Archive for January, 2021

Some Notes on Online Teaching

I spent basically all of spring quarter working on advice for colleagues as to how to teach online. In fall quarter, I actually did it myself and it was a different experience than the theoretical one. I had a huge learning curve over the course of the quarter — such a big one that if I ever do another online quarter I am probably re-recording most of my lectures even though as you’ll see recording and editing them was a ton of work.

Anyway, here are my notes and reflections on my first term of online teaching.

Making the Videos

The single biggest lesson is that online teaching is far more work than regular teaching. There’s always a lot of work answering emails, rewriting exams, etc, but in traditional teaching for an existing prep the actual lecture is just printing out my notes, trying to remember my microphone and HDMI dongle, and standing in front of an auditorium for two hours and change per week. I get the lecture hall 75 minutes twice a week for ten weeks so that’s about 25 hours of lecture per quarter, and maybe add an hour or two total for walking to the hall and printing out the notes, so about 27 hours spent lecturing per class per quarter. I spent almost that much time per class per week of instruction on the lectures. That is, I spent almost ten times more time on recording lectures in fall quarter than I usually do delivering lectures. And this is on top of the usual amount of work for emails, office hours, etc. (Actually I spent more time than usual on this stuff, but not absurdly more). If you think I’m exaggerating or you’re wondering how I found enough hours in the day to do this for the two lectures I taught in fall quarter, the answer is a) I pre-recorded seven weeks of lecture for one of my classes over the summer, b) I worked 60+ hour weeks all quarter, and c) I shirked a fair amount of service. Now that I have a good workflow I think I could get lecture down to 15 hours a week per class, but that’s still a lot more than 2.5 hours a week per class that it normally is.

A shopping list

Various bits of equipment really help.

  • 10" selfie ring light with stand ($35)
  • Gooseneck USB microphone ($20)
  • HD Webcam ($35)
  • Muslin backdrop, white 6′ x 9′ ($20)
  • Backdrop stand, at least 5′ wide preferably 7′ wide ($30-$40)
  • Filmora ($70)

Total $210-$220, plus tax. The most bang for the buck is in the selfie light. Next most important thing is the microphone as I find the audio recorded from a webcam is soft.

I bought a few more items (a different style microphone and a green screen) but didn’t find them useful so I’m leaving them off my list.

I also use Zoom, PowerPoint, PDF-XChange Editor ($43), and Paint.Net ($7) as part of my workflow but I assume everyone already has Zoom, presentation, PDF, and image editing software.

Mise en scene

It took a surprising amount of work to find a good camera set up. I ended up throwing out and re-recording several entire lectures because they looked like at the end my captors would demand $1 million and a prisoner exchange for my safe release.

Here’s what works for me.

Set the camera at eye level about 18"-24" from where your face will be. Eye level means that if your camera is on an external display you will need to lower the display to its lowest setting and if it is on a laptop you will need to stack books under the laptop. I don’t recommend putting the camera on the mount in the selfie light unless you can work without notes.

Arrange your notes just below the camera so your sight line is more or less at the camera. You will want to scroll frequently so you are always looking at the top of your display and thereby keep your sightline near the camera. I keep my notes in a text editor but you can use Word, Chrome, Acrobat, or whatever makes you comfortable. If you use Powerpoint I suggest you don’t go full screen unless you can just take it in at a glance.

Place the selfie light immediately behind the camera. Make sure it barely clears the screen with your notes.

Place the gooseneck USB microphone as close as possible to you. Don’t worry if it appears in frame.

You don’t realize how wide the 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio is until you try to frame a shot and realize that there is not a single angle in your home or office that doesn’t compromise your privacy, look weird, etc. Hence my recommendation of a backdrop. The other reason I like a backdrop is I like to use pop-up text and this is much easier for you and more legible for the students if there’s a solid background than if there is, say, a bookcase as there was in my early videos.

