Teaching Online: Video for Beginners

Image of Torsten Kathke in Video About Final Exam

Recently, I put together a few Twitter threads on my experience with teaching online. (You can find general thoughts here, and a longer thread on the technical aspect here). Since not everyone’s favorite pastime is scrolling through 280-character chunks on any topic, and since a few people asked me to, here’s a version of my thoughts in a more digestible essay format. As was true for these threads is true here: your mileage may vary, sometimes considerably. Still, I hope you can get some useful information out of this.

(Note: all of the linked items are for demonstration purposes only and I do not profit in any way from you using or buying any of them. For reasons to do with German internet law, however, this is still to be considered ad content).

Going Online

With this article, I’m mostly addressing people—professors, teachers, and others—who have to create content that teaches someone something online. The immediate context is the current Coronavirus pandemic in which a lot of teaching needs to move online, but a lot of this would be applicable to any situation in which the same kind of content needs to be created, even in a future, hopefully not virus-controlled, world.

Screen Capture of Welcome Video for My American History Survey Course

This text assumes that you are a person who has at least some skills in managing files, uploading content, and using a learning management system of some variety. While I have a fair share of experience also with the “Zoom seminar,” i.e., a class taught in a virtual space using video conferencing software, this is a much more varied topic and will depend much more on the functionality of the software you can or have to use. I may come back to this later.

This article focuses on creating video content that will be uploaded to either a dedicated platform, such as the unfortunately-named but quite powerful Panopto, YouTube, or similar. In short: it focuses on getting content out the door that caters to asynchronous learning environments, whether that’s a class entirely taught without virtual meetings, or only partially.

What’s Needed and What’s Possible

When I began planning my online classes, I defined for myself what I would be able to produce. This involved creating, as I usually do for any class, a draft syllabus that had topics, class rules, and readings on it. This then helped me space out the teaching content in the learning management system (I used Moodle because JGU, my university, set it up and supported it with introductory courses and informational material), and therefore also create a schedule by which point materials would have to be ready.

The class I created most content for was an introductory survey course in American history, geared towards students who had not gotten any kind of education on this topic yet. I chose to create video content for this class for the immediate need, but also with an eye of perhaps reusing it to teach or supplement future classes. As the fall semester now also looks to be mostly online, this proved to be the right choice.

The American history survey would usually have met on Tuesday afternoons. So I set myself the goal of finishing and uploading materials every Tuesday. That way, there would be some regularity and some rhythm to the class which would help students structure their schedule.

I decided that each week was going to get at least one lecture video of me talking to camera intercut with PowerPoint slides. These lecture videos would sum up the major topics and themes of that week’s lesson. They ran between 25 and 75 minutes, depending on how much material there was to get through, and how much additional content I felt I needed to add to the video.

Recommendations as to what the best practice/length for such videos is vary. I aimed for something in the vicinity of 25 to 45 minutes. Sometimes I split up longer videos, sometimes I didn’t. At first I had a hard-and-fast rule never to exceed one hour per video, but decided to scrap this for pragmatic reasons.

Example for a Week’s Materials as Embedded in Moodle

There’s obviously a trade-off here not only in terms of how long you can keep students’ attention, but also in terms of longer videos meaning larger files, which become harder to handle, store, and upload. I would aim to keep videos to a maximum of about 45 or 50 minutes (roughly, one episode of a TV drama’s length). That said, in the end it’s better to get things done at all than adhere to the standards of a Platonic ideal of a teaching video.

In addition to the lectures, I would create shorter videos: a general welcome to the strange new world of the pandemic semester, a specific video addressing the why and wherefore of the class, plus some other videos as I saw fit, addressing things I would have brought up in class normally. These, for example, dealt with current issues and how they related back to the class’s topic, details regarding exams, and a video containing tips on how to deal with the amount of reading students were expected to do. Finally, I made one “farewell” video after the class had ended.

I managed to keep to the schedule reasonably well for the first few weeks, but as the semester wore on, I was falling behind. I had had a few weeks of time before the first class started to set things up, which provided a buffer. Yet, by the second month with the increased workload that teaching online required, that buffer was wearing thin. Technology failed me here and there, research ended up taking longer than planned because of the reduced availability of materials due to Covid-19, etc. I started regularly posting videos one or two days late. I felt like I was failing, but in the end I still mostly managed to at least upload each week’s lectures within the week they were for. I notified students when a video was going to be late.

