I made a short video illustrating the Zoom settings that I believe are well-suited for my style of teaching. I’m assuming students are using around a 13″ laptop without an external monitor. If you think your students would find this useful, please feel free to share!
Big thanks to Liana Woskie for pretending to be my student!
Update: Since writing this post Luke Stein pointed me to an app called H2R Graphics, which lets you overlay a timer on your computer if you have a setup like an ATEM Mini. It’s a little funny to set up – you plug your computer into the ATEM, and then back from the ATEM to the computer – but the result is a pretty flexible timer that’s quite useful!
While in meetings or teaching, it’s often useful to have a timer visible to everyone to help keep track of time. I was interested in having this overlaid atop my video and, using the Chroma key function of my ATEM Mini, I was able to do so.
The secret is creating a video or presentation of a countdown timer with some kind of green background. I did this by creating Keynote presentations with this AppleScript and then exporting them as movies. Lucky for you, I’ve posted a few sample timers here for two, five, and ten minutes.
Once I’ve created the timers, I just plug in my camera into one source of my ATEM Mini, and my iPad into a second source, and overlay them in the following way:
Pretty spiffy, and quite useful!
P.S. It’s easy to do this much more cheaply using OBS. Just right click on the video source in the list of Sources (it can be your iPad, or you can download one of the videos from above and use it as a Media Source), click “Filters,” click the plus sign under “Effect Filters” and select “Chroma Key,” and make sure the Key Color Type is set to Green. Voila!
This post is the product of several months of experimenting, learning, conversing, and purchasing. It came from a desire to move away from traditional screen sharing, which is often characterized by your slides/visuals taking over a huge portion of your students’ screens (which can be offset somewhat with side-by-side mode).
One way of getting around this is to use what are called "virtual cameras" – in essence, using software or hardware to create a more sophisticated overlay of video/images/feeds, which then get treated by Zoom as a regular webcam. Using software tools like OBS or mmhmm, or hardware tools like the ATEM Mini, you can get some really fun and engaging visuals. Here are a few examples, starting with an excellent introduction by the always insightful and creative Luke Stein:
Once you have a virtual camera all set up, all you have to do is select it from Zoom’s list of cameras to start using it:
Theoretically, the use of virtual cameras should let you create rich, overlaid environments where students can see you and additional content through a single webcam, without having to futz with Zoom’s screen sharing interface (which can be clunky and slow in my experience).
It was with this promise that I embarked on dozens of hours of experimentation with all the software and hardware that I could find.
The problem is, at least with Zoom, this ends up not working very well.
The bad news
The reason for this is that Zoom is constantly making tradeoffs between quality (resolution) and smoothness (framerate) to optimize video, and in doing so is making a lot of assumptions about the nature of your video. In short, it assumes that you want your webcam to be smooth at the expense of quality (it’s weird to have choppy video of you talking) and your screen sharing to prioritize quality at the expense of smoothness (you’re often showing a static image with text on it, and that text must be readable).
Perhaps you can see the problem already – if you’re sharing your slides with you overlaid on top of them, you want your slides to be high quality and your video camera to be smooth. But since you’re just piping in a single virtual camera into Zoom, it’s treating your feed like a webcam – smooth and low quality, making it difficult to read text.
The worse news
This problem has gotten worse since COVID hit, since the huge pressure on Zoom’s infrastructure has led them to essentially disable the sharing of a webcam in HD regardless of your settings (accessed September 7, 2020):
Note: As our world comes together to slow the spread of COVID-19 and stays connected through Zoom globally, we are working to quickly scale our bandwidth during this unprecedented demand.
For the time being, standard video, not HD video, will be activated when 3 or more participants join a group meeting. HD video (720p) will be activated for 2 participants or when a Zoom Room or Conference Room Connector joins a group meeting. HD video (1080p) will only be activated for selective use cases such as large format broadcast events.
That means that your webcam will pretty much always be transmitted at 360p in any classroom setting.
The even worse news
The part that concerns me the most is that it’s difficult to test this on your own, since (a) On your computer, Zoom shows your local uncompressed video feed so it looks fine to you; and (b) The nature of its compression changes as more people join. What this means is you might end up getting comfortable a really cool virtual camera setup, starting a large Zoom class, and finding out that none of your students can make out what you’ve typed or written. That’s, like, teaching-stress-dream-level bad news.
