On August 13, the Palmyra School Board voted to begin our school year all online. This was the right call to make, as there are too many unknowns and the mitigation strategies put in place at schools would be terrifying for younger students, but it does stink. Our education system was in need of a huge overhaul, but having it forced upon us because of a pandemic is difficult for everyone. Palmyra will continue to feed students who are food insecure 1, and teachers will create relationships as best they can in this strange land.
My wife is a teacher, and a good portion of my vocational life is spent trying to use the interwebs to communicate with folks, so when this decision was made last night I began pondering how to make the experience better for both her and her students. We did a little bit of this last year, but when the world collapsed there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room. Now there’s some space to think.
Focus on Sound
I am certain there are schools all over the country who are trying their best to get teachers better cameras for their remote teaching. This is fine but, really, most integrated webcams are more than capable enough to handle a teacher’s needs. If they can be improved within the school’s budget, great, but the first thing teachers need to get is a microphone.
People will deal with grainy video and up the nose shots 2 when the audio is clear. They will not, however, put up with great looking video when the audio is garbage. When both are bad, people turn off the video and run away. Sound is important, and it’s often the aspect of streaming with the least focus spent on it.
As teachers will be streaming from their computers, a USB microphone is ideal for their situation. They don’t need to have drivers installed, 3 the digital signal will bypass all the static and noise which tend to come from a laptops built-in mics or mic port, and it will allow the teacher to stop sounding as though they are speaking in a busy airport terminal. Plug in, set the laptop to use the microphone as the input, and go.
USB microphones can be purchased at just about any price-point, but even a cheap unit can improve sound quality. It’s best to avoid basement models, but if that’s all someone can afford it’s still better than the onboard mics.
What type of microphone to get is a bit tricky. If the remote teaching is being done at home, a desktop condenser would work very well as it would give great coverage for someone sitting at a desk and working from a computer. If the teachers will be doing their instruction from their classrooms, however, things get a bit more tricky. Condensor mics work great when the person is near the microphone and is always facing it. But when they move or turn their backs, things start to get a bit more iffy. Also, condenser mics will tend to pick up room noise when the sound source is not near the microphone. In this case, a lavalier microphone is a better option. These microphones are pinned onto the talent 4 and so their pick up follows the subject as they move. The downside, however, is the hinderance of a cable running from the talent to the computer. To avoid embarrassing equipement destruction, it’s best to get a microphone with as long a cable as you can find. It’s easier to move a cable out of the way then it is to catch a laptop as it is pulled to the floor by a sudden flourish as a great point is made!
Another alternative would be to pick up a wireless lavalier microphone, or use a bluetooth headset. I recommend against these for grammar school teachers because wireless lavaliers can be more expensive, suffer from interference, and need a decent connection to the computer. Bluetooth microphones tend to have limited battery life, which runs the risk of the mic going dead in the middle of a lesson!
Here’s a listing of USB microphones, both lavalier and desktop consenser at the B&H Photo website.
For teachers who would like to move to board work to demonstrate a lesson, cameras are less than ideal. Exposure, glare, and zoom often prevent remote students from being able to see what’s being written on the board. On the other hand schools may have provided teachers with iPads, or another tablet. School issued windows laptops may also have touchscreens. These devices are ideal whiteboard replacements.
If a teacher’s school-issued laptop is touch capable, they are already set up. All they need is an application installed which can be used as a digital notepad, and a compatible stylus 5. Then the screen can be shared and the remote students will see the digital whiteboard at home!
If a teacher doesn’t have a touch capable laptop, or would like to use tools found on their tablet, things becomes more complex—but it’s still doable.
First, teachers will need the correct HDMI output adapter for the tablet. At present, these will either be a lightning connecter (Apple), usb-c (Apple Pro iPads, Samsung, and other brands), or micro-usb (Other brands) on the end which attaches to the tablet. The other end will have an HDMI port which takes the video signal out from the tablet.
The next hurdle is getting that HDMI signal in to the laptop. To do this an HDMI capture device is needed. Capture devices can be expensive, but there are some generic options available which deliver good results. At $24.99 this option, on Amazon, should be within the budget of most teachers. To make it more flexible I recommend ordering a short usb extension cable to keep ports free.
The good news is most HDMI capture devices don’t need to have software installed to use. Since teachers most likely won’t be able to install software on to their school issued laptops, this essential. Once the capture device is plugged into the laptop it will be seen as a possible video source. The question is, “How do you switch between the camera and the tablet?”
There are a number of options which can give serious bells and whistles to a teacher’s stream, but I’m more of a “keep it simple stupid” tech. I like to start simple and let people get to the point where they want more. My wife’s school has used Google hangouts for their remote teaching, and changing between inputs is rather straight forward. Everything is done in settings, which can be accessed in by clicking on the gear icon in the upper right-hand corner of the hangouts screen.
First, to make sure the tablet shows up correctly, go into the settings and click on Bandwidth. In Outgoing video change the setting to 720p. This will give the best image across the stream, and will keep the iPad screen from being cropped.
Then, when it comes time to switch between inputs, open up settings again. In the General tab, click the drop down list under the Video setting. This will bring up a list of all video inputs available to Hangouts. The default will be the laptop’s webcam, but underneath the capture device should appear. Select it, and click “Done.” People viewing the hangout should now see the tablet screen, which can now be used a whiteboard 6.
One thing to note, the preview window at the bottom of the device, which shows the camera output for the computer, will be mirrored. People at the other end of the hangout will see it with the correct orientation. There used to be a setting to change this behavior in hangouts, but Google removed it.
Do not skip this!
One thing to keep in mind when you are using your tablet as a video input turn off your notifications. Just turn them off at the beginning of the day, and then keep them off. You do not want private correspondance being broadcast to your class!
- I hope Central can find a way to be part of this effort. The schools get money to provide, but if there’s a way to volunteer or further reduce the burden that would be great. ↩
- Though, really folks, elevate the laptop a bit, ok? ↩
- Though some more pricey options will have applications you can install to tweak the settings. ↩
- Literally a technical term. ↩
- Some devices have a stylus which includes things like pressure sensitivity and palm rejection. These are great, but can be pricey. A “rubber nub” stylus can work just as well in many cases. ↩
- Among other, more fun, things. But we’ll stick with simple here. ↩