5 Tips and Tricks for Your Online
Teaching Setup (from August 2020)
As universities gear up for the fall semester, instructors everywhere are preparing for fully remote teaching. Some schools moved faster than others to prepare, but at this point pretty much anyone on the listserv of a teaching institution likely has an inbox full of invitations to attend online pedagogy workshops. I have taken a number of these trainings over the years, including in recent months, and have found that some are more helpful than others.
On the other hand, as I prepare my digital classroom for the fall, I find myself drawing frequently on skills I picked up outside of academia — that is, in my creative life as a professional dancer and performer.
I’m talking about the TECH.
Part of creating art, I learned (slowly) over the years, is developing the tools to share it with others. The same goes for pedagogy.
Whether at a distance or in person, one of the most valuable things we can do in the undergraduate classroom is cultivate a compassionate and community-oriented environment, especially as students grapple with the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, patriarchy, and systemic racism. Usually I aspire to do this, at least partly, by foregrounding relationship-building.
For better or worse, in online classes our attempts to connect with students and build supportive spaces are mediated by the technology to which we have access, and our comfort using it.
To be clear, the tech does not make or break a classroom. But for those who would like to tweak their setup and are not sure where to start, I want to share some tangible and SIMPLE tools that I use to make my online teaching visually pleasing for students, and a little more comfortable for me as well.
The following can be applied to synchronous or asynchronous arrangements.
1. Backdrop and positioning — Get the camera to your eye level and look into it.
Academics have a persistent habit of posing in front of our bookshelves and it seems that some trainings and circulating articles advocate for a similarly scholarly setup. If you have a nice bookshelf you want to sit in front of — go for it. But your backdrop doesn’t matter as much as your positioning in the frame, and your general comfort level.
If you are okay having it on camera, and it is not super distracting, your backdrop is probably fine.
How do I make the nice framing happen, though?
Whether you are pre-recording a lecture or hosting a live lecture, I find it most helpful to be relatively close to the screen, with just my head and shoulders in the shot. To make this work, I find the camera lens on my recording device (usually the top of a laptop or smart phone, details on that below) and position it more or less at my eye level.
If you are recording on a laptop, simply placing it on top of a few books will do the trick.
For smartphone recordings, you can buy a simple tripod online for $15-$20. Or, place your phone on a pile of books or elevated ledge/shelf for free.
In this way, we can avoid the Zoom chin shot and cropped forehead.
When I am recording an asynchronous lecture, I make an effort to look into the camera lens rather than at my own face. On the recording, the effect is that I appear to be looking directly at the viewer rather than off to the side or at a distracting angle.
If I am teaching synchronously, I keep in mind the camera position but focus more on looking at and engaging with students, which I think is more important.
2. Lighting! — Your light source should come from behind your camera, not behind your head.
Sometime around 2017 I taught my first fully online course. I recorded just a few short lectures to accompany visual materials, and they were…pretty terrible. Those recordings are hard to watch, not just because I was uncomfortable being on camera, but also because it is literally difficult to see me.
There’s no shortcut around being uncomfortable on camera — we just have to do it to get used to it. There are, however, quick and easy steps we can take to make videos and live lectures brighter, so students don’t have to strain to see us.
The simple fix: a light source should always be placed behind the camera (your computer) and not behind you. If I have a lamp positioned behind me during a lecture, I turn it off. If I leave it on, students are treated to a blurry ball of light to stare at while trying to pay attention to the class.
If your apartment/home is not the bastion of light you’d like it to be (looking at you, fellow New Yorkers), you can buy a ring light like the one pictured here for around $20.
You can try one like this that clips right onto your laptop.
Buying a light is not necessary though. Positioning any lamp diagonally behind your camera or computer will work just fine — all the better if you happen to have an LED light bulb in it.
3. Recording videos and camera setup — Record on Zoom or get a tripod for your camera.
Let’s get into the nitty gritty of recording for a minute.
By now many people have their preferred method of recording/streaming classes. If you are still working it out though, here’s a quick, non-comprehensive rundown of simple options.