A (kind of) workaround
One way to get around this issue is to use an option in Zoom’s Advanced Screen Sharing window called "Content from 2nd Camera":
Once you click this and then switch to the appropriate virtual camera, Zoom will start to transmit that camera in high resolution, prioritizing it like it would prioritize a regular screen share.
The problem is – you guessed it – doing so drastically reduces the frame rate that Zoom sends from that camera. You can try to offset this by clicking "Optimize Screen Share for Video Clip," but that ends up transmitting a quality that’s quite similar to what you’d get from just using the webcam itself. Here, you can see it switching between high resolution (1080p) low frame rate (vacillating between 20 and 2 fps) and low resolution (360p) high frame rate (30 fps):
A cry for help
My sincere hope is that this entire post will become out of date as soon as possible – Zoom will return to enabling full HD webcam output and we can go back to trying out lots of cool software and hardware solutions to bring engaging content to our students.
Until then, I hope this post is a warning to teachers jumping on the virtual camera train without adequately testing out its implications for their students.
Finally, if you have figured out some way around these constraints, please let me know in the comments! The saving grace of these frustrations has been encountering an innovative and passionate community focused on teaching effectively online. I’m hopeful that there’s something I haven’t thought of that will be shared – I’ll update this post accordingly if so!
As I prepare for my course this Fall, I’m constantly worrying about how to create community. Reflecting on my teaching this past Spring and what worked, I found a low-hanging fruit in the form of playing music in the 10–15 minutes before class as people roll into Zoom. Something about this really seemed to help students get more comfortable and willing to unmute and share how they’re doing.
I took this one step further in the Spring by creating a playlist that students could themselves contribute to. It’s fun to see students recognize a song playing that they themselves added, and explain why they chose that particular song.
So, without further ado, here’s how to play music over Zoom, and how to create a collaborative playlist for students to add to.
Playing music over Zoom
Before getting into the collaborative aspect, let’s go over how to share audio over Zoom.
When sharing your screen over Zoom, there’s a checkbox on the bottom left of the screen that says “Share computer audio” – this makes it so that whatever audio your computer plays is also sent over Zoom.
But it isn’t optimal to just leave a slide up for the entire 15 minute period. Sharing your screen takes over much of your students’ screens and prevents them from being able to see each other and you in the time leading up to class start. Instead, you want to share only your computer’s audio over Zoom. You can do this by clicking on “Share Screen,” clicking the “Advanced” tab, and clicking “Music or Computer Sound Only”:
Now your students aren’t seeing your screen, but they are hearing your computer’s audio. You can then switch to Spotify or Apple Music and start playing music.
Important note: For some reason, music playing on my computer is played much louder on participants’ computers than it does on my own. I have no idea why this is, but what’s important is that you turn down the volume from within the Spotify/Apple Music app before you start playing:
This volume slider is different from your computer system audio – it’s within the app itself. Be sure to ask participants if they can hear your music and if it’s too loud once you start sharing.
So now you have music playing in your class, which helps create levity and put the room at ease. But what about letting students themselves decide what music gets played?
One straightforward way to do this is to simply have students submit requests in the chat that you or a member of your teaching team can queue up. If, however, you want to create more of a “living playlist” that students contribute to over the course of the semester, I suggest using a Spotify Collaborative Playlist (I wish Apple Music had this feature, but alas it does not). Here’s how you can go about setting it up:
If you haven’t already, create a Spotify account (free or otherwise).
From the Spotify desktop app, create an empty playlist by clicking the “New Playlist” button and name it something specific to your course.
The playlist will now show up on the sidebar of the desktop app. Right click the playlist name and click “Collaborative Playlist” – you’ll now see a little circle next to your playlist.
Right click on the playlist name again, and this time click on “Share > Copy Playlist Link”
You’ll now have the playlist link in your clipboard which you can share with your students. Instruct the students to go to the link, add the playlist to their libraries, and then add songs to the playlist. Note that they’ll need a Spotify account of their own to add to it.
And you’re done! As students add to the playlist, it will update for Spotify on your computer as well. Be sure to ask students to take credit if their songs get played in class!
