Hardware Setup for Online Teaching and Learning at Home

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Apart from suitable methodologies, considered practices and good teaching ideas, online teaching and learning at home also depends – or at least may be significantly improved – by appropriate hardware setups at both ends – the instructor side and the student side.

Based on very not-comprehensive observations of discussions in various online groups etc. it appears the following hardware resources are most necessary, most common, and/or most valued.

For Instructors

Computer/laptop/tablet: obviously, online teaching depends on adequate computer hardware, and institutions should ensure that all instructors have continuous access to a personal computer/laptop at work and at home for preparing and delivering classes. As teaching in the arts is often heavy on imagery/video, and/or as many creative practices may require production of instructional videos, it’s advisable that such computers/laptops are equipped with additional RAM and/or better-than-usual graphics cards for faster rendering. Because of the relative heavy demand on hardware and software, exclusive dependence on tablets for online (arts) teaching is generally not advisable.

Internet access: similarly evident, online teaching is only possible with adequate internet access. Under normal circumstances most institutions will be able to provide such through their campus facilities. However, if instructors are expected to work from home – as e.g. during the Covid-19 lockdowns – access, connection stability and bandwidth may become issues for instructors that still wait for good solutions (not at the exclusive costs of the instructors).

Headphones (with microphone): especially when working from home, but also e.g. in open-plan offices on campus, instructors will find themselves in less than ideal audio environments for online teaching. (Noise-cancelling) headphones, potentially with integrated microphone, can do a lot for smoother class communication.

Second monitor/display: as arts teaching often involves working with two cameras (e.g. one for video conferencing, one for demonstration) or working on two platforms in parallel (e.g. Zoom and Miro), or simply to have one “clean” screen to share with the class while having other programmes open for supporting applications a second screen often comes very handy. If no actual screen is available, it may be possible to connect a regular TV via HDMI cable instead.

Separate/second camera: creative practices will often require the demonstration of skills and techniques that can not conveniently be performed infront of the webcams commonly integrated in or mounted on top of laptop/computer screens. For those situations a second (hand-held) camera detached from the screen is essential. Such camera may be a second mobile device (smart phone, tablet) or an actual camera. In any case, make sure the camera can either wirelessly stream to your computer/network or to have a suitably long cable to connect to the computer as you’ll want to be as flexible as possible.

(Smart phone) Tripod: if you intend to use a second camera – especially if you want it for demonstrations in which you need your own two hands – you’ll most likely need to consider a tripod also, preferably with a flexible neck (for smart phones) to allow easy repositioning in action.

LED ring light: any camera is only as good as the lighting it has to work with. For clear and detailed images/streams – especially of skill demonstrations – you may consider using additional purpose lighting. While any clamp light etc. will already improve conditions, for optimal light it’ll likely require a dedicated spotlight or – recommended most often – an (LED) ring light (for less shadows). Such lights usually come with their own stands that may be adjusted to specific needs. There are also integrated options that combine lighting and tripod. (Here’s a short introduction on how to work with a ring light.)

Visual presenter/document cameras: for some classes a visual presenter (also known as visualiser, digital overhead, or docucam) may be used as second camera. In effect, visualisers are cameras integrated in ready-to-use hardware environments (incl. camera mounts, lighting, backdrop etc.) for real-time image capture. In most cases (e.g. in traditional classrooms), objects (usually books, images) are placed flat under the camera and projected; but visualisers may also be used to stream moving images e.g. of drawing demonstrations. As example, see the Lumens DC125, but a wide range of other products are available.

HDMI witcher: a relatively new piece of equipment, yet praised by those in the online community who already have it, are HDMI switchers (e.g. the ATEM Mini from Blackmagic Design) that effectively make up for a multiple-input live production switcher with an integrated control panel. In principle an upgraded kind of USB hub, they allow to connect and switch between multiple cameras, green screens and/or audio inputs that the computer however “sees” merely as one USB device.

External hard drive: online teaching and learning inevitably produces more data (e.g. digital course outcomes instead of analogue artworks); also, computers die, usually when you least can afford it. In any case, it’s crucial to have an adequate strategy to store and regularly backup all files. While this may be done in an online cloud, this may take time (for large files or big quantities), cost bandwidth and may have data security implications (e.g. student data may include sensitive information). At least one external hard drive in your office/studio may save you a lot of trouble – of course only if you use it.