Set the feet wide on the backdrop. You don’t need the extra few inches of height if you’re recording seated but you do need the added stability if you don’t want to constantly knock it over.

A 5′ backdrop can be 48" from a camera with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Note that this is assuming the camera is framed exactly right. I actually stuck a wooden spoon in my backdrop stand to extend the arm about 6" and make my backdrop about 5’6" wide and give myself a 3" margin of error on either side. I add a bit of backdrop slack on the short arm for balance. If you want to avoid a crude extender like my spoon, you might want a 7′ wide stand which means two stands with a cross-beam instead of one T-shaped stand.

48" of depth is actually pretty tight when you realize that this includes you, the space between you and the camera, and the space between you and the backdrop. There should be at least 18" from your face to the camera and at least a foot beind you to the backdrop. (The space between you and the backdrop helps avoid shadows, which create the hostage video effect. Diffuse light as you get from a selfie light or indirect daylight behind the camera also help with this.)

Set your chair slightly off-center so you appear on camera left. This gives you the option in editing of using the news caster effect of having captions or images appear next to you.


I use Zoom for recording. I open my personal meeting and record. I’d like to use Windows Camera but it doesn’t let me specify that I want video from the HD webcam and audio from the USB microphone. If you don’t have a USB microphone and aren’t planning to use screenshare, Windows Camera should be fine.

Note that if you share screen during the video that this will change the aspect ratio of the whole video unless the screen or window you are sharing is the same resolution as the camera (probably 1280×720 for a laptop’s webcam or 1920×1080 for an external HD webcam). I learned this the hard way, being very puzzled that there were black bars on every side of a recent video until I realized that halfway through I turned on share screen. Fortunately I was able to crop these bars in Filmora.

I like to use screen share for things that are kind of dynamic by nature, such as walking students through a NetLogo simulation. It hasn’t come up yet in a recorded lecture but I’d also use this to demo RStudio and Stata. If you share your whole screen, make sure to mute notifications and close any windows you don’t want your students to see.

I haven’t had occasion to do this in a recorded lecture, only in office hours, but to get the traditional blackboard experience I open Zoom on my tablet, go to share screen, and choose "share whiteboard." You can record this, but you have to go to [your university] to retrieve the cloud recording.

If I make a mistake or my dog barks at a delivery person walking past or a family member makes a noise, I simply leave a few seconds of silence and start over at some earlier natural break, usually a few lines up in my notes. I later edit out the interruption/mistake and the pause. This is one of the main reasons to edit as it means you don’t need to do a perfect take. This is especially useful if you do long videos since the chance of an interruption or mistake, and the hassle of re-recording, goes up as the video grows longer.

When I complete the recording I copy it to Box but I keep that folder locally synced since trying to do video-editing from on-demand cloud storage is a painful experience. I plan on unsyncing the folder when the term is over.


Like data cleaning, it makes sense to treat video editing as raw read-only files that you convert into clean files ready for distribution. In my class directory on Box I have subfolders for "/rawvideo," "/cleanvideo," and then one for each week of slides, for instance "/01_intro_and_econ."

I open a new file in Filmora and set it to 720p. My feeling is that nobody needs a full HD video of a glorified podcast so the only thing 1080p does it make the finished file take up more space on my hard drive and a longer upload time to the university web site. The worst thing about 1080p is that unless they’re very short, the files are so big that UCLA’s instructional website refuses the upload.

Note that I don’t need to have slides made yet.

I go through the video in Filmora. My first pass takes about 3-4x the runtime of the video and involves the following:

  • Edit out bad takes. I just use the scissors to cut the beginning and end of the bad material then right-click and delete.
  • Use the "titles" function to add pop-up text for key words. I set these in dark grey and put them to the right of me. (Remember, I frame the camera so I am camera left which leaves plenty of space on the right). Since I have a white backdrop the titles are clearly legible. If you have a complicated backdrop like a bookshelf or garden you may need to add a layer of a solid contrasting color below the text and optionally set the contrasting color’s opacity to about 50%. This contrasting color will make the text pop rather than blending into the background.
  • Use the "titles" function to create placeholders for the slides. I leave this in white and it’s just a description of the slide, which I create in PowerPoint as I edit the video. So if I create a histogram on the slides, the placeholder title may say "histogram."

