gearing up part 1 - basics

This is a short series of articles, with lots of info about how to prepare for distance lessons, either as a teacher or a student. While practically anything will "do", as we look to perhaps another year of this, it may be time to invest in the equipment to make your teaching and learning a success and a pleasure while connecting by computer. Along the way I'll share some stories about what I've learned over the past 5 years of Zoom sporadically and over the past 4 months of Zoom all day! But I'll talk about other software as well - Zoom is certainly not the only choice. 

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The device, the connection to the internet and the software

You need a device - a cellphone, a laptop, a tablet, a computer. They each have their strengths and weaknesses. 

Cellphones - usually really good microphones for good sound transmitted. Incoming can be good as well, but headphones are almost a necessity. The big con is the size of the screen, so if you rely on looking at your teacher, it is good for once in a while, maybe not perfect for weekly. But it does work. Bit small for teaching - hard to see what people are doing, but for closeups it is fine. 

Tablets are great because they have larger screens, the mics range from terrible to good, but there are features of most of the software applications that are not available on phones or tablets. They can be even cheaper than phones, and one that is fairly new will work well. They do tend to last a while, and if you have one that is 8 years old, it is time for a new one for your lessons.  You can still use the old one to take notes on or record your lessons! I've used a tablet (either an ipad or a surface pro 3) for the past few years for distance lessons, but rapidly switched over to a new laptop when it became hours a day. 

Another advantage of tablets is that they may be easier to position so that the hands may be seen. Kind of important in music lessons. 

Laptops - by good fortune, I had replaced an ancient laptop with a new Surface 3 laptop last fall. But I was mostly using it to take notes for the students and myself, and using the tablet for the actual lesson. I also used both laptop and tablet when I wanted to have two sessions going so I could have 2 cameras. That worked when I was travelling between studios, but once I was only in my home studio, it was time to look for a more elegant solution to that problem. I'll talk about it later. 

A laptop is a great solution if you type during the lesson, (you can have your lesson session taking up most of the screen, while having a little chunk left for writing). Depending on what you're playing or teaching or learning, it can be awkward to both see the screen and have the camera see you. 

Desktop computers - newer and powerful ones are fantastic. They are usually wired by an ethernet cable to your internet router, so wifi is never a problem.  They don't usually have microphones or cameras, so these must be added to make the system work. But if your computer is where you'll be doing the lesson, and you can position it so you can see what is usually a much larger screen, and then position an independent camera to show what your hands or body are doing, it can be just terrific. Good speakers are often connected, and many people (or is it just me?) have more than one monitor connected. This means you can expend your display in your app. Can be a great solution if your instrument or your desk are mobile. 

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Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Discord, microsoft Teams

I have been using Zoom for about 5 years, after cycling through all the options, it was clearly the best. I'm not sure it is now, as I have not tested many of the others recently, but it is certainly a fine solution. I also like Discord a lot for the lack of latency, but they don't have a two camera setup/share screen setup, and it is best for one to one. I've heard that Microsoft Teams is excellent, but I have no subscription and no experience. So Zoom it is for me.

If you are a teacher, I highly recommend the two camera route, which I'll talk about in a later post. If you're a student, one is fine. Of course you need to change the settings to deal better with instrument sounds rather that speaking voices, but it is all easy to do. And groups are handled well, though the restraints of only one person being heard at a time can be frustrating.

a late update from my tech consultant-(some of you know him :)  "Teams is now free for use, although you need to sign up with a Microsoft account. Most PC people have Microsoft accounts, as you typically get one set up when you buy a laptop with Windows on it. - Teams does have some of the best sound quality of all the collaboration apps I've used, so it may be a good option for some people". On the strength of that I plan to work with it a bit over the summer and report back.

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The internet - the fastest speed connection your circumstances of location and budget allows! The software is getting better at reducing demands for slower bandwidth, but in this case, the faster the better.  Especially important is upload speeds. Telus is almost always better than Shaw Cable for this, as Shaw emphasizes download to deliver you your tv or movies. But teaching, or playing for your teacher, means sending out the signal - the upload. I just checked the Telus page and if your studio is in the "pure fibre" territory, you can get very high speed (gigabit) rates at the same price as people were paying for much less a few years ago. So if you haven't called them lately, you may get a pleasant surprise when you do.  Here's where I checked -  If you are not in BC, there are similar options for your provider.  (more info now in comments below)

You may wish to think about how old your router is - if you get an upgraded internet connection, you'll likely get a new one for free, but it is worth asking if your wifi signal could be improved in speed or power by a new router.

