups and just for fun, I point the visualiser’s camera at a group that is working really well and they appear on the big screen as a shining example to the rest of the class. Most kids love being on the big screen so it really motivates them to work hard. Yes, they get a little bit excited by the prospect of being the group in focus, but they also know that if they start acting silly, the camera will move to a different group and they won’t be on the “great behaviour” screen any more.
There are so many different flavours of visualisers available in Ireland at the moment ranging from €75 upwards. Depending on how you use your visualiser, it’s up to you how much you spend.
Overall, I’m not particularly convinced of their pedagogical value but they do suit some forms of whole class teaching. I’ve tried to squeeze out some other uses for them and look forward to hearing how teachers have found ways to make children’s learning more effective using them. I’m not quite sure why a classroom would particularly need a visualiser but I’m not quite sure why a classroom would particularly need an Interactive Whiteboard either. Having said that, if anyone has found that a visualiser has changed their teaching, let me know and I’d love to chat about it.