Teaching large groups has taken on a different dimension with the help of visualisers, says Sheyne Lucock
It all began in 1999 on a study visit to North Carolina. At Western Carolina University, every teaching room was equipped with a ceiling-mounted data projector and a teacher workstation that included a computer and visualiser (sometimes called a digital presenter).
Every now and again, a piece of technology comes along that can revolutionise practice. For teachers this has to be the visualiser, which when used in conjunction with a computer and data projector enables teachers to achieve what was previously impossible. We returned to the UK determined that teachers in Barking and Dagenham should have access to this technology.
A visualiser consists of a flat stage with lights and a camera mounted on stalks. And it's not just paper and books that can be put on this stage and shown to the whole class. The design and technology teacher can demonstrate the techniques needed to solder capacitors on to a circuit board (above); the science teacher can show crystals forming in a Petri dish; the textiles teacher can teach the intricate skills of embroidery; the Year 2 pupil can show the rest of the class how letters are written in an exercise book.
The traditional way of sharing such processes to a class of students would be an organisational nightmare. It would mean either showing each student in turn or having everyone crowd round a bench trying desperately to see what's going on. But add a computer and some form of interactivity (such as a wireless slate or an interactive whiteboard), and you have the best teachers' toolkit money can buy. You can take instant snapshots of any part of a process using interactive software tools, annotate displays, save them, replay them and give them to the class for homework.
We equipped our City Learning Centre with visualisers made by Elmo and some schools managed to scrape enough money together to buy a few. However, it was the DfES ICT Test Bed Project, followed by the interactive technologies-funding initiative, that finally meant we were able to equip hundreds of classrooms. In fact, we made the biggest bulk order of visualisers ever made in the UK - 75 Elmos, and more than 400 Samsung SDP-950s. Samsung was the only company able to supply such a vast number of units in one go at a competitive price. The company even sent a team of engineers over from Korea to set up mini-production lines in our schools to upgrade the camera hardware. Our lucky teachers wonder how they ever managed without one.
Choosing the right model is crucial for integration into a lesson. The more expensive the model, the easier it is to use; expect to pay around pound;1,450 for a high-quality model with optical zoom lens, instant focusing, exposure control and video capture. These are all very important elements to ensure that you don't waste time fiddling with buttons and menus.
The best models tend to look a little like the Starship Enterprise, but this is very much 21st century technology. It won't be long before every teacher has or expects one.
Sheyne Lucock is ICT inspector with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham