A Brief Guide to Synchronous Remote Course Tools
Michael Ball, UC Berkeley EECS; March 2020
This guide will start out with tool-agnostic tips for online courses. Then it has a few recommendations for what I think are the best easy, medium, and advanced tools. There will also be some recommendations for what to do if you’d like to go all out. This will try to focus on synchronous and live production techniques, and ones that have essentially no post-production.
Feedback welcome! Much of this is based on personal experience and talking with peers. It is not meant to be exhaustive.
Caveat Emptor: There’s a serious risk of falling down the video rabbit hole. But I think it’s fun!
General Pedagogy & Practices
The goal is to get as close as possible to a live in course experience. This is centered around STEM course, and some subjects may be more different. It is totally possible to deliver great experiences online, but the loss of fidelity compared to in-person interactions needs to be considered.
Remind students that when you are recoding and live streaming where the content will end up. Even if not public, these events are archived in a way that a typical course may not be. (And, California is a two-party consent state for all recordings.)
Lectures driven by slides are fairly easily replicated by using any of the live streaming options mentioned later. All the options support screen sharing, in a manner which works similar to plugging your computer into a projector.
Every platform supports easy text/chat-based feedback. Students tend to take to this naturally. It’s quite useful, but can be challenging to monitor while speaking.
Use a second monitor if possible, but you can also review the chat during breaks.
Live streaming (YouTube Live / Twitch) as opposed to meeting software typically has a 20-30 second delay. Every time you want audience feedback, you need to pause before you will begin to see the results. (And because you’d typically pause for a while in a live lecture, you’ll need to become comfortable with even longer pauses. I still find it hard, but waiting does help get feedback!)
Text chat is prone to discussion that you don’t need to read as the presenter. Get a TA or designate a student to be a moderator who raises the questions to you.
They can highlight stuff during breaks, but may also choose to communicate with you via a private channel you’re more likely to notice.
Active Learning in Lectures
It’s fairly easy to run polls during online synchronous lectures. Zoom supports built-in polls, but preparing Google Forms or using light weight quiz software (Gradescope Quizzes) can be effective options. Just remember to pay attention to the delay of a live stream.
Thus far, I have not found a great way to execute the full Mazur protocol for Think-Pair-Share. The initial think and vote step goes well, but it’s impossible to know if Pair and Share happens. Some discussion happens in a text chat, but it is not the buzz of discussion that happens during a lecture.
Revoting is still very much a possibility! Depending on your tools for surveys you may need to duplicate the question, but it can work. My limited experience here suggests that revoting is not as useful without the Pair and Share steps...but it may be worth more experimentation.
Discussion, Recitation, and Office Hours Sections
When under 250 people, I would recommend trying a live video conferencing tool. The reduced latency is enough to make encouraging participation easier. The biggest challenge is that video calls don’t work well when more than 1 person is talking, even less so than face-to-face discussion. Make judicious use of pausing, hand raising tools, and text chat to moderate discussions.
All the tools support screen sharing, and here, a whiteboard tool may be a good option as well as other collaborative tools (listed later).
There’s no doubt about it: The video medium is awkward—especially so for those who grew up predisposed to text messages over phone calls. Remind students, constantly, that this is a new and different mechanism! Don’t push anyone beyond their limits, but do encourage sharing audio or video.
The more people that start to share, the more comfortable the group becomes. When you’re going to be running more regular online meetings, except the awkwardness to decrease over time, but you still need to work at it!
A few tools support “breakout rooms”, calls within a call. Breakout rooms can be a good way to group students into small rooms where they can more freely discuss a problem and not disrupt others.
Most of the assignment to breakout rooms turns out to be random or entirely manual. This makes it hard for peers to group with people they are comfortable with. This means you need to be extra encouraging with the discussions.
Have a helper (or 2) bounce between the breakout rooms to check in on students. While they are doing that, it’s usually a good idea to keep the main room “active”. More often than in a physical course, students will join at random times. When there’s a quiet main room, they have no idea what’s going on… Some of the breakout rooms will inevitably dissolve and so it is useful to have someone always involved in the main room.
Remember that when this is new for most people, shyness plays an effect. Trying something two or three times before writing it off.
