Remote teaching is part of the new normal while the pandemic rages. By this point, every teacher knows about Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing apps. These products provide a foundation for the authentic human connection with your students that is so vital to their well-being—and yours!
As an edtech professional, I’ve been using videoconferencing tools since Cisco’s Webex product first created the category in 2007. Back then, connections were erratic, users didn’t understand muting (which was often awkward!), and only one person at a time appeared on my screen. Since then, the number of product offerings and feature sets has grown wildly, as has the sophistication and technique of the participants. Things run pretty smoothly in the adult world nowadays!
But teaching children via videoconferencing is akin to herding cats. Besides the stress they may be feeling at home, students may be anxious about this unfamiliar technology. They’re distracted by how different it is to see their teacher on a computer screen. Even if students are familiar with videoconference software, many of the features, such as instant messaging between participants, are fun to play with and can quickly become distractions. Certain students may be especially fidgety while others might feel frustrated or alienated.
To lower stress and keep control of a virtual classroom, you must start by casting yourself in the best light possible—literally. Just as an actor takes the stage and commands the audience’s attention, teachers must do the same. It will go a long way towards re-establishing calm and a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos.
Just like our eyes, cameras need light to render a good image. When there’s minimal light, too much light or a light pointed in the wrong direction, cameras will capture a poor quality image.
The goals of lighting are to:
Reveal your facial movements and expressions so your audience can feel connected to you.
Display you in the highest quality so your image is not distracting to your viewers, especially those who easily lose focus.
Make your surroundings look natural and realistic so as not to distract from you and your presentation. (Lighting sources that are too warm or too cool in color temperature can create distortions; distortions amount to distractions when students are involved. This is especially true with elementary-age learners.)
Record the video with minimal graininess on playback.. Since your students may access recordings of your lessons asynchronously, it’s important to ensure you’re controlling image quality when you record your synchronous session.
Sitting with your back to a window or bright light source will give you a harsh halo on camera. You’ll be silhouetted, the outline of your figure highlighted and your facial features drowned out. Whenever possible, sit facing the window, desk lamp or other light source to ensure your face is well-lit and clearly visible.
Natural daylight makes for more pleasing skin tones and renders more realistic colors on camera. Using your device in a room with indirect natural light will give a professional atmosphere to your onscreen presence.
A lampshade or a scarf draped over an LED fixture reduces harsh shadows and softens the lighting in a room. If the ceiling features recessed fluorescent lights, tape warm-colored scarves or fabric over them. Just make sure the fabric is lightweight and sheer—if it’s too thick or opaque, it will block out the light altogether!
Contrary to popular belief, the closer a source is to a subject, the softer the shadows will be. So if a lamp’s glow is too harsh, tone it down with sheer fabrics and bring the light source closer to you. This may even boost the camera’s exposure on your face. Be sure to balance any natural lighting with properly-placed, soft white lamps to create a pleasing ambience in the room.
When facing your computer or camera, try to position light sources to the left and right of you, as well as overhead. This is the go-to lighting configuration for portrait photographers and videographers; it illuminates all angles of your face without muddying any features.
Cameras require plenty of light to record with maximum clarity. Still, it is possible to have too much light. If your window is too bright a source, lower the blinds or move away to avoid overexposure. If a smaller source like a lamp is too bright, position it further away or dim it with a shade. If possible, use multiple light sources pointed at your face to fill in shadows and make the room’s overall lighting as even as possible.
Use white or light-colored walls as a backdrop within your camera’s frame. White or light surfaces reflect light, whereas darker or black surfaces absorb it. Alternatively, make one wall bright green (a color that you’d never wear!) and use it as your backdrop. You can do this with a sheet, a vinyl shower curtain, or paint. (you can also purchase a green screen online.) Then use Zoom conference settings to replace your green background wall with an image—any image you choose!! Or use the fun backgrounds found at WeAreTeachers.com.
Give your neck a break by raising your laptop’s camera to eye level. This position also allows you to lift your chin and speak in a more natural voice. You’ll look and sound better when you do it. Remember—even if you’re teaching remotely, you’re still practicing public speaking!
The sturdiest and least expensive item I’ve used to bring a laptop up to eye level is a shoe shelf meant for a clothes closet. Any store that has closet accessories should have one in stock. Target carries two, and either one works for $20 or less:
TIP: If the shelf puts your laptop up too high, invert the shelf and it should be just right.
Typing on the same laptop from which you’re projecting is just not feasible when going for your best image. An external keyboard and mouse can be plugged into your mothership of a laptop via USB. Tethered keyboard and mouse sets can be purchased for less than $30 at Walmart and Staples. Some may prefer wireless accessories, but I’m not one of them as they’re more expensive and you have to keep up with the batteries. If you can handle a few cords, you should be just fine.
TIP: Check the number of USB ports on your computer before heading to the store. Consider an inexpensive USB hub if you need more.
Tethered headsets, or earbuds, can look messy onscreen and get in your way. They can also cause you to hold your head in weird positions and may lead to fidgeting. Switch to bluetooth headsets and you’ll streamline your look while being able to move freely and project your voice. As an added bonus, your neck and shoulders will feel much better at the end of a long day of videoconferencing.
For about the same price as some bluetooth headsets, you can broadcast like the social distancing pros you’re watching on TV right now. The way to do it is to use external microphones and speakers instead of wireless headsets or wired headphones. Of course, this only works if you’re broadcasting from dedicated spaces where background noise isn’t a problem. If you have a home office or spare bedroom for privacy, then this is the best configuration, especially if you’re doing several videoconferences a day.
TIP: If you choose to go this route, you’ll need a USB hub so you have enough ports for all of your plug-and-play devices:
Please Note: I’ve provided some links to products for which I receive no fees, nor am I affiliated with the manufacturers in any way. I know that educators are always on a tight budget, and so I did the research to find products that were at the intersection of low cost and high quality. For less than $200, you can look and sound like a “YouTube Star” to your students!