Let’s view and examine the new Smart Document Camera from the perspective of teachers, from the makers of the super popular SmartBoard. A Smart Document Camera or ELMO as referred by many teachers, allows teachers to use the camera of the ELMO to display the high-quality video on a large display. For instance, An ELMO is a device that teachers can connect to their Smart Boards, or any display with an HDMI, or VGA input, or wirelessly in the case of the 550, with the Smart Document Camera app for Windows and macOS. Using the ELMO with a Smart Board offers additional functionalities. For example, the ELMO models 450, and 330 offers the ability to use the ELMO within the Smart Notebook app using a USB cord, and pressing the ELMO icon on the Notebook APP. The ELMO 550 offers an HDMI, VGA, and USB video connection when using a Smartboard, otherwise only the HDMI, and VGA. As a result, teachers rely on the ELMO to show student work to the class, to write on a paper and display it on the board, for many types of assessments. This new ELMO Model is the successor to the Smart Document Camera 450. The Model 450 lacked the much-needed HDMI Port and other basic features. We will get into the 450 models on another review, on this review we will focus on the 550 models.
Every hardware requires an examination of the reliability of such. The zenith of an effective device is its dependability. Educational technology is one of the most critical parts of the modern classroom. Therefore, teachers rely on their technology to teach their students, plan and deliver lessons. The new 550 ELMO offers new features, although these are not new technologies. For instance, the ELMO 550 offers HDMI in and out. For the first time since the ELMO launched many years ago, even when the HDMI port had become the norm ever since Flat Screen TVs become popular when prices dropped in the early 2000s.
How can Smart make Smart Boards with an HDMI port, and not have an HDMI port on a device meant to be used with Boards? Is it the money? Because once you purchased an ELMO, Smart offered you adapters that cost around $50, adding to the initial cost unnecessarily. Forcing schools to buy adapters, or use the USB connection, which only worked with the Smart Notebook software. Tactics that forced you into their ecosystem. Resulting in more of the taxpayers’ money going into the packets of Smart. The fact that Smart added the HDMI port to their ELMO more than 10 years after the HDMI became the universal standard. Additionally, Smart added a wireless functionality that uses Wifi, and Miracast to display wireless multimedia to large displays, or Smart Boards. However, that feature seems inconsistent from a glance. I run the technology department at an NYCDOE school and for me the set up was difficult. Users must plugin the ELMO to a display to set up the Wifi. In addition, users must download the new Smart Document Camera software to use the wireless feature. Why not implemented into the Smart Notebook software? Once you are able to connect the ELMO to the Wifi, you have to cross your fingers so that the software can start displaying from the ELMO consistently, although most of the times it works, yet there is no way to click “Connect”, and save your preferences. Instead, you see a list that shows ALL ELMOs connected to the same Wifi network, instructions are not clear for teachers, considering it even asks you to add your ELMO using the IP Address alternatively, something alien to teachers. Also, let us consider that schools have one VLAN with dozens of classrooms and ELMOs. To finish the setup, you have to click on a star to make the camera your favorite so that optimistically it will start displaying every time you turn on the ELMO. The favorite option allows teachers to differentiate their ELMO from the tens of ELMOs a school may have. After numerous trials, the ELMO does not connect automatically, and will not display the video as soon as you turn it on, every single time, please do not suggest users call tech support! These kinds of devices should be plug and play, no way around that. Teachers do not have the time to troubleshoot hardware while trying to teach a lesson, and students do not have the privilege of losing a single minute of learning time. Thus, reliability is crucial. Document Cameras are not a new technology; many alternatives offer reliable hardware at competitive prices. Schools should not be forced to buy “half baked” devices.
Priced at $699.00 the ELMO is not priced competitively. For example, the Epson DC-07 cost approximately $200 and offers competitive, and compelling features. Although there are many roadblocks that Smart faces when selling to the NYCDOE as a third party vendor, educational hardware must be priced competitively, we must consider that most of these devices are going to low income communities, and to our children. Everyone needs to make a living, I am aware of that am all for Capitalism, but prices are to be compelling with modern functionalities. I feel Smart takes advantage of their strong position, and market share of the Technology Education market, to set their prices.
I am a teacher for many years. I am also a technologist for many more years. The key to any device is user-friendliness. The reason why the iPhone has been so successful is, in fact, the simplicity of the operating system. Teachers are not technology experts nor should they be. Any hardware aimed at schools and classrooms must be easy to use, and user-friendly. It should be plug and play; it should be consistent, and reliable. The ELMO 550 merely is none of those things. For example, the Smart Document Camera software is not user-friendly, it shows technology language that it may be alien to most teachers; it requires multiple steps to set up, and many more levels to use. For instance, The ELMO 550 uses Wifi to connect wireless, but through a Wifi dongle made by D-Link. Why? Right out of the box, you see the Wifi dongle that has to be plugged in the back of the ELMO to enable the Wifi functionalities. After the first set up teachers can use just turn in the ELMO and start teaching. Just too many unnecessary steps. The Wifi dongle seems clumsy, and poorly executed for a $699.00 device, from a company like Smart.
The ELMO 550 offers a significant upgrade of features. Finally, Smart added the HDMI ports to the ELMO. Now users can easily connect their SmartBoards or any display with an HDMI port, (All displays in 2019 have an HDMI port). Additionally, Smart added a wireless feature, along with a lithium battery to offer complete wireless capabilities. The ELMO 550 offers HDMI in, and out to offer pass-through capabilities. However, most of these features, aside from the HDMI port, seem very unappealing. Why? EdTech companies need to realize that teachers are not technology experts, teachers need simple and effective technology that requires little to no setup knowledge. Nevertheless, we praise Smart for adding the HDMI port to their Smart Document Camera. We surveyed 100s of NYCDOE teachers, and the answer is unilateral, teachers love having to simply switch from HDMI 1 to HDMI 2 on their Smart Boards, no more no less.
The ELMO maybe necessary for the time being, and the price and impractically maybe justified. In other words, it has more good than bad. However, how can a document camera compete with a smartphone these days? All you would have to do is connect your phone to SmartBoard through either lighting to HDMI cord, a USB-C to HDMI, or using Miracast technology present in Google Smartphones, or even using a Smart TV. Furthermore, you can use a Microsoft wireless display adapter, which goes for around $50 or less and will allow you to mirror anything, including sound, from your computer, Google Smartphones, laptop, and other devices wirelessly. Therefore, unless Smart improves their iterations of the ELMO with competitive features, stops making minor improvements over previous generations, offer competitive pricing, and make the ELMO a USER-FRIENDLY device, the future of the Smart Document Camera could be in question, let’s remember that most schools try to justify their purchases as they are aligned with students’ needs. Without a consistent, plug and play wireless set up, the ELMO 550 is just another ELMO 450 with an HDMI port. Remember that what is best for the students is always the priority.