Last week was my first full week of teaching online. Like virtually every other teacher in the world right now, I learned a lot about what works for my course and what does not. There were many realizations that I had about the logistics of my class: for example, I learned it takes much longer to do almost anything than it does in person, and also that I should delegate more responsibilities to my teaching team than I had originally planned.
But the biggest realizations have been in the realm of student engagement. Here are three high level takeaways from my first week which I’m taking into Week 2:
Reflection 1: There are many more ways for students to engage with the class online than in person.
When teaching residentially, the primary mode through which a student can interact with the class is verbal. They can raise their hand and ask a question or make a comment; they can talk to the students sitting next to them; or they can have discussions in small groups. Of course, some classes use other methods, but for the most part students speak to each other and to you.
When teaching online, in contrast, it feels like there isn’t really a “primary way” for a student to interact with the class. Here’s a brief list of modalities that students can use to engage:
Raising their hand physically or virtually. When the instructor calls on them, they unmute and speak.
Using Zoom’s chat function to leave a comment or question for (a) the whole class, (b) a peer, or (c) the instructor or other co-hosts.
Responding to a poll that the instructor activates. After voting, the poll results may be shared back to the students.
Working with one another in breakout rooms on a discrete task, and coming back together for a report out afterwards.
Typing into a collaborative document or presentation (e.g., a Google Doc or Slide) alongside their peers/the teaching team/the instructor.
Reading this list should make your heart beat a little bit faster, both out of excitement and anxiety. On one hand, teaching online makes it easy to get the kind of engagement that many residential instructors aspire to (I’ve seen some really nice uses of Google Docs in residential courses, but those examples are few and far between). Students can collaboratively generate content, make their feelings known without the pressure of raising their hand and speaking to the entire class, and seamlessly share insights or concerns with each other and with you.
On the other hand, each of these modalities has problems associated with it, and doing them all at once is a recipe for chaos. What if students flood your chat room with side conversations? What if you’re halfway through your lecture and you suddenly see that half the class is signaling “Go Faster” while the other half is signaling “Go Slower”? What if the process of calling on someone, having them unmute themselves, ask their question, then mute themselves again shaves off a few seconds of class time every time, to the point where you’re losing 5-10 minutes of class time just on microphone management?
Luckily, I’m finding that the issues of one method can be addressed by the strengths of another. In my class this week, I left the chat window open to everyone, and quickly found it to be a distraction for myself and a large number of my students. Instead, I’ve decided to generally restrict students to chatting with co-hosts (my teaching team) and relying on hand-raising/verbal communication. However, during discrete times in class – question times, or when I ask for a large number of examples of some concept – I can open the chat to everyone. Suddenly the chat becomes a rich source of information for me that would take way too long to solicit via verbal responses. In short, I find myself asking when a certain modality should be employed more often than I ask if it should be employed.
Reflection 2: Unlike residential teaching, students’ interaction with your course is mediated entirely through a single small rectangle on their laps.
While teaching online opens up a host of possibilities for students to engage, it’s also limited by a seemingly obvious problem. While students in residential classrooms can easily switch between looking at you, looking at slides/visuals, and looking at each other, when online they must do so through the porthole of their computer screen. This has a few implications:
There are time and energy costs to moving between your shared screen, their notes, your video feed, their peers’ feeds, the chat, etc. The more switching they have to do, the higher the risk of fatigue and confusion.
Inertia can easily kick in, resulting in students just watching your shared screen and not their notes, their peers, or you.
Every tool that you use outside of the videoconference – Poll Everywhere, Google Docs, bit.ly links to reference material – is subject to the two problems above, reducing its effectiveness.
With these issues in mind, I’ve had to make some adjustments to how I teach (again, these are things that are working for me, not necessarily prescriptions for you):
Whenever possible, use Zoom functions instead of third-party services: I lovePoll Everywhere and the rich set of polling tools it provides. However, unless I’m asking for free-response questions from students, I’m using Zoom polls instead. Similarly, despite the many advantages of a dedicated chat service like Slack, I’m sticking with Zoom’s more rudimentary chat feature. In short, unless I have an important reason to do otherwise, I’m keeping things in Zoom for the sake of student sanity.
