Back to school: Gear for teachers who want to up their online game

Education takes on all forms. There’s traditional K-12, college, corporate communication and training, specialized online resources, and even YouTube. In this back-to-school guide, I’m not going to limit my suggestions to one discipline of education. 

I’m also staying away from software recommendations because teachers need a lot of different types of software, but much of that is dictated by the school district. Teachers need students with access to computers and bandwidth, however, and there’s a big digital divide issue. Many school districts are requiring at-home teaching but are not providing an equipment allowance, so the things I’ve recommended will likely to be an out-of-pocket expense for you.

That said, this is a guide to help you up your game. Where possible, I’ve kept my suggestions within a reasonable budget. For example, you can add an entire green screen kit — with the backdrop, stands, and even the lights — for under $100. I’ve included budget options because you don’t have to have the best gear to get your thoughts and lessons across.

When I studied for my Master’s degree in education five years ago, my thesis was a quest to discover the optimal online video learning experience for the most effective lesson retention. Here’s the TL;DR of my results: It wasn’t about gear. Learning retention, whether online or not, is all about the quality of the lesson and the resources that support learning. It’s not about having the best cables, microphones, lights, and cameras.

Let that be an encouragement to all the teachers out there faced with sudden immersion into the world of online learning. Sure, it’s nice to have great equipment (and never underestimate the importance of good sound), but you don’t have to have a blinged-out studio to impart knowledge across the internet.

Before we jump into the list, I want to give you one more word of caution: Online teaching jumped from a niche practice to a must-have in just five months. Gear is in outrageous demand, and that means a lot of name brand stuff is out of stock. It also means unscrupulous folks are scalping and gouging on price. Do not spend extra to get your gear. Either wait or find a lower-cost alternative (which I’ve suggested throughout this piece). Don’t give in to the crooks who want to profit on your mission to keep educating, even from home and even in a pandemic.

And now, the gear…

Blue Yeti USB mic

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Blue

You may think that teaching over video requires ideal video quality, but it’s actually sound quality that matters the most. You can get by with lower frame rates and even pixelated video, but if your sound is annoying, folks will tune you out immediately.

I’ve been using the Blue Yeti for years and it produces good quality sound reliably. It comes with a number of different pickup patterns, which gives you a bit of versatility in how you use it. The included stand stood me well for years, but I recently upgraded to a boom arm, which I’ll show you in a minute.

Buying hint: These are in and out of short supply due to the pandemic. If they’re out of stock in one color, look for another color. Also, don’t let the price gougers get you: this should run about $130 or so, new.

Budget option: You can get by with something simple like this budget headset for under $10. It gives you an adequate mic (who are we kidding here?) a headset speaker, and because it’s over-the-head, you don’t need to worry about a stand.

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RODE PSA 1 microphone boom arm

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RODE

If you’re spending long hours in front of your mic, you want the mic to come to you, rather than you having to hunch down to reach the mic. Trust me on this. Your back will thank you.

I’ve used this RODE microphone arm for years. In fact, I have two of them. There’s not much all that exciting to say except it works and has never let me down.

Budget option: See my note for the mic headset above. You won’t need a budget boom arm.

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Microphone pop filter

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Earamble

Peter Piper, who picked a peck of pickled peppers. Let’s leave out the question that’s baffled me since I was three: How does one pick a pepper that’s already pickled? Instead, let’s just focus on the poof of air that comes out of your mouth when you begin a word with “p.” Microphones pick that increase in air pressure and magnify it to the point where it’s very annoying to listen to.

The solution is easy. Add a pop filter. There’s no magic to which to use, but I’ve found this type quite convenient. It’s a relatively low added expense for the benefit it provides.

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Sennheiser headphones

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Sennheiser

I use two different kinds of audio monitors depending on whether I’m on camera. When I’m off camera doing a webcast or radio interview, I use these cans. I also use these in zoom chats, because I can hear better and how I look on screen isn’t as critical. They’re nice, high-quality headphones that won’t break the bank. Because they’re black without any bling, they’re also unobtrusive if you do need to use them on camera.

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Unobtrusive in-ear monitors

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MEE audio

When I’m on camera in a shoot where the video quality counts, I use these nearly-transparent in-ear monitors. While they don’t tunnel the sound as well as the bigger Sennheisers, they don’t stand out on screen. They do help isolate noise and I’ve found they can be adjusted to fit reasonably well, a challenge many other ear buds have failed at miserably.

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1080p webcam

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XIAOYIXIAN

So, here’s the thing. I usually use Logitech webcams. However, they’ve been hard to get ahold of since the entire world went virtual a few months back. If you can find them, and sellers aren’t gouging for price, a nice BRIO is a win. But since everyone is on Zoom these days, off-brand webcams are the way to go.

I picked this unit because it had an enormous number of 5-star ratings. While it’s certainly possible to spoof Amazon’s rating system, it’s very hard to do it 1,759 times. Plus, most of the reviews are well-written and detailed, so it seems like this has real use.

