Teaching Profession

Video Tools Take Panoramic View of Classrooms

By Ian Quillen — June 15, 2011 | Corrected: February 25, 2019 5 min read
Teachscape’s omnidirectional camera is used to capture in real time a 360-degree classroom scene. In the video stream it creates, both the instructor and the students can be seen.

Corrected: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the price of Teachscape’s cameras and software. The cameras cost approximately $4,500 per unit, and the software is about $100 to $150 per site license.

Doctors may watch other doctors on video as they carry out surgical procedures. And choreographers will often use video to help dancers evaluate and improve their routines.

Now the San Francisco-based company Teachscape, which specializes in making software meant to improve teacher instruction, is hoping to lead the teaching profession into the practice of regular video review by offering its Reflect product on the open market in what appears to be the first offering of its type.

But between an idea that can be unsettling to teachers, a cost that can be out of reach for some districts, and the difficulty of ensuring the validity and reliability of observations, a productive integration of any video-observation tool, including Reflect, is not as easy as mounting a camera and pressing “play.”

“Having the camera available doesn’t automatically mean we’re going to have better student learning,” says Joellen Killion, the deputy executive director for strategic initiatives at Dallas-based Learning Forward, a national supporter of educators’ professional development. “The whole problem with using video in the classroom is the whole notion of trying to unpack everything that happens in a classroom.”

Reflect—essentially a stable of equipment that includes two cameras capable of videotaping the classroom in 360 degrees, two microphones, and supplementary software—went on sale to the public last October after being created as part of the Measures of Effective Teaching, or MET, project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also provides support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week and Digital Directions.)

In the MET project, Reflect had helped researchers capture more than 20,000 lessons from 3,000 classrooms as of late March to forward the mission of using wide-scale research to identify best teaching practices.

By recording not only the teacher, but also the entire classroom space, Reflect is intended to allow observation without intrusion as a method of self-reflection, peer-to-peer or coach-teacher professional development, or formal teacher evaluation, according to Matthew Nathan, Teachscape’s director of strategic marketing and development.

“It allows evaluation not just to be a unidirectional process,” Nathan says. “It becomes a much more conversational practice. ... I think that districts are looking at Reflect as an evaluation tool. But because they realize it’s a summative evaluation of teaching, it’s only really a small part of improving practice.”

Killion argues that the tool can be a productive portion of a professional-development or teacher-evaluation program, especially since it is capable of capturing the actions of every student in a classroom at the same time, but that it should complement other observation and evaluation methods, not replace them.

For example, Killion says, video could serve as an easy way to measure how often teachers interact with students individually, in a small group, and as a whole class, and to what degree a teacher is accurately presenting the curriculum and using appropriate methods. She says it would be harder to use video to, say, understand how responsive teachers are to individual student needs over a long stretch of time, or how competent they are across all areas of the curriculum based on a small sample of lessons.

Further, Killion says, creating a climate where teachers trust video as a method of evaluation requires “absolute clarity about the intended purpose, the intended results, and the qualifications of those who will be doing the evaluation.”

It allows evaluation not just to be a unidirectional process.”

And doing so in a broad enough manner to make the practice commonplace takes upfront funding. A camera and startup training for each school runs about $4,500, and each site license for the software on top of that costs $100 to $150, depending on the volume of purchase, Nathan says.

But districts that can afford a one-time investment could possibly save on professional-development costs in the long run by using video-based professional development to replace off-campus professional development, says K.K. Owen, the director of staff development at the 42,000-student Escambia County school district, which includes Pensacola, Fla., and surrounding areas.

“This is a very cheap way to offer professional development without substitute costs, without [other] costs, so people can share in time and space what might be happening in other schools,” Owen says.

Teacher Mentoring

Owen is leading a teacher-mentoring program that will begin in the fall and will draw from the county’s allotment of funds from Florida’s $700 million grant awarded in the federal Race to the Top competition last fall.

With $32,000 budgeted to purchase an as-yet-undetermined amount of hardware and software for Reflect, Owen hopes to phase in three programs in the district. The first involves pairing 12 newly hired teachers with 12 newly hired teacher-mentors, and having each pair use the equipment extensively as the mentor helps the teacher adjust to his or her new career. The second involves the creation of model lessons for other teachers to watch through a local ed-tech company called EducatorReady, and the third involves mirroring the mentor program for teachers found to be struggling.

Various forms of video-observation and -evaluation programs have been proposed across districts in the past, but they often faced opposition from teachers’ unions and other groups. In the Wyoming legislature this year, a bill was even proposed to install cameras in classrooms statewide, though it eventually died before coming to a vote.

Owen says she understands the issue of video use in the classroom can be a contentious one, though the local teachers’ union has signed off on her district’s plan. She also says she believes a district culture of continuous improvement will allow teachers to be more comfortable with the devices in their classrooms. But she says it may be easiest to gain districtwide trust in the program by implementing Reflect in rookie teachers’ classrooms first and letting more experienced teachers observe the results.

“They’re going to be afraid of everything, so they might as well be afraid of the camera, too,” Owen says of new teachers. “We’re going to get them past that.”

Owen says that after the initial investment in the Reflect package, the plan is to keep the trio of programs operating by using Title I and Title II federal funding to pay for ongoing costs, and transforming the early experiences of teachers and mentors this coming school year into teacher-led professional development.

And in the end, says Killion of Learning First, the ultimate goal should be to help teachers help each other.

“One of the hopes I have is that the results are not just used by the evaluators, but by the teachers themselves, in a way that would allow teachers to be actively engaged in providing feedback to their peers,” Killion says. “To explain and offer insight, to offer feedback, and to identify areas they all want to work on collectively.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Room With a View

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