The lesson I take away from this is: plan ahead, and hold yourself to a schedule, but adjust when this becomes necessary. Let students know that this is a new and unfamiliar situation for you as well as for them, and tell them that you’ll try and keep to the posted schedule, but that you are working with the resources you have, and that sometimes delays may occur.

Production Process

I used two different production processes for the two kinds of videos. This isn’t necessary, but it helped me keep both students’ interest by mixing things up a bit, and to not get bored by always doing the same thing. These were:

  1. “Live to tape” for lectures recorded on my computer and
  2. “Record and edit” for shorter videos where I wasn’t bound to the screen

If I could choose only one process, I would choose the first one.

For process 1, I set up OBS Studio, a free software available for both Windows and Mac computers. I installed it on my laptop, and created three different “camera angles” that I could switch between: One of the PowerPoint slides, one of my face, and one of my face superimposed on the PowerPoint slides. (Check out James Sumner’s excellent “OBS for Teaching” videos on YouTube on how to set up the program).

While this isn’t strictly necessary, it created a much more dynamic presentation, since I was able to edit the video while I was recording it, and to hide breaks when I needed to take a drink of water or clear my throat by pausing on the slide-only screen. OBS lets you set keyboard shortcuts to switch between the screens. I programmed my Bluetooth keyboard to use a few of the F-keys for this and made little stickers so I would remember which one did what.

Function Keys Programmed to Switch Between Scenes and Stop the Recording

If you feel this takes too much time, you can also just create one view that has both yourself and the slides/text/material you are presenting in it. This is also what software like Panopto does automatically. If your institution supplies Panopto or something similar (any kind of program that lets you present slides and video and upload the resulting file somewhere accessible by students) and you do not want to fuss with software, settings, etc., then this will be absolutely adequate to the task.

The second process involved setting up a camera (I tried my digital photo camera, an old camcorder, my phone, and finally a dedicated vlogging camera, with varying results) on a tripod, and talking to it. This is a popular style on YouTube, Instagram, and other video-centric websites, so it is worth emulating if only for the familiarity students already intuitively have with it. Watching online content is a large part of many people’s lives, and students therefore may have an easier time fitting your videos into their everyday routines.

Prepare, Don’t Edit (Too Much)

Both processes can produce results that you feel you need to edit for clarity, flow, or just to make them look nicer. I did all these things, and I am quite happy with what I produced. However, editing takes an inordinate amount of time and resources—mental, physical, and technological. Having wasted a few weekends and late nights on this, therefore, my recommendation would be: live with what you’ve produced if you can, and if you can’t only attempt minor edits.

Lecture videos I almost entirely stopped editing after the first three weeks, only resorting to this kind of post production if I made an egregious mistake, or if something went wrong with a recording and it would have meant starting again. The way this became possible was by concentrating on researching and preparing a coherent script of sorts instead.

Slide From a Lecture on Puritanism. A Structured Script Makes Possible Quick Recording

I spent at least one working day, often more, on creating all the slides and structuring them in a way that they would flow narratively and make sense. Then, I could record “live” and would be done immediately. Even if I had screwed something up so badly that I had no usable recording, this still would have meant that re-doing the video would take at maximum the time it took to deliver the lecture.

Direct-to-camera videos I obsessed over for hours until almost the end of the seminar. I added captions, transitions, images, and video clips, and experimented with using a two-camera setup.

While some students specifically commented that they appreciated the effort and the production value, and I therefore won’t condemn this as unnecessary or too much, this is the first thing I would economize on when it comes to saving time. I shot the last video in five minutes, setting up and framing the camera, talking to it, and uploading immediately.

Accessibility: Picture and Sound

Video and audio quality need to be good enough so as not to be distracting. This isn’t just a nice-to-have thing, but also matters when it comes to accessibility. Students may or may not have issues either hearing or seeing videos, so both aspects need to be solid. Sound needs to be loud enough and not so echoey that it becomes hard to hear, and video shouldn’t be so grainy or dark that people can’t make out lip movements.