I then finalize the slides in Powerpoint, export them to PDF, and then use PDF-X-Change Editor to convert the slides to a series of PNG files.

It’s now time for my second pass, which mercifully only takes about half the runtime. In this pass I find the placeholder titles and replace them with the PNGs. The PNGs may take the whole frame or I may crop and/or resize them so they take a partial frame which gives a news caster effect.

I then export the video. This takes about half the run-time on my computer but that just means I can’t use my video editing software for that time, it’s not active work for me. This may be faster or slower on your computer (my computer has a fast CPU but the video card is nothing special).

When to upload and when to reveal

It takes awhile to upload the video and even longer for the server to process it so upload well in advance. You can upload a file and then "hide" it until you are ready for the students to see it. (That’s true at UCLA where we use Moodle, presumably it’s also true for Blackboard and Canvas). This implies a question for pre-recorded lectures not faced by either traditional or streaming teaching, which is when to release the lectures. In fall quarter I mostly released lectures the Thursday before they appeared on the syllabus. (I sometimes didn’t have them done until Saturday night).

I don’t think I’d do this again. My students didn’t think of it as getting to see the lectures four days early but as only having four days to write their memos and they complained, a lot, about how this wasn’t enough time. From the students’ perspective, it is unreasonable to expect them to do the reading and come to a preliminary understanding of it themselves before I explain to them what the reading is about in lecture.

However I feel it’s an important part of a college education and a reasonable demand of college level work to be able to make a preliminary engagement with a text independently. In addition, I have seen the counterfactual. I have in the past had the homework be about the reading from the previous week and the TAs uniformly reported it was a disaster to discuss lectures from week X and readings from week X-1. Since this is a university not a restaurant, ultimately my perspective is the one that counts and so if I were doing it again I’d release the lectures on the Tuesday they appear on the syllabus. Zero overlap with the period during which they do homework is probably less likely to lead to grievance than a short overlap. If you’re an undergraduate in one of my classes in a subsequent quarter, first of all please stop reading my blog and second of all, you can blame the students in Fall quarter 2020.

Make a trailer

At Jessica Collett’s suggestion, a few weeks in I started recording "trailer" lectures that I post at least a week before the material they cover. The trailers briefly discuss the lecure materials and the reading. They’re pretty similar to the few minutes you might add at the end of a Thursday lecture discussing what to expect from next week’s material. I’m not sure how many of the students watch the trailers but they only take a few minutes (there’s no editing) so why not?


Kaltura, UCLA’s video vendor, seems to have an artificial intelligence designed to find the single most unflattering frame in the video and set it as the thumbnail. To fix this you will need to do one of two things.

  1. Have eight seconds showing a title card before the lecture starts. Since Kaltura takes the frame 7 seconds in as the thumbnail, this ensures the title card will be the thumbnail.

  2. In CCLE/Moodle’s admin panel, go to media gallery, then "+ Add Media," then select and "publish," then click the ellipsis on the thumbnail, then click the pencil on the thumbnail, and then click the thumbnail tab. You can either "upload thumbnail" (I like to use a memorable figure or graph from my slides) or "auto-generate" which gives you ten choices, at least one of which will not make you look ridiculous. Yes, I agree, it’s ridiculous that they bury "don’t make me look like an ugly dork" so deep in the UX.


