The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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technology

Use Your Phone as a Streaming Document Camera

As a science teacher in an increasingly technology-driven world, I have found document cameras to be very useful for a number of purposes. A connection to the SMART Board or projector allows students an enhanced or alternative view of any class demonstrations, and I can also ask students to explain their written or solved work for the class with everyone following along on the screen.

Document cameras ain’t cheap though. The official SMART Document Camera runs about $800 (!), and even a generic webcam can run $40-50 or more depending on what you are looking for. For the budget-conscious (or budget-constrained) educator, these options can be beyond reach.

I was looking for a cheaper alternative and thought, wait a minute. I’ve got a camera right here on my Android phone already. Why not find a way to use that?

Here are the results from trying out two different apps.

Phone Stats

I have a smartphone, but its a pretty generic one. Go back to that bit about budget-constrained. Right.

LG Optimus V (Virgin Mobile), with Android 2.2 and a 3.2 MP camera.

IP Webcam

The Android app IP Webcam allows you to turn your phone into a little video stream server. You can adjust various settings (video resolution and quality, orientation, etc) and then stream to a local IP address. The stream URL can then be viewed via a media client like VLC or Quicktime, or directly through your browser’s native video player.

You can also have it fade the screen to blank to save battery (it doesn’t let you actually shut off the screen, since that seems to be linked to ramping down the processor as well).

The partial screen capture (scaled to 60%) below shows the feed in Firefox with the phone held about a foot away from the document under a normal table lamp in otherwise dim lighting conditions.

ipwebcam_shot

Here is another screen shot, also holding the phone about a foot away, that shows resolution of handwritten text and diagrams for demonstrating problems.

ipwebcam_writing

Five minutes of WiFi broadcast at 640×480 (3MP), full quality, and phone screen on fade-mode resulted in a battery drain of only 2%, which is pretty good. If the display were left on, I’m sure this would be much higher. I also have a very weak processor and no autofocus, both of which would take more power if your phone has them. However, I see no reason why you couldn’t just plug in your phone while streaming if you needed it.

As you can see from the browser control interface below, the app supports many ways to access the stream (including Skype integration), and also allows screen-capture photos and audio streaming as well (I did not test the bitrate).

ipwebcam_control

I was not able to get the stream to work over 3G, since the IP address that the cell tower assigns to my phone seems to be LAN only. It would be an interesting experiment to see if another Virgin Mobile customer standing next to me (and hence presumably connected to the same tower) would be able to see my stream on his/her phone!

DroidCam

The DroidCam app works through either WiFi or USB, and hence requires a client install on the viewing laptop. The pro version claims to also add 3G and bluetooth connectivity, as well as remote control for flash, zoom, autofocus, etc.

The app performs poorly compared to IP Webcam. The video quality is noticeably lower for the same resolution, and the phone experiences a higher battery load (3.5% in five minutes, same conditions). Also, the option to display the stream through the browser via an http connection is disabled unless you buy the pro version, so you must use their client software to view the stream.

The advantage over IP Webcam presumably is that you can use USB mode to stream directly to a client computer even when you don’t have WiFi available. However, I was not able to get the USB mode to work properly on my Windows 7 netbook with minor fiddling. I would assume that if one could get the USB mode working, battery drain would be significantly less, since the phone should be able to draw on the USB power bus while connected.

Conclusions

Of the two apps tried above, I would go with IP Webcam for sure. I tried the app on WiFi mode while connected to the BPS network and it worked fine (the app uses the standard http web port 8080, which means that its highly unlikely anyone will block the port). There seems to be no need to try very hard to get the USB on DroidCam to work, especially considering that the quality is lower.

At only 3MP, fine detail is going to be lost, but for visual enhancement it seems like this should work fine! Also, if you have a higher resolution phone camera than me, obviously your phone will deliver a higher resolution image.

Bonus: the web streaming means that any student with the right IP address (which you can give them) on the local net can actually get the stream directly on their smartphones or laptops anywhere in the school. I don’t think even the $800 SMART Document Camera will do that, and this app is FREE!



BBC – Future – Science & Environment – Why everyone must understand science

Via BBC – Future – Science & Environment – Why everyone must understand science:

People feel excluded by science and debates about science, they use laptops, they fly in planes, use appliances in the home and they don’t know what’s behind this technology. That is a problem, as it turns people into the slaves of our technology. The less people know the more they are likely to be manipulated or influenced by people who may not have their best interests at heart.

