Tools for Learning Technologists: The Swivl 1

What is it?

It’s difficult to describe what the Swivl is so perhaps easier to show you what it is, how it works and what you can do with it in the classroom. Watch this video where I go through the basic features.


If you didn’t watch the video, here’s a quick summary: the Swivl is a small rotating cylindrical base with a space inside it for your mobile phone or tablet. It connects to your device via bluetooth and then connects to something called a ‘marker’. This is a small rectangular device that acts as both a tracker for the device and as a microphone for the presenter/teacher and is worn on a lanyard round the teacher’s neck.



Now, this is the clever part. As the teacher/presenter moves round the room, the Swivl follows the marker and so does the mobile phone/tablet.

Why is this cool?

It’s cool because you can record lots of things going on in a classroom without the need to have someone stood behind a camera at the back of the class. This can be distracting for the students or cause general awkward or inauthentic behaviour from both students and teachers. It’s not very big either, it can be put onto a desk or a shelf and doesn’t get in the way at all.

What can it be used for?

Lots of things, initially we bought it to record internal workshops as it wasn’t always possible for all the teachers to attend and we wanted a way to be able to share them later. Having someone awkwardly man a camcorder in the class was always a little off putting for the presenter and audience so this seemed like a suitable compromise. However, as we started using it, we realised there were many other use cases.

For example, teachers started using it to record their own lessons for their own professional development, this is not something that they could normally do as it would require another person in the back of the room.

Related to that, it also became a tool for peer observations, this is something that’s strongly encouraged in our centre but it’s not always logistically possible given that most teachers have lessons at the same time. A few teachers took to using the Swivl and they could then easily share their videos with fellow teachers. This also meant, I think, that the teachers shared a more ‘typical’ lesson since there was noone in the back of the room forcing them to perform.

As a manager at our centre, I’m required to observe some teachers as part of their annual review. On one occasion, my own classes clashed with those of one of the teachers I needed to observe, so instead she just recorded the lesson with the Swivl and I gave feedback based on my review of the video. I actually found it less stressful doing it this way as I could go over the lesson at my leisure and scrub back and forward through critical moments to look at them in more detail.

On the CELTA course I teach on, I recorded all my trainees lessons using it and it was incredibly useful in feedback to be able to have the ipad in front of me with their recordings on and to be able to show effective (and sometimes not so effective) classroom practice. I was a little concerned how the trainees might feel having all their lessons videoed but at the end they were incredibly positive about the experience saying that they often watched over it later – however painful that might be sometimes – to connect my feedback notes with what they see on the screen.

On the same course I also videoed myself doing a demo lesson with the practice students and this was useful to refer back to during the course to highlight particular classroom skills such as group management and giving instructions.

We’ve also used it to record student presentations in class both for practice and assessment purposes. Again, you can sit it unobtrusively on a desk at the front while they do their presentations and you then have a useful record for yourself and for them for development.

How well does it work?

Incredibly well. Scarily well in fact. Go back to the video I recorded using it. Audio is often the biggest issue with videoing lessons, the microphone used is normally on the camera at the back of the class and it often fails to pick up what the teacher and the student say. Having the microphone on a lanyard round the teacher’s neck makes a lot more sense, the quality is excellent and it picks up what the teacher is saying as they go round the room monitoring groups. It also seems to pick up student voices better as well, mainly because the mic is actually in front of them rather than behind them. I wanted to show some real examples from the classroom but I’d have needed to get permission from all the students or teachers involved and it was just too complicated.

Battery life seems decent as well, both the base and the marker have internal batteries and can get through several lessons before needing to be recharged. You can install an app on your phone or tablet that will let you know the actual percentage left.

Any issues with it?

No real issues but some things to be aware of. One of the first things to do through the Swivl app is to disable the up/down tracking on the base. By this I mean how the device will move up and down to follow the teacher when they sit down and stand up or when they crouch down to speak to students. This seems cool at first but the reality can be jerky and distracting if the teacher moves around a lot in class (as I’ve discovered I do!). The left/right tracking will capture pretty much everything assuming you place it far back enough in the class.

The Swivl app is useful for disabling things like the tracking and checking the battery but can be annoyingly obtrusive at other times. Every time you pair the device, it tries to open it up for you to use. A key thing to remember is that you don’t need to use the Swivl app. It works perfectly well using the internal video recorder of the phone or tablet and is a lot less confusing. Just close it down when it pops up and just use the camera to record it.

How much does it all cost?

Now, depending on your budget, you might think this is either stupid cheap or ridiculously expensive. We bought it from a company called the Fowndry and it cost about £350 (I’ve got no links with them but they are Swivl’s official partners in the UK and were kind enough to send a demo model to trial so happy to recommend). For this you get the base, one marker, as well as a variety of inserts that will help different size devices fit into the base.

It is possible to buy an additional marker for £70 and you might choose do this, for example, if you want to record both the teacher and aspects of group work during the lesson. You can move the marker round during group activities and it will pick up the audio as a second stream on the video.

The other thing you’re going to need of course is a mobile device to put into the Swivl. It is possible just to use your own device or the device of the teacher being recorded but it’s probably more hassle than it’s worth. You’d have to do the bluetooth pairing each time, check that there is enough storage space on the device and also install the Swivl app to disable the tracking. Not to mention potentially exposing your own personal data to other people.

ipad swivl

The Swivl seems to work better with Apple products and the cheapest options for that would be either the ipad or ipod touch. I’d go for something with at least 32gb as long classroom recordings can take up to 4–6gbs so you need to have plenty of space to spare. You don’t necessarily need the latest or greatest model, so you’re probably looking at £150 to £250 depending on whether you get an ipod touch or ipad.

So, assuming your school or centre doesn’t already have some kind of device available, you’re probably going to have to spend £500–600 to be able to start using the Swivl, not cheap I appreciate.

Is it worth it?

For us it is, but obviously you have to decide whether it solves a problem or fulfils a particular need first and then whether that justifies the outlay. We’ve been using it for nearly a year now and must have made dozens of classroom recordings with it. I think if you do a lot of CPD or teacher training in your centre, it’s definitely worth it. Just the convenience of being able to quickly record a lesson or training session with minimal set up and fuss and without having someone sat behind the camera is enough in itself for me.

Is this a tool that would get some use where you teach? Can you think of uses for it beyond the ones I’ve mentioned here? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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