Reduce the amount of content students need to process: As I’ve written before, while teaching residentially I make use of a main screen (for the handout) and side screens (for supplementary slides/animations/polls). When switching to online, I was largely able to replicate this two screen setup in Zoom (though I needed a bunch of screens to do so). However, I quickly learned from students that having to view two simultaneously broadcasted screens on their computers while also taking notes was too challenging, even if the content was shared in high resolution. The problem wasn’t blurriness – it was cognitive load.
Mirror handouts directly: In my class, I provide students with a guided handout (with lots of empty space and questions), and then project a “slide-ified” version that I create which emphasizes certain parts of the handout and breaks up with the content. For the same reasons as my previous point, I’m now projecting exactly the same handout that the students have to make it easier to follow the class. I can still emphasize certain content by zooming in and out of sections as needed, but projecting the handout that they also have and writing on that appears to be a big help to students.
Reflection 3: As we transition to teaching from home, students are transitioning to learning from home.
As we scramble to successfully move our classes online, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that our students are having to make significant cognitive, physical, and emotional changes themselves. For a moment, let’s put aside the obvious distress of COVID-19 and social distancing and think about the transition to online learning. Students who are taking 3 classes a day are now sitting in front of a videoconference for 4 or more hours, sometimes straight! That means not walking between classes, not chatting with peers, not going outside for a few minutes before class, and not talking with their instructors before or after class. Even without a global pandemic, this is a tough transition.
Here are a few small suggestions I’ve tried in order to be a positive force in my students’ lives during this time:
Commit to ending class on time, always. I put the most important one first. Transitioning to online has meant that I’m not always getting to the content that I planned to cover, and it feels like a disservice to not get to those topics when time has run out. But the fact that students don’t have to walk to their next class doesn’t mean that the transition time between classes isn’t important to them. In short, I want to make sure I respect the contract that I made with my students way back in January.
Build in stretch breaks. I aspire to give my students 30 seconds to stretch every 30 minutes. I find this much harder to do in practice given all the time constraints mentioned above, but this is a nice way to re-center the class when attention starts to drop.
Play music before class. I saved the best for last. When I started the Zoom conference on Thursday and shared my introductory slide, I also shared my computer’s sound and played some fun music while they waited. It was just wonderful to have students roll in looking tired and frazzled, perk up a bit because something was different, half smile as they realized there was music playing, then start to bob their head back and forth. By the time class actually started I even had a few students dancing in their seats! I’ve since made a collaborative playlist on Spotify and asked students to add to it for the remainder of the semester. It feels silly, but maybe silly is what we need a bit more of these days. [UPDATE: I wrote a quick post on the logistics of doing this]
I’m interested in returning to this post in a few weeks and seeing how much I’ve changed my approach, and how wrong some of this sounds in retrospect. I hope that’s the case – most of us are new to this, which means there’s so much room to grow.
Be physically and emotionally well. Let me know if you have thoughts in the comments.
No matter what we teach, many of us make use of handwriting when in the classroom. We write on a whiteboard/blackboard, or write on handouts using a document camera, or write on slides being project on a screen. Writing helps guide learners toward the ideas that you consider important, and it helps organize thought processes and discussions. Plus, it lets you do something with your hands besides fidget.
When teaching online, there are lots of ways to approximate the benefits of writing without a stylus. Instead of a whiteboard, for example, you could have a Google Doc that learners can follow along with or even contribute to. But many of us need the flexibility of handwritten words and drawn diagrams. For that I suggest using a tablet (in my case, an iPad).
The two main decisions you have to make when using a tablet are:
In this post I’m going to outline these choices and your options. I’ll try to describe the pros and cons of each option, and articulate why I do things the way I do.
Question 1: What app should I use to write?
There is no shortage of apps for the iPad that allow you to write or draw. With the advent of the Apple Pencil (a tool I highly encourage you to use in lieu of a traditional chunky stylus, provided that your iPad supports it), writing on an iPad has reached new levels of ease and comfort. So which app should you use?
When deciding which app is best for you, I prefer apps that have a “presenter mode” – that is to say, when the iPad is projecting onto an external screen, the app’s UI and other apps on the screen are hidden from the external screen (see my old post on Keynote for examples). This is especially useful for teachers, since it (a) ensures that the students only focus on your content and not the details, and (b) allows you to have additional reference material on your iPad that students don’t see.