I say amen. Articles, conversations, and thoughts about how much science and technology pervade our daily lives always remind me of how much more I want to be blogging about science accessibility. Certainly science education is a part of that, but only a part.

The “Science and Engineering” category on this blog was supposed to be for finding cool science that is going on right now and putting it in accessible terms for the general public. Also to add commentary, speculation, and in general try to be a bridge between the three largely separate discourses of education (via pedagogy), the classroom (via students), and science (via practitioners of science).

Sigh. I can make time, I can make time…



Pilot Plant in the Works for Carbon Dioxide Cleansing – NYTimes.com

NYTimes is reporting on recent developments in carbon gas capture technologies.

Now a Canadian company has developed a cleansing technology that may one day capture and remove some of this heat-trapping gas directly from the sky. And it is even possible that the gas could then be sold for industrial use.

Love it.

Should the cost of capturing carbon dioxide fall low enough, the gas would have many customers, he predicted. Chief among them, he said, would be the oil industry, which buys the gas to inject into oil fields to force out extra oil.

Does anyone else find anything ironic about the fact that most of the CO2 cleansed from the air would then be used to extract more hydrocarbons for us to burn, thus filling the air with more CO2? Still, it’s an improvement despite the irony — we’d probably burn that new oil anyway, so scrubbing some of the previous pollution before we do it is a net gain.

Gas capture would be extremely important in developing a rational price for carbon emissions, said Dr. Fox of the British mechanical engineering society. “Whatever it costs to take it out of the air and store it away,” Dr. Fox said, “that’s the price polluters would pay if they want to put carbon into the air.”

Bingo. Large industries would no longer be able to complain the value of carbon is arbitrary in a cap and trade program.

via Pilot Plant in the Works for Carbon Dioxide Cleansing – NYTimes.com.



What is 21st Century Education?

In PD last week, we watched this video as a precursor to a discussion on how to incorporate more leadership skills into our school curricula and activities:

I love this; it’s a great visual montage of data is continuing to change.  To me this is among the best arguments for designing curricula that go well beyond what we simply want students to know. Because knowledge itself is changing so quickly (and so instantly and comprehensively searchable now to boot), the value of content knowledge for it’s own sake has become necessarily rather dilute.

My only complaint with this video is that it makes it seem like the disconnect between rote content instruction and more authentic learning is some recent deficiency in how we approach education, brought on by the sudden techno-boom of the 21st century. This is not a recent problem which we have been merely a little slow in recognizing.

While the contemporary world certainly comes with unique challenges that we cannot ignore, great minds in education have long railed against the futility of teaching nothing but facts and expecting the process to result in authentically well-educated individuals.

In 1968, Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education this becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. […] [The students] do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers [sic] of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart of inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. [pg 72]

In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his collection of essays, Democracy and Education:

Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an act of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory. [pg 38, III. “Education as Direction”]

That science may be taught as a set of formal and technical exercises is only too true. This happens whenever information about the world is made an end in itself. The failure of such instruction to procure culture is not, however, evidence of the antithesis of natural knowledge to humanistic concern, but evidence of a wrong educational attitude. [pg 219, XVII. “Science in the Course of Study”]

So even without cellphones, YouTube, and Google, these educators (writing 45 and 97 years ago, respectively) understood that a good education (and particularly for Dewey, a good science education) cannot be measured in units of facts-retained.

So why hasn’t anything changed in at least a hundred years or so? What Freire calls the “banking” model of education continues to be the bread and butter of mainline K-12 pedagogy — driven not by teachers, but by the archaic curriculum standards to which they are beholden. Of what value is the ability to regurgitate Newton’s Laws on an exam if the student’s curiosity and ability to engage with humanity’s understanding of the world is left underdeveloped? To be sure, content and curiosity are not mutually exclusive. But in the presence of so much negative pressure from quantitative standards and positive pressure from the ease of rote instruction, where is the weighting of that balance going to inevitably lean?

With the onset of the kind of change highlighted in the video, the imperative for “21st century education” does not become any different, though it certainly becomes all the more emphatic. When Dewey set up his University of Chicago Schools near the end of the 19th century, I think it likely that he made many of the same kinds of arguments that we are making in the early years of the 21st. That means that at least several generations of the status quo have passed by since this idea was proposed. What shall we do now, in the times we have been given?




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