By Ian Usher

Created

March 17, 2011

Chick Cam Live LogoNormally a school’s connection with the wider world via the internet is primarily a receive model – great volumes of information demanding a faster internet connection with all of the associated filtering issues this brings. Sometimes a school will want to reverse that and start to broadcast - sometimes not to broadcast to the whole world, but to its own students, staff and the wider school community. My first experience of this came via something we called PuppyCam – a primary school teacher had a dog which was due to have a litter of puppies and she wanted the pupils in school to be able to see them in class. All that was required was a laptop near the litter, a webcam to peek over the edge of their box and a connection to our Buckinghamshire Adobe Connect server, and we were in business. A blog post more than three years old (slightly younger than the puppies in question) gives a little more information on PuppyCam…

Incubator

This spring a similar situation occurred in a school that didn’t take the initiative and ask – but on learning about the surprise Spring project for Year 2 pupils (aged 6-7) it seemed to me that our Connect server was again the answer. The Spring project was a delivery of an incubator with eggs in it – eggs which would shortly hatch into chicks, which would remain in the classroom for two weeks in total. The suggestion of broadcasting the incubator via Connect so that the pupils could watch them hatch in case the chicks decided to arrive outside school hours was taken up by the school, but there was a problem: no webcam. A cursory glance around the classroom showed an Avermedia Visualiser (document camera) which turned out to communicate just fine with Flash Player, and could therefore be used as the camera via which any activitiy in the incubator could be broadcast.

Chick Cam setup

Visualiser with light (below) switched offWhat does this mean for the school? It means that:

  • the school can broadcast from any point which has wifi/access to a network cable;
  • any visualiser in the school can be used to broadcast;
  • filtering isn’t an issue (unlike using something like UStream or TwitCam);
  • there are no adverts or other content which the school doesn’t have control over;
  • the school can configure the Connect room to work as needed – to allow Guests in or not, and close the room when needed (such as when 6 and 7 year olds really should be in bed);
  • recorded sessions can be edited and shared – again with Guest access on or off, each session having a unique URL;
  • the room can contain multiple sources of information – for example, two different cameras in different classrooms, a Powerpoint slide deck of things to look for in the hatching process, a note to say Don’t worry, the chicks are just sleeping in case any paranoia grips the viewers.

There were a few practical issues – the school didn’t have wifi, so the incubator had to be moved next to where the teacher’s hard-wired laptop (and visualiser) were. Pulling the blinds down (see image) meant that the egg-shaped incubator reflected less light, meaning the camera could see through.

As seen in the image above the visualiser’s camera had a light built-in to the flip down cover on the head, however using this caused a similar glare problem, so it was important to light the room properly. Too much light and the reflections would have overwhelmed the image, too little and the image would not be visible. Experimenting with the banks of lights in the classroom gave the following results (look on the projected screen to see if the incubator was visible:

Classroom with no lights Classroom with one row of lights on Classroom with two rows of lights on

The view inside the classroom (where the screen can be less visible when the lights are on) is less important, as the images are primarily intended to be viewed outside the classroom. Of course, that assumes the lights are left on. Despite some fairly clear instructions someone turned the lights off after Year 2’s teacher had gone home, so this is what was visible on the first night the eggs were in the classroom:

What happens when someone turns the lights out...

The plan was for me or the class teacher to log in and start to record the meeting room if there was any sign of activity. Leaving the recording overnight would be fine as it would be possible to edit the recording using Connect’s tools to trim off dead time  before/after any moments of excitement. Fortunately for everyone involved, not least those who turned out the lights, around 9.15 the following morning (miraculously within the school day), there was considerable excitement in the Year 2 classroom:

grendon-chicks-first-out

The eggs started to hatch and (as is indicated in the screen shot above by the red dot at top-right) the teacher started to record. Pretty soon word had got around the school, other classes were logging in (as Guests) to the Connect room to watch what was happening, and later that day I had a request from the Headteacher to put a link on the front page of the school web site so that other parents and pupils could watch from outside school. The inclusion of the analog clock in a Share Pod was intended to make it easy to work out when any overnight hatchings occurred – however I had forgotten that the clock, as an independent Flash movie, operates as it is loaded – hence even while watching a recording it will show the current time, even if the recording was made in the middle of the night. A solution to this would be to ensure that there was a clock in view of the camera.
Here’s an overview of how the classroom was set up. Please forgive the lack of focus at the start, I neglected to touch-to-focus on my phone as I was filming until a few seconds in…

As the days progressed any hatched chicks were moved to a brooding box in the classroom, but interest in the remaining eggs continued. I saw up to 24 families watching their newly adopted charges of an evening – Mums & Dads, grandparents, staff at home – and I only dipped in occasionally:
grendon-chicks-mini-riot

Having multiple recordings, each editable with its own unique URL, meant that it was straightforward to share these resources with pupils via the school’s Moodle Virtual Learning Environment. The wonderful thing for me about this project was that It Just Worked – we spent far more time making sure the actual classroom worked properly (in terms of the lighting and arrangement of the components involved) than the virtual classroom. That’s the way it should be. As we have a Connect server which is available to all schools across Buckinghamshire, it should be a fairly straightforward process if another school wants to replicate this – I think the teacher from this school could explain it to another school and guide them in how to do it, despite not even knowing what Connect was until just over a month ago.

I guess the measure of this sort of project is – would the school do it again? Here’s an excerpt of an email I receive from Year 2’s teacher:

There is a lovely buzz around school,with parents and grandparents logging on during the day.They loved it when we put the brooding box under the camera yesterday!  Just so you know my next little project is a cyclinder net with caterpillars hatching in to butterflies. Hoping to use the camera in the same way. And then frog spawn!!

Adapted from an original blog post Mixing Moodle and Connect with a side helping of eggs for Year 2.

Ian Usher
E-Learning Co-ordinator,
Buckinghamshire County Council