Beginner tools for remote teaching and virtual instruction

By Xavier Morera

Remote work, online meetings and virtual classes are not new practices. But, they have—overnight—become the new way of doing business for many professions.

In the midst of COVID-19, more people than ever—including college professors, professional development coaches, music teachers, therapists, financial advisors and others—are needing to move their job functions entirely remote. And, unfortunately, many of these people are making this move with little to no experience with the technology and tools they’ll need to deliver high-quality content and experiences for their audience.

Such a massive change to the way you work and communicate with the people you want to help might cause a lot of stress or raise a lot of questions, the first being, “Where do I even start?” Here’s what you need to know to select the tools and equipment required for creating remote, virtual content and instruction.

What you need for a basic A/V setup

Getting the perfect hardware setup is a noble goal, but not all budgets (and needs) are created equal—especially when you’re trying to set up quickly. The good thing is, if you know Let’s start with the basics. 

At its core, here’s what you really need:

  • A computer or other computing device 

  • A reliable and stable-as-possible internet connection

  • A microphone, headset and camera

The first item you need is a computing device like a laptop, which usually comes with almost everything else you need for your remote set up. If you don’t have a computer, don’t stress out. You may not realize it, but your web-enabled mobile phone is quite capable of streaming live content and, in general, providing what you need to create your material and teach/coach remotely. An optional table tripod helps for live video broadcasting, but all the basic functions of creating virtual learning—live video, recording, audio, chat (for live Q&A), editing and publishing—can be done from your phone and available apps.

The second thing you need is good internet connection. It probably seems like a given, but it’s also the first thing you take for granted. Laggy internet can range from mildly annoying to frustrating when all you need your internet for is surfing, streaming, podcasts and social media. But constant buffering and lag can hijack all attempts to create effective content for your audience, especially if you’re broadcasting live.

Next up, microphone and camera. Most laptops come equipped with a camera, speakers and a microphone that are more than sufficient to get you started. A word of advice, though: If you rely on high-quality audio (i.e. you want to post cleaned-up, edited versions of live instruction on a platform like YouTube), the built-in microphone in the laptop may not be the best solution, as it can pick up external noise and create echo.

To solve this, you can get a headset with a small mic that sits closer to your mouth to mitigate room echo. You can find very basic ones for around $10-$20. If budget is tight, consider using the built-in mic on the earbuds you use to listen to music.

If you want to go a step further, the Blue Snowball microphone is probably one of the best bang-for-your-buck microphones out there at a price of around $50. If good audio is the most important part of your A/V setup, you might consider investing in a Rode Podcaster broadcasting microphone, but that will be overkill for most people who are looking to just get up and running.

The final piece of creating quality content is a reasonably quiet place with adequate lighting. The goal is to not look like you are part of the witness protection program or sound like you’re streaming from the middle of a rock concert. Play around with locations in your living space to find those that are most quiet, and set boundaries to avoid interruptions that could mar your audio. For lighting, set up near windows with indirect sunlight to take advantage of free lighting, or tilt directional lamps upward to disperse light and avoid blowing out your image.

There you have it: an A/V “starter pack.” It’s the foundation of what you need to get going. If you’re looking for the “deluxe package,” you can look into getting a full-sized tripod, DSLR camera with facial recognition, a lighting kit, multiple backdrops or green screens for digital backgrounds, a lavalier or shotgun microphone, a teleprompter and many more gadgets to create the so-called “perfect” professional studio.

My advice? Don’t worry about all that. The best equipment you have for making the content today is the equipment that you have on hand. It’s very easy to get hung up on getting all the best equipment that you just keep buying equipment and never get to the step of creating the thing you wanted to create in the first place. 

Free (and free-ish) tools for remote teaching

Now that you’ve got your A/V up and running, it’s time to talk about some of the tools that you can use to host remote teaching sessions and create virtual content.

If you work at a college, you may already have access to a learning platform like Canvas, which means you have most of the tools available at your fingertips right away. You may also have an account that has access to products that allow moving your in-person instruction to virtual-only, be it an Office 365 Education account from Microsoft that gives you access to Teams, or G Suite from Google, with several offerings for Education as well as Hangouts, Meet and Classroom.

If you’re not in higher education, there are still multiple options you can use to create remote instruction or broadcast live. Two tools you can take advantage of are the free plans offered by Zoom and Webex, which are fairly robust and allow for meetings of up to 100 participants, two-way screen-sharing, live chat and more.

Slack is another great, ubiquitous option for live chat and broadcasting. You can create channels, collaborate, share content and have voice and video calls all within its free, basic plan. Its user interface is one of the easiest to use and that usually presents the smoothest learning curve.

When it comes to distributing content and sharing documents, avoid using solely email. It gets clunky, is hard to follow and is not really designed for keeping track of documents in any kind of organized manner. There are multiple cloud storage providers like Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive and Google Drive with free plans that give you a few GBs of storage, which is more than enough for most people’s needs. If you need to share large files like videos or digital booklets, consider services like WeTransfer that allow you to upload and share very large files for free.

And if you are sharing recorded videos, there are several tools that you can use to record. Camtasia is easy to use, has a very smooth learning curve and runs on iOS as well as Windows.

Finally, if you need to host your recorded videos online after creating them or broadcasting live, YouTube is still one of the best, simplest options. You can host your videos for free with no size limit, and you can select if you want them to be publicly available, accessed only via a direct link or via explicit sharing.

Tips for getting the most out of your tools

Instructor-led training—that is, traditional in-person instruction in a physical setting—carries a much different dynamic from a remote session. When you are in front of a human being, a very large portion of your communication comes in the form of non-verbals. With a remote session, you lose a large amount of your non-verbal communication. 

Because of this, you need to make an extra effort with your verbal communication. Speak at a steady pace, enunciate clearly and use an overabundance of visual tools—perhaps by walking through an example using screen sharing—to make sure you’re communicating difficult concepts effectively.

Depending on the type of microphone that you use, you may need to adjust the position and distance from your mouth to get the ideal recording. If your microphone is too close to your mouth, your breathing may be too evident or your audio will hiss. Having lip balm on hand to make sure words are coming cleanly off your lips is helpful, and you can also purchase a “pop filter” to help minimize plosives.

When you’re on video, be aware of your posture and make sure to look straight at the camera. Avoid looking off screen or turning from one side to another; this is another way to help your audience feel engaged.

If you’re broadcasting live, be mindful of video lag. Give learners enough time to respond and ask them to notify you if they are falling behind. If you need to share screens, please make sure that you know how to share your screen before you start your course or video, and explain to your learners how they can share their own. 

Deliver your content

Having the appropriate hardware and tools necessary to host a remote class/session, create content or lead a live course can make a difference, but it’s not just about the tools—it’s about the experience that you create for your audience.

When it comes to remote teaching, delivery is king.

About the author

Xavier is an entrepreneur, project manager, architect, trainer and developer who applies his experience, passion and desire for results with a focus on simplicity and common sense. He works primarily with ASP.Net, iOS, search applications and holds multiple Microsoft and Scrum Alliance Certifications.