I’m going to go through the most popular options below. Each of these has its own type of presenter mode that you should experiment with:
PowerPoint (.pptx): The People’s Choice. If you use slides in your class, there’s a very good chance that they’re PowerPoint slides.
Keynote (.key): For the Aesthetically Minded. Keynote has, in my opinion, an unparalleled ability to animate and show context.
GoodNotes (.pdf): Flexibility and Power. If you prefer a blank whiteboard, or use Beamer, or like to zoom in and out, or simply like to write a lot, PDF annotation apps are nimble in ways that more traditional slideshow apps are not. There are many options out there, though the two most popular are GoodNotes and Notability. I used to not recommend Notability for teaching because it lacked a presenter mode, but the developers have finally added it (just a week ago at time of writing). My love for GoodNotes is no secret, so I’ll focus on that in this post, but Notability seems to be roughly the same in terms of features for our purposes.
Let’s take a look at how each performs, both in terms of handwriting and presenter mode.
PowerPoint: Not great, but not bad either. A very basic set of colored pens, highlighters, and erasers, with no ability to adjust the thickness or use other colors. The pens aren’t especially “realistic” feeling either. One feature of note: when you exit a presentation that you’ve been writing on, it asks if you want to keep your annotations. If you tap “Keep”, they become embedded in the slides as shapes.
Keynote: Truly terrible. A couple of colors, zero ability to adjust thickness. Heck, you can’t even erase (just undo)! Writing on Keynote feels clunky and fragile; if you stop presenting your slideshow, you lose all annotations that you had made. All of that despite the fact that iOS has a built-in handwriting engine that works wonderfully. Sigh.
GoodNotes: Exquisite! Infinitely customizable pens and highlighters; a customizable eraser that can automatically snap back to your previous pen after you use it; shape recognition; and a lasso tool to move handwriting around. If you plan on writing a lot and want precision and flexibility, GoodNotes is the way to go.
For each screenshot, I tried to show as much information as each app’s presenter mode allows:
PowerPoint: Solid! Shows your current slide, presenter notes, and thumbnails for your presentation. There’s also a button to black out the screen if needed, and the ability to zoom in and out of slides.
Keynote: Lots of customizations in terms of seeing the current and/or next slide, presenter notes, current time/elapsed time, and thumbnails.
GoodNotes: In addition to hiding the UI, GoodNotes allows you to either mirror the each full page (similar to a full slide in PowerPoint or Keynote), or zoom in and out of your slides (“Mirror Presenter Page”). You can get to thumbnails etc., but you have to tap the four squares in the top left corner to access a grid of thumbnails.
Question 2: How should I project?
Zoom offers three ways to project from your iPad, two using the Desktop client and one from the iPad itself. I’ll say now that I don’t recommend projecting from the iPad itself. It will turn your iPad into its own “Participant” in your Zoom room, which complicates how you interact with your students (e.g., it’ll get assigned to a Breakout Room if you use those). The stream itself is also of lower quality in my experience. So, onto the Desktop options:
Option 1: Plug your iPad in directly. The advantage of this method is that it’s easy. Plug your iPad directly into your computer, click “Share Screen” in Zoom, and click “iPhone/iPad via cable”. You may have to enter your iPad password the first time, but then you’re all set! Your iPad is being mirrored to your computer and to your students.
Option 2: Airplay to your iPad. The downside to Option 1 is that it doesn’t take advantage of presenter mode. That is to say, whatever is happening on your iPad is being mirrored entirely to your students. Option 2, however, will use the presenter modes that I mentioned earlier in this post. For example, here’s what I see versus what students see in Keynote when using Airplay:
The downside, though, is that projecting is a two step process. After clicking “Share Screen” and “iPhone/iPad via Airplay” in Zoom, you then have to go into your iPad’s control center, select “Screen Mirroring” and connect to your computer:
If you’re comfortable with these steps, I recommend Option 2, but only if presenter mode is especially useful to you.
[UPDATE July 9 2020] Option 3 (Keynote only): Project from your Mac and annotate with your iPad. Keynote has long had the ability to remote control/annotate on slides playing from one device using another device. This means that you can run a Keynote presentation from your Mac then, using your iPad as a remote control, annotate on the slides. I used to not suggest this approach because Keynote on the Mac took over all monitors while a presentation was running. However, as of Keynote version 10.1, you can now choose “Play Slideshow in Window” to have Keynote run as a standalone window on your Mac. If you use Keynote as your primary way of presenting, this is now the setup that I recommend.
