Robert L. Frazier ( www.rlfrazier.org )

Remote teaching

Teaching requirements

During Trinity Term 2021 I did two types of teaching. The first type is revision sessions for those sitting Final Honour Schools (exams) during the latter half of term. There were 4 or 5 groups of 5-10 attending. The second type was for students reading for Final Honour Schools, or who would be sitting Preliminary Exams at the end of term. These students were either taught singly or in pairs.

The topics I’m teaching this term are Ethics, Knowledge and Reality (Epistemology and Metaphysics), Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Science and Social Science, Logic and Language (Philosophical Logic and Philosophy of Language), Frege and the Foundations of Arithmetic, Mill’s Utilitarianism and General Philosophy (Introduction). I sometimes use logical notation and sometimes draw pictures.

My hope was to make the teaching as interactive as possible. It isn’t the same as face to face tutorials. For example, it is harder to read body language, there are lags in communication, sometimes signals drop, and bandwidth for high quality communications isn’t always available. So, it is important to be able to have some communications even if there is signal degradation.

Platform

The university has a preference for people using Microsoft Teams, so that’s what I’m using. I use linux, so that complicates things. Microsoft provides a client for linux (astonishing, but true).

For all teaching sessions I use the Teams meeting function. Instead of using the camera directly, I share my screen, or, actually, the contents of one window on my screen. In particular, I use Open Broadcaster Software Studio (OBS Studio) for image manipulation. It allows one to use a green screen, to crop camera displays, and, most importantly, to use multiple cameras, e.g., a main camera and a document camera.

Hardware

I’m a bit of a gadget person and really interested cameras, so I’ve been experimenting with various setups, including lighting, cameras, sound production and backgrounds. I’ll list some of kit I’ve been using.

Cameras

Camera: Logitech C920 HD

A good basic camera. The field of view is a bit wide for my use, so the image is masked to the size I want. Unfortunately, they seem to be in short supply. Luckily, I got one when they were relatively inexpensive. My wife, who also does remote teaching is now using this.

Camera: GoPro 4 action camera.

The field of view is too wide, but I now use this for my college office.

Camera: Apeman A80 action camera.

I replaced the standard lens in it with one with a narrower field of view. I use this in my garden office.

Camera: Panasonic HC-V180 camcorder.

This is by far the best camera of the group. It is 1080p, has a nice lens, good light sensitivity, optical zoom (allowing for control of the field of view), etc. I feed the html output of the camcorder to a Flint Lx capture device, which sends the video to the computer via USB3. This is the camera I use with my main setup.

Document Camera: Ipevo VZ-1 HD

This is a specialized webcamera, often used to display documents with a projector, but can be fed into a computer for use with OBS studio. They too seem thin on the ground, but I already had one. Ipevo website This is highly portable.

Document Camera: Homemade

I made a document camera for home. First I bought an inexpensive manual focus, 1080p, webcam and took the camera module out. It had a very wide, “fisheye”, lens, so I bought an inexpensive macro lens for it (M12 lens mount, the same mount as the GoPro). I then made a stand for it (from scrap wood) with dimensions centering the camera for A5 paper, at a height which maximizes coverage. The stand is less versatile than the Ipevo’s and it is much less portable, but it easier to keep adjusted than is the Ipevo. I then used some spare LED strip to make a dimmable light for it. My experience with the Ipevo is that having a uniform light makes all of the difference. Indeed, my general experience with cameras and light is that it is much better to have a mediocre camera and good light than it is to have a good camera and mediocre light.

When I use a document camera, I combine the image from the main camera and the document camera. Here is an example image. Document cameras are really useful because they allow freehand writing and printed information to be combined.

Sound

I’ve never thought much of webcam microphones, and would rather have more control, so I use standalone audio interfaces and dynamic microphones.

Microphone: Behringer XM8500 Ultravoice Dynamic Cardioid Vocal microphone.

I have three of these. One for my college office, one for my study and one for my garden office. They are relatively inexpensive and reasonably good.

Audio Interface: Solid State Logic SSl2

I use this in my home study. It has a microphone interface and manual controls (real knobs) for gain and volume. Indeed, I use it for almost all audio instead of my computer’s built in soundcard. It has a very good DAC (digital to analogue converter).

Audio Interface: Alto ZMX54.

Another audio interface with microphone amplifier and analogue interface (knobs) that I use in my garden office.

Speakers and Headphones.

I have Presonus Eris E3.5 speakers in my study. When I want to use headphones, I just use my ordinary Shure SE215 earphones. In the garden office, I have some JBL Control 1 speakers with a small Class D amplifier. There is a similar setup for my college office.

Lighting

Lights and stands

Given that I have had an interest in film photography for some time, I had various lights and stands, which have proved useful.

However, eventually, I replaced the large and unwieldy lights (which I had for still photography) with 12v “birdie” mini spotlights using LED bulbs. I use filters and diffusers to soften the light. The lights are hooked up to dimmers, which allows me to control their brightness.

Green screen

The green screen is a roll of paper with a standard green colour, bought online. It is hung from the shed ceiling with hooks and line. Having even lighting is really important for getting a good result with a green screen. Lighting is difficult to control outside of a studio setting, and really difficult in the garden office. There isn’t enough room in my study for the use of a green screen. So, I prefer to arrange the background using curtains, when possible, and I use a green screen less frequently now.

When using a greenscreen there is a temptation to use some fantasic picture as a background. Although I have given in to this temptation, I think a more subdued background is better. So, using various images, I constructed a virtual background.

It is virtual all the way down, e.g., I combined a picture and a picture of a picture frame to get a picture of a framed picture. I wanted a textured background which isn’t too busy but busy enough and dark enough to smooth over inadequacies in the lighting of the green screen. I also wanted to give some visual indicators of depth, which is why I included the pictures on top of the background.

Desk

Remote teaching requires sitting at a desk more than I like, and more than is good for me. So, in the garden office I had two monitors (both old ones which hadn’t yet been given to a charity shop) one at standing hight (with camera) and one at sitting hight. I could not have this sort of setup in my study, so I switched the desk in my study to a hight adjustable desk (with motor). Being able to adjust the desk height has made a world of difference. I still mostly work sitting down, but try to work standing up as much as possible.

Setups

Here are a couple of pictures of my teaching setups.

Study

Garden office

The future

Now that I’ve more or less sorted things out to my liking, I don’t know whether I will ever do any more remote teaching. But, I’m certainly ready for it.