One final webcam hint: Just because your webcam can do 1080p doesn’t mean you need to  Your upload bandwidth is likely to be considerably lower than your download bandwidth, so you may want to go with 720p at 15 frames per second. Most home cable feeds can handle that, but not much more.

Budget option: Your laptop and phone both come with cameras. Use them and save some money.

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Basic tripod

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Davis & Sanford

Turns out tripods are popular in pandemic times. The Amazon Basics version of this thing is backlogged months. Fear not, for I have found you a roughly similar basic tripod. If all you’re supporting is a webcam (and possibly a lightweight teleprompter), all you need is a basic tripod.

This one fits the bill. I like the fact that it’s got a quick release camera mount as well as quick release legs. It comes with a smartphone adapter and a bag. What else is there to say? It’s a tripod.

Budget option: This tripod is pretty budget all on its own, but if you want to go real basic, pile up a stack of books. Tape your camera to a folding ladder or the back of a chair. Hot glue it to a shelf. I’ve done all of these and they do work. Just not as conveniently as a tripod.

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Acoustic panels

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HPKL9999

When I set up my first studio in a 9×10 foot spare room, the audio was terrible due to the reflections from the small space and hard surfaces. Acoustic panels saved the day. They’re just one of many options to blunt the sound, so there are other choices, but these might get you started.

Budget options: Raid your attic and linen closet. Find old moving blankets, comforters, fuzzy blankets, anything soft that can blunt the noise. 

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Blackout curtains

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NICETOWN

When I moved into our new house, my office had the hard surfaces problem I had in other homes, but it also had a brutal afternoon sun that screwed up my video lighting. Blackout curtains came to the rescue. They can be as expensive as acoustic panels, but because they’re quite heavy, they work great as sound buffers. Plus, they block out the light.

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Teleprompter

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Caddie Buddy

While teleprompters are great for reading scripts, I often use my teleprompters for reading notes without looking away from the camera. My biggest use of the teleprompter is to put the talking head of my guest or interviewer right in front of me, so when I converse with them while looking at them, my eyes are straight into the camera.

I actually own two of these Caddie Buddy teleprompters. One is in the workshop and one is in my upstairs studio. While they’re reasonably inexpensive, they’re also pretty solid and definitely do the job.

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Green screen kit

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Emart

Let’s talk green screen, shall we? This is an up-your-game sort of enhancement, but if you can’t control your background and you want to look professional — and you can pull off the lighting — a green screen may be the way to go.

This kit is a great deal. It has all the stuff you’ll need, including lights and a stand. The only problem is that it might require a bit more space than you have available. When I started with my first green screen setup back in Florida, I had a very small space, so I used Autopoles and Super Clamps to hold my lights and I painted a wall in a tiny bedroom.

When I built out my temporary studio, I moved to a really cool extendable green screen background from Elgato. At the time, it was $150, but due to the pandemic, scalpers are selling it for $400 and up. At that price, you should avoid it.

Budget option: You can also go with a simple background decorated from objects around the house. There’s no need to go through all the lighting and positioning challenges if you can simply carve a space with a good on-camera look. In this video on lockdown streaming, for example, all I did was put some of my accumulated geekiness on shelves that came with the house, and it looks pretty good.

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Blackmagic ATEM Mini

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Blackmagic Design

If you want to offload your green screen processing from your computer to something with a lot of chromakey smarts, consider the $295 ATEM Mini. This is the first of a growing line of ATEM Mini devices that offload professional video production to little boxes you can use to run your home studio.

Unfortunately, the $595 ATEM Mini Pro, which supports live streaming, is out of stock on Amazon (and is also subject to price gouging by scalpers, so be careful). Black Magic Design, the storied video gear company behind the ATEM line, also just announced two cool new products: the $885 ATEM Mini Pro ISO with built-in individual multi-stream recording capabilities; and the ATEM Streaming Bridge (which is more of a tool for pro broadcasters) that converts the ATEM stream back into professional video formats. Both will be available in August.

Budget option: Just use OBS on your computer to do all the processing and mixing. OBS is free, open source, very powerful, and always improving.

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Gaffer tape

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Amazon Basics

If you’ve never used gaffer tape, you’re in for a treat. This stuff is super-strong but doesn’t leave a residue. You can use it instead of clamps and brackets, and it allows you to make temporary yet permanent mounts for your gear. I’ve used gaffer tape to tape a camera to a ladder to approximate a tripod. I’ve used gaffer tape to tape down all the wires for my lighting. I’ve used gaffer tape to hold up backgrounds. I’ve used gaffer tape for so much more.

Budget option: You don’t need a budget option. A roll of this stuff is under $20 and will last for quite a while. Gaffer tape is definitely your budget option itself because it will save you on tools and gear expenses.

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So, there you go. Feel free to share your online teaching experiences, tricks, tips, and challenges in the comments below.

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