What I Use
So what am I using when teaching on Zoom? I use Airplay Mirroring (Option 2) with both GoodNotes and Zoom.
In class, I show two screens to students, one showing a handout in GoodNotes (that they also have) and one showing supplementary screens in Keynote for animations. While online teaching, I’m learning that projecting two screens onto students small laptops is not a great learning experience, so instead I’ll be switching between them manually. iPad makes it easy to quickly switch between apps, and it looks pretty seamless from the student’s perspective as long as I’m using Airplay Mirroring:
There’s of course a lot to consider here, but in the end I suggest you pick the app that you’re most comfortable with and work from there. It’s possible to make any of these combinations work – what matters is that you feel comfortable with the setup you choose so that you can focus on teaching.
First, to whoever is reading this: I hope this finds you safe, healthy, and (relatively) happy.
While this is very far from the first thing on folks’ minds, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my online teaching setup and online teaching strategy, and thought I should share my ongoing process of adapting to an online environment.
I’m lucky to have some experience teaching online as one of the faculty leads for the Kennedy School’s Public Leadership Credential. In addition, I’m a big advocate of blended learning both in my residential courses and in my work training policymakers abroad. Much of this work is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous content. For now, I’ll be focusing these posts on delivering content synchronously using Zoom.
This first post will be about my tech setup when teaching online, and tips to ensure that it goes smoothly. Subsequent posts will be about pedagogical choices, but I thought it better to break them up rather than publishing an online novel.
My online teaching setup at home
Here’s an image of my current setup:
And here are the details (with lots of links), and why I think they’re important:
Ethernet: None of your teaching matters if students can’t see or hear it. Having a stable internet connection is absolutely critical. WiFi can work, but make absolutely sure you have a good connection where you’re sitting. I prefer physically wiring my computer via Ethernet.
Two monitors: I connect my laptop to my LG UltraFine display and keep both of them on. For my purposes this is vastly better than a a single screen, simply because there’s a lot going on during a Zoom session: I’m sharing a presentation, I’m looking at my students’ video feeds, I’m monitoring the Participants list for raised hands, and I’m checking in on the chat (I know, this is a lot. More on this in a subsequent post). Luckily, Zoom has a dual monitor mode that lets you make use of both screens to display all of this. I like to keep my shared screen on the smaller laptop screen, and students’ faces/raised hands/chat front and center on the large screen.
An iPad: If you’ve read this site before, you know that I really enjoy teaching and recording from my iPad. This is especially true when teaching online. In addition to the annotation capabilities of the iPad, projecting from my iPad instead of sharing a presentation from my computer allows me to keep the shared screen in Zoom confined to a single window; otherwise apps like Keynote or PowerPoint will take over both screens to show you a presenter view. To project I use Zoom’s iOS Screen Sharing function. You can either connect the iPad physically to your computer (easier, more stable) or Airplay to it (more finicky, but lets you keep a “Presenter View” on your iPad while projecting the presentation to students). I tend to use Airplay since I like using Keynote’s presenter capabilities without students seeing them.1
Headphones: I cannot stress this enough: use headphones. If you use your computer speakers, there’s the risk of a feedback loop where your voice comes out of the speakers and back into the microphone ad infinitum. Zoom and other applications try to prevent this via software, but you’re better off removing this possibility.
Microphone: Your laptop microphone is probably fine (though you should check to make sure that it is). That said, if you happen to have an external microphone it can really help your audio quality which students will appreciate. I use a Blue Yeti which I have mixed feelings about, but which gets the job done.
Webcam: Your computer’s built-in one is fine, but I’m putting this here to stress that you should look into the camera as much as possible when teaching (this can be easy to forget when you have a laptop, since the webcam is below eye level. You’ll naturally want to look at your content or somewhere else, but the last thing your students want is to stare at your chin for 75 minutes.
Lighting: The general advice is to not have bright lights behind you, and to instead keep a consistent light source in front of you (behind your monitor). Experiment with different positions and see how they look.
Of course, don’t forget your water and espresso:
Phew! That’s enough for today. Please let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions. My next post will be about my thinking with respect to running online sessions.