At Forsyth Public Schools in Georgia, kindergarten students point and click to help learn their alphabet. At Bellevue School
District in Washington, students study geography, in part, by manipulating pictures of famous landmarks. At Brunswick Junior High School in Maine, students take pictures of insects to help create an online field guide.
While no one was noticing, digital cameras have become the hottest tech trend in K-12 districts today. The good news is that while these cameras are becoming ubiquitous, they are being used to help students explore the curriculum in new and exciting ways. And that's a boon to teachers striving to find tools to engage students and enhance the classroom learning experience.
"I don't know of any research that has been done on the actual learning outcomes, but students are more engaged and motivated in the work they are doing," says Sandy Beck, instructional technology specialist at Forsyth Schools.
Today's students become more engaged when they are using digital photography because they are part of a visual generation, explains R.J. Coleman, a K-12 technology consultant who tours schools around the country as the "Internet Coach." Since kids are used to movies and video games and computers, it only makes sense to bring digital cameras into the classroom.
"Kids have to be engaged in order to learn," he says.
Forsyth might start earlier than most other districts. There, kindergarten students photograph objects beginning with each letter of the alphabet so they can create alphabet books. Older math students snap shots of different shapes they see in nature. Then, they plug the photos into Kid Pix, a creativity and presentation program, and with the pencil tool they outline the shapes they see in the pictures.
Over at Washington's Bellevue district, social studies students create an imaginary one-week family vacation to one of the geographical areas they are studying. Part of the assignment includes incorporating images into a trip itinerary highlighting key landmarks that will be explored. Using digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop Elements, the students superimpose digital photos of themselves on tourist sites all over the world.
Teacher Patty Irish has her students at Maine's Brunswick school catch insects, take pictures of them, and then research the animal's habitats, eating habits and life cycle. They use the info and the pictures to create an online field guide for their area.
Although districts have been forced to tighten their budgets, digital cameras are so affordable now--starting as low as $30--that the number of educators replacing traditional cameras with digital models is exploding, says Coleman.
Buying digital cameras may be more expensive than buying a traditional film camera, but without film and processing costs, digicams can be much cheaper in the long run, says Eric Levitt, principal of the Middle School of Pacolet in S.C., and co-author of Digital Cameras in the Classroom (Linworth Publishing, 2003). Also, the ability to get the images downloaded and used in student activities offers an immediacy that cannot be realized with a traditional camera.
"You just can't beat a new technology that teachers and students can get excited about that is really pretty cheap," Coleman adds.
In the past, administrators at schools usually opted to purchase one or two expensive cameras that teachers could sign out of the media center. Today's trend is to buy larger quantities of cheaper digital cameras. Coleman points out that schools should think about what students and teachers are using the digital images for before purchasing a camera.
While one to six megapixel digital camera models are available, users will want a more expensive higher megapixel model when using digital images for print purposes. But users don't need a five-megapixel camera to add images to electronic presentations, to show images from the camera on a TV screen, to upload images onto a Web site, or to attach an image to e-mail.
"We talk a lot about how everybody has gone from computers to laptops to handheld devices for everybody," Coleman says. "I believe that isn't really going to happen for maybe five or 10 more years. But digital cameras are a portable technology that really does work. That is something districts can bank on--it's a really good investment now."
A Worthwhile Investment
One of the reasons digital cameras are such a good investment, say educators, is their ability to transform reading and writing instruction and promote writing across the curriculum. For instance, digital cameras allow teachers at Forsyth Schools to bring real-world problems and experiences into the classroom literacy activities. Students photograph what they see on field trips and then write about what they experienced. And science students take pictures of their experiments and then write up the explanation of the process.
"Both our county and our school focus on writing across the curriculum, because we feel if students can write about a subject, they are showing a deeper understanding of the content," says Beck.
"We believe writing is the foundation of all other learning. Digital pictures enhance this process by motivating students. Digital pictures both personalize and clarify learning for students, and students take ownership of their work."
Levitt says digital photos are a great segue into the writing process because pictures taken by students stimulate thoughts and ideas. Science students at his middle school collect water samples at an area lake, and take pictures of the surrounding environment. Then they arrange the pictures in a grid pattern with the accompanying results. Students compare the information from each site and explain in writing why some tests are similar and some are different.
In addition to motivating kids to write, digital photography can also contribute to raising students' self-confidence when it comes to tackling writing projects just like the word processor did, says Evelyn Woldman, technology center education coordinator for the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals' Association.
"With the word processor, no matter how many mistakes they make, in the end it comes out looking like a professional document students are very proud of," she says. "Similarly, instead of a report with a so-so drawing, they a have a report with a photo. I think there is an element of pride that comes along with that."
Maybe the best part about digital cameras is how easy they are to use. Kindergartners, and their teachers, can equally figure out how to take pictures in a few minutes.
"There are a lot of tools that have been brought into the classroom that are not so self-explanatory and easy to handle," Woldman says. "Digital photography is so easy. I think the only obstacle to using a digital camera is not having it."
Nicole Rivard is a contributing editor.
OK, now that you're convinced that buying more digital cameras is a good idea for your district, all you have to do is pick out the right models. Good luck.
Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com) lists specifications for 434 digital cameras from 23 manufacturers. The best way to start is to find out how your district is going to use the cameras it buys. Don't be afraid to buy different models for different uses. A multi-function camera with lots of memory might be necessary for high school students hoping to print their results, but you likely won't want a third grader holding that same camera over a brook when on a field trip.
Keith Lightbody, an information technology specialist in West Australia schools, has a Web site (members.ozemail.com.au/~cumulus/digicam.htm) stocked with ways to incorporate cameras into curriculum. He says asking these seven questions will help leaders choose the right models for their district's uses.
1.Establish who will use the cameras. Will they be students, teachers or both? Are they beginners, intermediates or specialists?
2.Will the pictures be used as e-mail attachments, for Web pages, or as prints?
3.Rank extra features in order of importance. Think about ease of use, LCD screen, movies with sound, zoom and flash.
4.Estimate the volume of use. Will you be taking 20 photos a lesson; will the camera be used five hours a day?
5.Consider operational issues like recharging batteries, what type of memory card the camera uses, downloading images, and protecting cameras from theft. Buying a second set of batteries is usually a good idea.
6.Consider price in relation to ease of use, performance and image quality.
7.Select 2-3 models, get feedback from a number of your typical education users, and test them on your computer equipment.
Selecting a Digital Camera
Digital cameras fall into three basic categories:
Low-end Cameras include automatic features, are easy to use and have one megapixel of storage or less. These cameras are fine for taking pictures to be used on the Web or in e-mails. These cameras usually have a fixed lens and are either compact or ultra compact. A one megapixel camera will allow users to print a 4x6 and can be bought for as little as $130.
Basic Digital Cameras This is a big category with most digital cameras in this range between one megapixel and three megapixels. (A three megapixel will allow sharp 8x10 prints.) Features vary widely within this category, but certainly include some manual overrides for shutter speeds and aperture. Cameras in this class usually have some type of zoom lens. Don't be fooled by the term digital zoom, which make the subject in the middle of the picture bigger, but does so by reducing the entire picture's resolution. An optical zoom lens increases the image magnification through the lens itself. Most of the cameras in this category are compacts or ultra-compacts. A solid two megapixel camera with 3x zoom can be had for $200 or less.
High-end Digital Cameras These semi-professional models have advanced exposure controls and optics, more memory and a better zoom than you'll typically find in less expensive models. One warning, these features will inevitably add heft to the camera, so be sure the extra features are worth making a heavier camera worth lugging wherever your students will take it. Five megapixel cameras in this range go for about $600.