I worry a lot about academic misconduct in remote teaching and both my own experience and reports from peers suggests I am right to worry. I only have anecdata for UCLA, but Berkeley has seen a 400% increase in cheating reports. Anything that takes students away from a bluebook in class is going to make it easier to cheat. But the thing is that cheating is time consuming, clumsy, or both. The only way to write an answer fast is to know the answer. Sure, students can google keywords from the prompt and ctrl-c the first result even faster than they can type, but that’s easy to catch because it typically only loosely resembles the answer and TurnItIn automates this.

My main solution was to make it tight. Not any tighter than it is with a traditional blue book, but also no longer. In the before time when we had bluebooks I gave my students about 70 minutes for 4 short answer questions and a few multiple choice and now I give them 60 minutes for 3 short answer questions. That’s enough time to answer the questions but not enough to research the questions. I have heard colleagues do things like say "you have any one hour period in the next 24 hours to do the exam" which to me feels like leaving a bucket of candy on your porch and a "please take one" sign on Halloween.

One thing I did and would do again is offer an evening seating. A lot of our students are in Asia and business hours in the US are basically sleeping hours in China and Korea. I don’t want students stuck overseas to have to take the exam at what, to them, is 3am. Likewise some Americans have problems with family members using up all the bandwidth during the day or whatever. This requires me to write a second set of questions in case the morning questions leak, but I think it’s worth it.

What I will not be repeating was my attempt to individually watermark and email exam prompts. The idea was I’d be able to trace who uploaded their exam to CourseHero but it was a ton of work and didn’t successfully distribute the exams. It meant having students sign up in advance, which meant dealing with those who didn’t sign up in time. It took about two or three minutes per student to set up, which in a large lecture means an entire work day. Worst of all, the emails didn’t arrive on time. They were all sent on time (I scheduled them the night before) but they didn’t actually arrive in the students inboxes on time. At least one was almost an hour late. Never doing that again.

Term paper mistakes to avoid

I decided to assign a term paper in fall quarter, in part because I wanted to give less weight to timed exams. For one of my lectures this was "apply theories from lecture to current events in the field we are studying." For the other it was "apply theories from lecture to Book A or Book B." My TAs very reasonably said "we can’t grade that many papers and stay within a reasonable number of hours given that we have 75 students each." One of my TAs suggested we have students work in pairs and then there would be half as many papers to grade. While I appreciate the TA’s suggestion and would be delighted to work with this TA again, it was a mistake to follow this particular suggestion. Having students work in pairs created a massive logistical burden of recording partners from those who paired themselves up then pairing off the unpaired. In the class with two books this was further complicated because a) I had to match people who wanted the same book and b) I had to ensure an equal number of papers on each book so the TAs wouldn’t have to read multiple books. And even then my work wasn’t done because then I had to deal with "my partner dropped the class" or "my partner isn’t answering my emails" or "I got a new partner but then my old partner wants to work together again."

In the future I am never assigning group work again unless the project is intrinsically collaborative. If it’s too much grading for the TAs to grade term papers I will either grade enough personally to absorb the excess hours or choose another assignment. Assigning group work cuts down the number of papers but it doesn’t really reduce the total instructional hours.

I’m also not saying "choose one of these books" unless it’s not necessary for the grader to have read the book, there is sufficient time for my TAs to read multiple books, or it’s a seminar where I have already read all the books.


VPN has proven to be a much bigger problem than usual. This is weird since students always have to deal with VPN and it’s never a totally intuitive technology but it turns out that it helps a lot when they can bring their laptop by the campus tech support lab after class or, if all else fails, just download the papers while they’re on campus. That’s a big escape valve for the few percent of students who can’t get VPN to work and that escape valve is clogged for remote teaching. Rather than deal with a few "I can’t get the readings" emails a week, I eventually just mirrored the papers on the site. What better illustration could you have that piracy is a service problem, not a price problem? The students have already paid for the readings through their tuition but they can’t access them because the VPN paywall is too hard to work reliably at scale (and I suspect it’s not just user error but the VPN server simply has downtime).


January 13, 2021 at 2:37 pm 1 comment

The Culture Geeks