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Rural schools testing 360-degree cameras for teacher observation

Video recordings are replacing live teacher observations in many classrooms.

Thanks to the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, videotaping teachers has become a focal point of discussions on effective teaching. As part of its Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) program, the foundation is videotaping almost 3,000 teachers in six school districts. To date, it has amassed tens of thousands of classroom videos.

While the Gates Foundation is grabbing the headlines, it is only a part of the story. Many smaller initiatives hold the promise of transforming education as well.

Southern Boone County Middle School became one of the first schools in Missouri to try out the newest generation of observation cameras. The camera was on loan from the Assessment Resource Center (ARC), a part of the University of Missouri (MU) College of Education.

For more than 75 years, the ARC has provided practical assessment and evaluation tools not only for education clients, but also businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies. The ARC obtained the camera as part of a new project called the Educator Professional Growth System, being piloted in 22 schools across the state. Using the cameras as an observation tool is one of the objectives of the pilot program, which is sponsored by the MU College of Education.

Southern Boone was using the thereNow system, using iris Connect software and the iris LiveView camera. The system allows remote users to pan and zoom over a network connection to the camera. Sound is captured by two microphones–one clipped to the teacher, the other placed strategically in the room.

The most obvious use of these 360-degree cameras is for teacher observation. In response to high-stakes test results, many states are mandating an increased number of teacher evaluations. Washington, D.C., for example, now requires five observations of teachers per year, up from the previous requirement of two.

Overworked principals find it difficult to pinpoint time in their busy days to schedule the required number of visits.

“The ability to use the camera to record the pre-arranged observation segment allows the principal to view the video segment later in the school day as time permits,” said Dr. Marc Doss, director of MU’s Regional Professional Development Center.

In-person classroom observations also have one inherent flaw—the fact that the principal is in the room. Principal Bob Simpson was excited to try out the new technology.

“Teachers behave differently when there is an administrator in the room. Students behave differently when an administrator is in the room. This system allows for a classroom observation to occur under more natural conditions,” said Simpson.

The emphasis on teacher evaluations overshadows another of the camera system’s major benefits. Videotapes also can be an invaluable coaching tool. Teaching can be a very isolated profession. Not only can new teachers evaluate their own teaching on the tapes, they can view examples of expert teachers in action. This holds true not only for school districts, but also for colleges of education, which can develop libraries of excellent teaching models for pre-service teachers.

In fact, the MU College of Education pilot program’s second objective is to assess the value of 360-degree cameras as a coaching tool. “The camera can record a pre-arranged video segment of a specific teacher that can be used by the teacher and their mentor teacher for instructional improvement,” said Doss.

Such a tool would be a particular advantage in Missouri, where rural schools can be isolated by great distances. “An excellent application of this technology is in the case of a teacher in a small, remote school with no content area mentor at their location. The new teacher could partner with a mentor content teacher in a neighboring district to share the video and have a professional dialogue related to the lesson,” added Doss.

Simpson also sees the value of the camera as a coaching tool. “It allows the teacher and the coach to watch the classroom video together, and then collaborate about what worked, what didn’t, and what could be done more effectively,” he said.

There is evidence that this kind of coaching can be extremely effective. A U.S. Department of Education study involved a mathematics professional development consultant in Denver working remotely with 5th and 6th grade teachers in Ogden, Utah. Students of teachers who received this remote coaching scored significantly higher on math content tests than those of teachers who did not.

How do teachers react to being videotaped? Most teachers welcome this type of arrangement. Boone County science teacher Rebekah Hammett was one of the teachers observed several times as part of the experiment over the course of weeks. “If this kind of technology is going to improve the learning experience of my students, then I’m all for it,” Hammett said.

One advantage of the IRIS Connect software is that teachers must agree to the videotaping session before it begins. Rather than being randomly spied on, they are arranging for a mutually beneficial observation.

Videotaping teachers is nothing new. Studies on the effectiveness of videotaping date back to the 1980s. It is the new technology that not only makes videotaping more practical, it also makes it more effective and more accessible.

Technically speaking, using the thereNOW system itself is fairly straightforward. The camera first must be assigned an IP address so the remote computer can detect it. Software then needs to be downloaded to control the camera and upload the videos. In the case of Southern Boone, there were some conflicts that were discovered but quickly resolved.

The microphones also need to be synced in order to create a single audio track. The syncing process is very easy and accomplished in a matter of seconds. The microphones accurately pick up sounds through the room and recharge in the base of the camera.

The camera gives a beautiful picture and can zoom from the entire classroom to a piece of notebook paper on a student’s desk with ease and clarity.

Many of the software options, such as adding video or audio comments, may be valuable for some applications, but weren’t significant in Southern Boone’s application.

The value of videotaping is hard to overestimate. As Gates himself said, in a 2010 address to the American Federation of Teachers: “We already have the key ingredient. There are many great teachers in America. Now we need to understand what makes them great, and help all teachers learn from them.”

David Hopkins is a veteran teacher and serves as the Instructional Technologist for the Southern Boone County R-I School District, Ashland, Mo.

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