Captions Added to a Direct-to-Camera Video

For lecture videos, I made it a point to write out much more context on the slides than I usually would, so the slides would already be able to tell much of the story, while not making the font so small that someone watching on a phone screen wouldn’t be able to read it. For direct-to-camera videos I added captions for essential information (such as exam times and conditions). I am convinced that my efforts still weren’t perfect, but I did what I could with the means I had.

Watch Yourself and Learn

It is important to watch yourself deliver your lectures, especially when you are just starting out recording them. The recording situation is different from live in-class delivery, and also different from a Zoom class. You may cringe at how often you say “uhm” or that you seem to be looking away from camera, or messing up your delivery, but you can learn from this and improve.

It is also important to watch the first few videos to make sure there are no technical defects, or if there are, that you know what they are so you can fix them in the next video. Unless a video is completely unusable, however, do not go back trying to fix something, but rather concentrate on fixing it for the next one. An unexpected semester teaching online is in itself an education in how to do a variety of things, and there’s no point in trying to be perfect right out of the gate.

The Personal Is Critical

Teaching online is different from teaching in person in many ways. However, in both your specific interests and your personality can and should come through. Whether that means wearing different kinds of clothes, making reference to your favorite band, or sprinkling (inoffensive) dad jokes throughout your videos, I firmly believe students will connect much better to your content if they understand who is delivering it, that this person is a person, and that they care about what they do.

Did I Make a Groanworthy Joke to Explain That Lincoln’s Assassin Was A Popular Actor? Yes.
Would I Do It Again? Maybe No. But Also: Yes

Your own personality, situation, and role in your organization will likely dictate how exactly this will look for you, but it’s worth thinking about before setting out to make a series of videos that may be students’ primary source of information and connection to their teacher for the duration of a term.

Technology and Gear

In the photography and videography world, it’s an oft-stated truism that “gear doesn’t matter,” while at the same time the most passionate discussions amongst practitioners seem to always involve some piece of kit or other, and how it is better or worse than what someone else uses, or what they’ve used before.

This apparent contradiction actually makes perfect sense: gear that does exactly what you need it to do without inconveniencing you in your workflow in a way that slows you down and frustrates you stops mattering. Once you have defined what you need to produce, and you have found a way to do so efficiently, there is little point in chasing minor improvements just for the sake of improvement.

But gear that malfunctions, is hard to use or to coerce into uses it was not meant for but that you need it to perform, or isn’t reliable, matters a lot. I lost uncounted hours of time experimenting with camera settings that produced unsatisfactory results, microphones that weren’t loud enough or picked up too much background noise, software, and other sundry annoyances. In short: gear and technology that is good enough is fine, but if it’s not good enough, you will be frustrated.

That said, here’s some of the gear I found useful in creating my teaching content:

Laptop Computer

I used the 2018 model MacBook Air that the university had provided me with. It came with 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM, enough ports to connect a microphone and an external SSD, and a built-in webcam capable of outputting 720p video at 30 frames per second.

Review of the (Now Discontinued) Laptop I Used. Most Newish Computers Will Be Fine for Teaching Online

Whether these specs mean anything to you or not: most mid-range laptops and the overwhelming majority of desktop computers that were produced in the last five years would be enough. (NB: If you are recording on a laptop, it is a good idea to prop it up on a laptop stand or a few thick books so the camera angle doesn’t show you from below, which makes videos seem less professional, and for most people also isn’t all that flattering).

Microphone

I bought the tried-and-true Blue Yeti USB microphone to use with Zoom and similar software in preparation for online classes and recording. While desktop microphones will usually sound the best, they are also often expensive, and prone to noises coming, e.g., from typing on the same desk. I got around this by placing my keyboard and trackpad on stools next to the desk whenever I was recording, but this was not the most practical solution.

Cheap and Good Enough: Clip-On Microphones

Another purchase I made was the Boya BY-M1 lavalier clip-on microphone. This costs around €20, and is often recommended by and for people making content for YouTube. It plugs into the headset port on many laptops, tablets, and phones, and produces very good quality, especially at the price. I used it for a few online calls and videos.

Whatever you buy, make sure your device is compatible with the plug on the microphone you have, as there are different standards even if a microphone will fit all 3.5mm ports. My Apple MacBook and Lenovo Yoga worked without a hitch with the microphone pictured. One thing to make sure of whenever you’re recording sound is to set the input level: If it’s too low, you’ll be hard to understand, if it’s too high, sound will distort. Some programs and devices will have an auto-leveling feature, which may or may not work well. It’s always best to test this out before recording important content.