Record on Zoom/Bb Collaborate/Webex etc.: I do almost all of my live lectures this way and a substantial amount of pre-recorded material as well. This is great for live synchronous classes that you also want to record and post later. When prerecording for an asynchronous course, these programs can be especially helpful because you can simply open up your Personal Meeting Room (Zoom), click “Record” (on the bottom of your screen) and lecture away. If you want to put up images or text on the screen as part of the video lecture, you can use “Share Screen” to put up your slides or images and keep it moving with the lecture. If you don’t feel like being on camera for your prerecorded lectures, you can just minimize the icon of your face and students will only see the shared screen and hear your voice.
Record on a smartphone: If you have a smartphone, you can set it up and hit record with pretty much no other prep, which is nice. As mentioned above, you can get a cheap tripod or ring light online to hold up your phone while you talk. Or, you can find a shelf or pile of books to prop it up against. One helpful thing to note is that the cameras on many smartphones today are excellent — usually better than the built-in camera on your computer and often better than a web camera. If you find that videos recorded on your computer are blurry and it is bothering you, you may want to do pre-recorded lectures on a smartphone instead.
Webcams: To be honest, I don’t use a web camera for online teaching. There may be a benefit to using one though if you are hoping to stand up and move around while teaching and do not want to be tied to your laptop. You can get a Logitech web camera for $60-$100 (or, if you’re lucky, maybe your institution is giving them out, who knows?) Technically you could get the same effect by accessing Zoom on your smartphone and setting it across the room, but webcams have settings that can be more specifically geared toward capturing a wide view.
Any of the above options works well, so it is really a matter of your comfort and accessibility.
One bonus tip for pre-recorded lectures: Although platforms like Blackboard are supposedly set up to accommodate your posting of large video files, I find that it doesn’t always work. Because I don’t have the patience to find out if my lecture is going to load on any given day, I upload pre-recorded videos to YouTube and set the privacy to “Unlisted”. This basically means that only people who already have the link can access the video; it won’t appear in regular searches. I set my lectures to “Unlisted” and post the link for my students. Most people are already comfortable following a YouTube link to watch a video, so I find that this causes minimal confusion for students looking for the lectures.
4. Sound — You don’t need a mic, but if you want one you have options.
You do not need to buy an external mic for online teaching.
If you are feeling like your sound is scratchy, and especially if you are uploading long pre-recorded lectures, you do have a few options.
Using a mic might be especially helpful for you if there are other noises and people around your apartment/home (again, looking at you fellow New Yorkers sharing limited space with your partner/family/kids/roommates/etc.). A microphone does not just amplify noise, most mics specifically pick up sound only within a certain conical area. So, not only will a mic make your voice a little crisper, it may partly block out noise from other parts of the room.
The simplest option, if you have ever had an iPhone, is to use the headphones that come with the phone, which include a built-in mic.
If you use these, you do not need to overdo it by putting the mic up near your mouth. These mics are powerful and will pick up your voice well from where they hang. The same does not really apply to Airpods. You can try it, but it won’t limit noise picked up from other parts of the room in the same way. Also, make sure you check that the headphones will plug into whatever device you are using, since Apple went and started messing with the headphone jack a few years ago.
If you don’t have a set of Apple headphones, or you don’t want to wear headphones, you can buy an inexpensive lavalier mic (the ones that you clip onto your clothes) for $15-$20 online and plug that into your computer/phone. If you want to be able to move around, a completely wireless lavalier will cost at least $50 and may be a little complicated to set up.
If you want to be fancy and you have the funds to do so, you could buy a standing mic for $129 (Blue Yeti) or $169 (Rode Mic). These are usually easy to work, but really are not necessary for online teaching.
5. Be a human — None of this tech really matters, but your comfort does.
Now for the important part.
I want to take a moment to point out one more time that none of this technology is at all necessary for online teaching. And, just as technology inequities will inevitably affect our students this fall, so too do they impact instructors. Having been a contingent faculty member for eight years before accepting a full-time position for this fall, I know really well that our access to funds and institutional resources varies enormously.
Figuring out tech and extra costs should not be an additional source of stress and anxiety. We are in the midst of a pandemic and a revolution and this technology is not the make or break factor in your teaching success this fall.
But, in recent conversations with fellow faculty members I have also noticed that the anxiety and overwhelm is hitting pretty hard right now. If any of these tips and tools helps make you more comfortable teaching and meeting students where they are — feel free to take what works and leave the rest. While we cannot control most of what is going down this semester, a few adjustments can make those (awkward) pre-recorded lectures and synchronous Zoom calls slightly easier.
We got this.