White board (with magnets): entirely analogue, yet commended by many instructors also for online teaching – the humble white board. A smaller size one may be used for quick and easy sketching with familiar tools (aka a marker) documented via a camera; a bigger version additionally can easily pin up with magnets – and video stream – drawings, prints, sketches etc.

For Students

It’s important to always keep in mind that despite all institutional purchasing programmes, industry surveys, empirical assumptions, and general feelings of “everybody spends too much time on their devices” not all students own and/or have easy access to a full-fledged personal computer, smaller digital devices and/or the internet. Many will have access to something – but the capability of their respective equipment/setup may vary greatly – and more than we may like to believe struggle to get anything going.

Therefore, students must be encouraged to make the best of the resources they have, and their efforts need to be acknowledged; and institutions – via their instructors – should find ways to (technically) support their students as good as somehow possible (see next section “For Institutions” below).

Computer/laptop/tablet: as for instructors, regular access to a computer is a precondition for online learning. Ideally, students would be equipped at similar level as instructors, but that may not always be consistently possible. Initially, the main use of the computer for the student is to connect to the online classroom, thus the minimum requirement for any device to be considered is its ability to receive and send at least audio streams – if that’s not feasible, as potential alternative instructors may consider providing classes via traditional landlines. On top of bare attendance and communication, students may need digital devices to complete assignments. As some may exclusively rely on mobile devices like tablets or even merely phones, instructors may want to consider “low tech alternatives” of assignments for students facing technological challenges.

Internet access: similar to instructors – though probably more likely – students may have limited access to the internet, limited bandwith, limited allowance, and/or lower stability. Under normal circumstances they may consider making up for such by locating themselves in areas with available internet access (e.g. open hotspots, public facilities and/or on campus), but in some situations – Covid-19 may not be the only such situation – this may not be possible. Instructors and institutions should take this into consideration, e.g. by not insisting on synchronous participation in classes, and by provision of asynchronous learning options. If a student has no options at all to get online, institutions e.g. may consider distributing Pocket Wifis or sending SIM cards with data allowance to their students by post.

Webcamera: again, it’s easy to assume that all students should quasi-automatically have command over a suitable webcamera to participate e.g. in video conferences – but that’s not necessarily true.

Headphones (with microphone): even more so than instructors, students may need to work in settings that are not conducive for attentive listening. (Good) headphones or a (good) headset will help – but come with a cost.

Additional lighting: students may want/need to show work they’ve produced or other materials via camera; for their audience to get a good impression of the quality of the work, possibly details of its materiality, good lighting is crucial. Wherever possible students should have a clamp light, desk lamp or similar nearby, ideally with flexible/movable neck and cool light colour, that they may use to highlight their materials on demand.

For InstitutionS

While institutions are initially less directly visible in the online classroom, they do of course have an important role to play in particular in providing hard and soft infrastructures to their staff and students.

IT support: not every student or staff is tech-savy and they shouldn’t be expected to be, thus institutions need to provide timely support – which may of course be less straight forward than usual on-campus support. A well-developed resources website with FAQs etc. is a good start, even more so if it includes a contact that is actually sufficiently staffed to respond to queries within a day. For more urgent cases, a telephone support hotline is obviously good to have; it could be considered to prioritise instructors for this service – as to ensure classes may go forward in time etc. – but eventually students may need help just as much. In any case, the credibility of the service will be significantly undermined if the hotline is answered by a machine only – as reportedly they often seem to be.

Lending services: institutions should strive to establish an equipment lending service including for basic items like personal laptops, headsets, or possbily even wifi-routers.

Cloud services: most institutions will likely refer to existing commercial services (Google Drive, Dropbox), but for security concerns a number of institutions have also set up their own cloud servers for file sharing etc.

Software access: all computer hardware obviously needs adequate software. Institutions need to ensure that staff and students have access to software that may also be used off-campus. Additionally, institutions should provide centralised comprehensive information about available open access/license-free software and online resources that staff and students may turn to for their purposes.

GPU servers: a service more particular to the arts – and even more particularly to the media arts – GPU servers allow to “offload” processing-intensive operations – like rendering of moving images, complex 3D animation, AI processes – remotely, i.e. dedicated heavy duty computers do the heavy lifting that a personal computer can’t (conveniently) do. E.g. during Covid lockdowns many on-campus computer labs remained unused, institutions could turn those into makeshift “render farms” for their students.

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