External SSD

If you have to create content regularly, the resulting files will take up a lot of disk space. My laptop became painfully slow after the first month or so. I bought an external 1TB SSD in order to free up space, and it made all the difference in the world.

I chose the Samsung T5 SSD, mostly for its looks (the differences in speed between manufacturers don’t matter all that much unless you move huge files frequently) and because it came with both a USB-C cable for newer computers, and a regular USB cable for older models. That meant I could move it between any devices I owned and would own in the future with ease and without having to buy any additional adapters.

Keyboard, Trackpad, and Second Screen

This is by no means necessary, but I used the old Bluetooth keyboard pictured above and a trackpad, as well as a LG LG 27UD58P-B external monitor in my setup to make it more practical and increase productivity. This allowed me to, in essence, remote control the recording and changing of slides, which made things a lot easier during recording. I also used a Rain Design mStand laptop stand to elevate the computer and therefore its camera, so the resulting frame would look pleasing, without walls looking askew.

You don’t need to get a high-resolution 4K (or above) display for a similar effect; what matters is having a second screen that is 1080p resolution at the minimum and ideally the same aspect ratio (typically the 16:9 widescreen used on televisions) as your final video. That way, you can put your slides on the second screen and don’t have to juggle with several windows on the same screen while recording. (Note: if you’re using two screens and you’re on a Mac, PowerPoint is better as a presentation program than Keynote for recording purposes, because Keynote tends to take over all connected screens when you go into presentation mode, while PowerPoint will still let you display another app, like OBS, on the second screen).

Camera

If you are using a webcam, your phone, or some other camera you already own to create content, you don’t technically need a new camera for the kind of content usually required for teaching.

I made do with my old iPhone 6S and a tripod clamp to record some videos (the Boya microphone plugs into the phone as well, but you need to use an app like FilmicPro to adjust sound levels, since it distorts when using the built-in video app), used an old camcorder for others, and an old FujiFilm X100S camera sometimes.

The phone was easiest, since I was able to see myself in the screen and frame the shot, and plug in the microphone. That meant only one file with everything in it at reasonable quality once I was done. But it meant not being able to use my phone, filling its storage, and draining the battery. The camcorder also worked okay since it had a screen that flipped out so I also could frame myself, but sound quality was lacking. The FujiFilm camera produced the technically best video, but its only screen was on its back, and its autofocus so bad that I constantly had unusable or barely usable shots.

Camera: Best to Have a Screen to Frame Yourself In

I finally upgraded to a Sony ZV-1 camera, which came out only in June of 2020. It has decent quality built-in microphones, good video quality, a screen that rotates so you can film yourself, a tally light that lets you know the camera is recording, and it can be remote controlled either with a dedicated remote, or with a smartphone.

It is quite pricy, though, and I only bought it because I also wanted to upgrade my camera anyway. If you are on a budget, the most important features I would look for in a camera are A) a screen that flips up or out so you can point the camera at yourself and film yourself and B) a microphone input.

Final Thoughts

Creating teaching content takes a lot of time. I hope the above tips will help you so you don’t have to duplicate all the effort it took me to understand what it was and how to plan, create, and deliver it. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some experiences that may help others.

And one last note: it is worth considering before the semester starts who owns your content and what you might want to do with it after the semester is over. If your institution holds the copyright to all your content but you do not hold a permanent position there, you may not want to make it too easy for it to be reused. In that case, you can sprinkle references throughout that will immediately date the content, be they to current news stories, the date, etc.

If you do own the copyright to your videos, or if you can reuse them for teaching perhaps farther down the road yourself, you can in contrast keep them somewhat “timeless” instead. This makes it possible to reuse them as they are, or with only minor edits. I tried to achieve this by referring ahead to “the next video” instead of saying “next Tuesday,” for example, and by constantly dressing in long sleeve shirts, so it wouldn’t look odd if someone re-watched the videos I made in summer during the coldest days of winter.

Whatever the reason why you are creating teaching content online: Best of luck!

This post was updated on July 19, 2020 to link to the correct MacBook review video and to add a section on the keyboard, trackpad, and second screen I used.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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