At very high speeds, your wifi will be the limiting factor so a ethernet cable connection will get the maximum value out of those high speed, high cost connections to the internet.  If you have slower internet speeds and a new wifi set-up it won't make much or any difference, as long as you are fairly close to the router.

6 comments

  • ann
    ann duncan
    Telus's fastest plan for our address is 15 mgbs download speed and 1 mbps upload. Is this better than our current Shaw?

    Telus's fastest plan for our address is 15 mgbs download speed and 1 mbps upload. Is this better than our current Shaw?

  • Marilyn Rummel - Harp Canada Studio
    Marilyn Rummel - Harp Canada Studio
    Probably not better than Shaw for you. I'm not really familiar with Shaw's plans so I looked them up. They say everyone is on a fibre optic network (which makes sense because they are delivering TV,and often to many TV's on one connection) They have only 2 plans that I can see on the website - one that has up to 300 mbps down and 15 up, and one that has 1000 mgps down and 25 up. mgbs (or MGPS) is MegaBits Per Second, and is the rate of speed that the router transfers all your data - sound and pictures - in and out of your home/studio. Download is how fast it comes to you, and upload is how fast it goes back to them. So when I said Telus was usually better, that presumes that the cable is a fibre optic one, not the old cables that max out at 15 down and 1 up. We only got fibre service here in my part of Duncan maybe 4 years ago, and I was calling them once a week after I saw them installing the line - I think I had the service turned on here before it was even listed on the website as available :) They say they are working on a plan to have highspeed internet (read fibre) in the rural areas by 2030. Not really a plan, but slowly it will come your way. Note that Shaw 15 mgps upload is 15 times faster than 1, and that 25 is almost twice as fast as that, so for a small increase you could double your speed. If you find you lessons dropping or students not understanding what you are saying, or their video of you is "breaking up" that might help. But if everyone is finding it ok, I wouldn't worry. Either plan lets you see and hear them easily.

    Probably not better than Shaw for you. I'm not really familiar with Shaw's plans so I looked them up. They say everyone is on a fibre optic network (which makes sense because they are delivering TV,and often to many TV's on one connection) They have only 2 plans that I can see on the website - one that has up to 300 mbps down and 15 up, and one that has 1000 mgps down and 25 up.

    mgbs (or MGPS) is MegaBits Per Second, and is the rate of speed that the router transfers all your data - sound and pictures - in and out of your home/studio. Download is how fast it comes to you, and upload is how fast it goes back to them.

    So when I said Telus was usually better, that presumes that the cable is a fibre optic one, not the old cables that max out at 15 down and 1 up.

    We only got fibre service here in my part of Duncan maybe 4 years ago, and I was calling them once a week after I saw them installing the line - I think I had the service turned on here before it was even listed on the website as available smile They say they are working on a plan to have highspeed internet (read fibre) in the rural areas by 2030. Not really a plan, but slowly it will come your way.

    Note that Shaw 15 mgps upload is 15 times faster than 1, and that 25 is almost twice as fast as that, so for a small increase you could double your speed. If you find you lessons dropping or students not understanding what you are saying, or their video of you is "breaking up" that might help. But if everyone is finding it ok, I wouldn't worry. Either plan lets you see and hear them easily.

  • Ann Mendenhall
    Ann Mendenhall Duncan
    Thanks for that explanation! It makes it clearer.

    Thanks for that explanation! It makes it clearer.

  • susan
    susan duncan
    Hi Marilyn: Thanks for all your hard work and info about Zoom. I've just read through it as Ann recommended. You mentioned sharing the screen, watching your student then having a small chunk where you write your notes. How do you send your notes to the students? Copy and paste then Email? Thanks, Susan

    Hi Marilyn:

    Thanks for all your hard work and info about Zoom. I've just read through it as Ann recommended.
    You mentioned sharing the screen, watching your student then having a small chunk where you write your notes.
    How do you send your notes to the students? Copy and paste then Email?

    Thanks,
    Susan

  • marilyn
    marilyn duncan
    Well, I have two screens, so the students are on one, and I have the 2nd to write on. I put their notes on their own page on my studio website - not a solution for everyone. If I didn't have that, I would make a word document for each student, so I could go back and see it, each time, and copy and paste into en email. Or use something like google docs or drop box to share it with the student, and because you are just adding to the doc, they would always be able to access it themselves.

    Well, I have two screens, so the students are on one, and I have the 2nd to write on. I put their notes on their own page on my studio website - not a solution for everyone. If I didn't have that, I would make a word document for each student, so I could go back and see it, each time, and copy and paste into en email. Or use something like google docs or drop box to share it with the student, and because you are just adding to the doc, they would always be able to access it themselves.

  • Nori
    Nori London
    wow

    wow

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