As is always the case in late August or early September, it’s “back to school time.” But this year, instead of going out and buying school clothes, parents need to think about the equipment, environment and behavior appropriate for online learning.
And that can be even more complicated if adults are also working from home.
Let’s start with the basics. You need a broadband connection and, depending on how many people in your household are online at a time, you might need to upgrade to reasonably fast bandwidth.
Zoom’s bandwidth requirements specify a minimum of 600 kbps (up and down) for what it calls “high-quality video” or 800 kbps up and 1 Mbps down for group videos. But these are minimums and you’ll have to add capacity for screen sharing and for high-resolution video or if you’re participating in a webinar.
Just about all broadband plans have at least this much bandwidth, but bandwidth is shared among all devices in the household so if you have two kids in “school” and a parent or two working from home. you need to add more to share. And there is also the issue of the difference between the connectivity you are paying for and what you actually get. I have a 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits per second) plan from Comcast but my actual speed can be as low as 300 Mbps depending on the time of day, what my neighbors are doing online and a variety of other factors, most of which I can’t actually figure out. And these are the numbers for my desktop PC that’s connected to the router via an ethernet cable. Wifi speeds vary more and are rarely more than about 70 Mbps.
Speaking of WiFi, make sure you have adequate coverage for your entire home. You may need to get a mesh network that distributes your signal to areas away from your main router. There are a number of routers on the market like the Eeero which, for $249 a 3-pack or $99 per single router, lets you have as many as you need to cover a large area. They can be linked over-the-air or via Ethernet.
Lighting, sounds and reflections
Also make sure you have adequate lighting, a good video camera and good audio. I’m amazed at how poor some of the audio I hear online and even on TV with remote guests. If your built-in mic isn’t doing the job, consider an external USB mic or headset. There are plenty on the market and many are quite affordable.
Lighting is very important, try to light from the sides, the front or overhead and never from behind. That includes avoiding sitting in front of an unshaded window during the day. Also, be aware of reflections on eyeglasses or even your eyes. This can be especially noticeable if you’re using a ring light. There is even the possibility of people seeing parts of your screen reflected in your glasses.
Most PCs and just about all laptops, tablets and phones have a built-in camera. Phone cameras tend to be very good but you may be able to improve on your PC or Mac’s camera by adding an external one.
Where you work or study is also important. If possible, try to set up a dedicated area of your home for going online and think about what’s in the background. That’s not always possible. Even some TV personalities can be seen in their kitchens or living rooms. Still, having an uncluttered and pleasant looking background can make a difference but if this isn’t possible, consider using a virtual background. That too has its limitations and issues, including some video attributes that deteriorate the quality of your image, unless you have a green screen behind you.
Be aware of sounds. If you live in a small apartment, people on your call might hear a TV, a conversation or even another video call going on.
How you are dressed makes a difference. I keep a rack of shirts and suit jackets in my home office and get “dressed” whenever I’m on TV or in a business meeting. I don’t worry about what I’m wearing below the waist but I do put on shorts or pants just in case I have to get up during a session. Still, I sometimes turn off the camera if I have to get up so no-one sees that I’m wearing cut-off jeans.
I don’t wear makeup but, if you do, you should wear it during online meetings. I do manage to shave when I know I’ll be seen.
Privacy and background
Privacy is a huge issue because you are, essentially, inviting multiple people into your home. Be aware of what and who is in the background and make sure family members know not to walk into the background of a meeting or class, especially if they’re not appropriately dressed.
Teachers are mandatory reporters and must report any evidence of child abuse or neglect. Hopefully, this isn’t a problem in your home, but do know that any activity that can raise concerns might be reported to authorities. Even things that don’t constitute neglect or abuse could cause suspicion or embarrassment, including arguments between family members that could be overheard by those on the call.
Anxiety and special needs
A recent New York Times article discussed children’s anxieties over being seen on camera. Experts quoted recommended that you have a talk with your children about whatever may concern them, including worries about how they are dressed and how they will be perceived by teachers and other students. And it’s not just how they’re dressed. It’s also their facial expressions. It’s worth talking with your child and perhaps their teachers about when it’s OK to turn off the camera.
Written by Larry Magid