Tools and Applications
I’m a Mac user, and UCB is a Google + Zoom campus. Those are the tools I’ll focus on, but others are welcome to suggest things.
It’s integrated into Google! In particular, it handles low bandwidth scenarios pretty well.
Zoom has some of the most robust features for whiteboards, polling and break out rooms. It also does pretty well on the Mac of taking advantage of iPads as a writing tool.
You can also directly present from an iPad
I think YouTube Live or Google Meet is likely the easiest solution, and it’s pretty easy to setup.
Be warned, you may want to use a second / departmental account to host the live stream -- it will be easy for students to see the host’s YouTube profile.
If you’re using a new YouTube account, you’ll need a phone number and it can take up to 24 hours for it to activate the live streaming function.
Google Meet can live stream to YouTube. (It’s the replacement for Hangouts on Air.) The caveat is that you need to do it through Google calendar.
Note: These are premium features which may not always be available, but are currently free
You must remember to manually record the session at the beginning.
macOS: If you use a camera other than your built-in webcam, you should use Chrome over Safari.
Zoom is packed with features, and I’ll call out a few common settings:
Mute on entry -- keeps things quiet
Video off by default – best way to respect privacy
Recordings on by default – prevents some really common mistakes
You can even setup polls before a meeting!
Enable YouTube streaming
You need to authenticate to youtube, then turn on the stream for each session. You can have both a video call + live stream.
You can randomly assign people (easy but awkward) or manually assign them to breakout rooms.
Free form drawing, which is compatible with tablets (iPad and Windows and Android)
Open Broadcast Studio
OBS is free video streaming software. It can be quite advanced, but the simple setup works well for YouTube Live.
Set your “Source” to “Display Capture”
In Settings you need to set the Resolution to HD (1920 or 1280) and not full res.
Insert your YouTube Live Stream Key
This gives you the most flexibility for customizing the look and settings of the stream, but it does seem to be the most bandwidth intensive, unless you start to mess with settings.
Right now, the app is somewhat unstable on macOS 10.15 Catalina, so beware.
General Streaming Tips
Make sure to manually set your computer to Do Not Disturb
Unlike using a projector this doesn’t happen automatically in most cases.
If you are not using many apps consider sharing only a single window to minimize faux pas
Use headphones and a microphone!
Use a microphone which can be as close to your mouth as possible. Keep it aways from your keyboard! The standard phone headsets are a pretty good option for (probably) no extra money. They have a mic and headset in one, which is useful for monitoring your own voice.
When you speak close to the microphone, you can lower the gain of the microphone which will cause it to pick up much less background noise.
A cheap technique can be to record under a blanket sitting on bed, as long as your don’t need to show your face. Some ideas.
Above And Beyond
This section lists some ideas for tools without much explanation.
Clicker / Quiz Tools
Gradescope Online Assignments (easy MCQ authoring)
PollEverywhere (probably my preferred clicker solution overall)
iClicker Cloud (not the physical clickers)
Notability on iOS
Notes on iOS
Use “Sidecar” on macOS 10.15 to use an iPad as a second display
Gitpod.io (collaborative IDE)
VSCode online (not free, but full featured)
- I use a Canon DSLR as a Webcam.
- On macOS:
- HDMI Input
- This allows you to record any HDMI interface and present with that.
- BlackMagic Ultra Studio Mini Recorder
- Use this along with CamTwist as your “webcam” interface for apps
- BlackMagic Web Recorder
- Pricier, but will look like a webcam to just about anything and eliminates any software fiddling. Handles a good mic well, too!
- If you’re using OBS you can:
- Customize when to show your face vs a screen, and at what sizes
- Use 3D side-by-side views
- Have pretty much unlimited customizations
Future Reading Materials
Faces and Instructional Design of Videos
- The Instructor’s Face in Video Instruction: Evidence From Two Large-Scale Field Studies
- Takeaway Generally showing the instructor’s face is a marginal benefit for learner’s satisfaction, and for some more visual learners helps with engagement. Selectively showing the instructor's face can enhance / make a point but can also be distracting. No difference in learning outcomes.
- Showing Face in Video Instruction: Effects on Information Retention, Visual Attention, and Affect
- Takeaway: Viewers prefer seeing faces, but also has no effect on recall of materials.