Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate are a few of the heavy hitters when it comes to delivering classroom content online, with each having their strengths and weaknesses. Sure, there are some things they can do better, or things we wished they could do, but for the most part they do what we need them to do all things considered. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to up your online content delivery game.
This post will explore how content delivery can be improved upon by breaking down online delivery into several aspects: video, audio, presentation, and broadcasting. I do want to state upfront that if what you are doing now seems to be doing the job, then you might gain some insight into how to make things better, or you might learn some tips and tricks, but some of what I recommend includes the purchasing of hardware, which you may not want to do. It can also involve tinkering with your computer settings, so if you are not very tech savvy, you may want to proceed with caution.
For me, this all started because we had to deliver our annual Celebration of Teaching Excellence (CTE) online. After watching a few online award ceremonies, I wanted to try something that made ours stand out. And for the most part, there wasn’t much that was different other than creating motion graphic videos, increasing the quality of video and audio, and taking a person and overlaying them over a presentation, but those things required a few hours of research and experimentation. Hopefully this post can limit the amount of time you need to spend to achieve the same results.
Before we delve into this, I should also point out that throughout this post I will be writing about what equipment I used to make CTE possible, but I will also make recommendations for alternatives. As a video producer, I have acquired various equipment over the years that I simply repurposed for online broadcasting, so it didn’t take much for me to transition to live productions. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and spend thousands of dollars, but some equipment purchases may be necessary, although whenever possible, I will find cheaper alternatives to what I own, or describe how you can circumvent the use of some equipment. Also, some of the gear you might end up buying might have additional uses post-pandemic, so take that into consideration before making any purchase.
Most laptops come with a video camera built into them that are sufficient enough for generic video conferencing. You can, in some cases, increase the quality of your video by using an external camera, which also makes your camera set up portable. You can do this a couple of ways, the first by purchasing a webcam. There are so many varieties of webcams that it’s hard to make a recommendation. The best thing to do is to visit Amazon and find something in your price range while reading user reviews. You don’t necessarily have to buy it on Amazon, but the user reviews on Amazon are indispensable. Alternatives to Amazon include Vistek and B&H Photo & Video, where you can sometimes find sales or good deals.
If you already own a digital camera, whether it is a DSLR, mirrorless or compact camera, it may be possible to use it as a webcam. Why spend money on a webcam if you can use something you already own? There are many makes and models of cameras, so you will need to determine if what you own can be used as a webcam, and if the camera manufacturer has developed special software to allow for this. I have a Nikon D750 and while researching camera setups for CTE, I discovered that in Fall 2020, Nikon released Nikon Webcam Utility, which allows certain Nikon cameras to send a live video signal via USB from the camera to the computer.
Your camera may have come with a USB cable, and if that’s the case, then you don’t need to purchase one. Of course, the length of the cable might be a problem, as I discovered while testing my other camera, the Sony a6300. Sony also has webcam software, but the cable that came with that camera was only about 12 inches long, which is not very practical for filming. Most of these cables are proprietary, so you can’t just use any USB cable. Tethertools sells many different USB cables for all sorts of cameras at useable lengths, so chances are you can find the cable you need there.
A cable like this will run around $37 US, and this is what I ended up using for CTE (using my D750 as camera). The great thing about having a tether cable like this is that it has other uses as well, for instance if you do a lot of photography, you can use it during photoshoots. Once you take a photo it can instantly be downloaded onto your computer (using software like Lightroom) and you can examine your photo on a large monitor as opposed to a small LCD screen on your camera.
During a rehearsal/technology testing session, I noticed that the quality coming from the camera feed using this method wasn’t that sharp. I think it had to do with the resolution coming in from the camera, however by the time I discovered this, it was unfortunately too late to do anything about it.
After the event, I purchased a USB capture device. This takes a high-quality feed from a camera’s HDMI output port and feeds it into the computer at a much better quality than a USB cable. In order for this to work, your camera needs to have a HDMI output. The capture card I purchased was the Elgato Cam Link 4K, which goes for $170 CDN on Amazon, however you can get a generic brand for about $25-30. As with all things, you get what you pay for and the cheaper capture cards have less frame rate, not as sharp of an image, and a small but noticeable syncing issue between the video and audio. At that point, you might as well stick to a USB set up.
The other thing you will need is a Mini-HDMI to HDMI TV Adapter Cable, which should work for most cameras, but you should check your camera to see what exact HDMI cable you will need. If your camera does not have a HDMI port, then this method won’t work.
You might need to change some settings on your camera to get a clear output signal from your camera. Your live camera view might show an autofocus box and camera settings in its feed and that is easily removed in your settings. You might also need to change some of your auto shutoff settings as well. Each camera is different, but you should be able to find what you are looking for on Google or YouTube.
You might also need to buy a tripod to mount your camera onto. You might be able to get away with placing the camera onto a piece of furniture, or finding another way to mount it, or you can maybe find an inexpensive tripod online (try getting one used on Facebook Marketplace or Kijiji).
Another thing you need to consider is power for your camera. I purchased an AC power adapter for my camera which ended up costing about $150. Batteries only last for so long (especially in video mode), and if you are using your camera for an extended period of time, this might be a necessary purchase. AC adapters vary in price, so don’t let my purchase price scare you. I also bought a Nikon branded AC adapter, but there are generic brands I could have purchased for a third of the price.
Finally, if you do end up using a more expensive camera as your webcam, keep in mind that using it for many hours a day every day will shorten its lifespan, and some cameras do have a tendency to overheat, so you should keep an eye out for that. You should research your specific camera, and if it is a really expensive camera, it might not be worth using it as your primary webcam, and instead just use it for special occasions.
While having great video quality is great, I think everyone can agree that audio is more important. You don’t even need to have a camera on when presenting, but people need to hear you. Like with cameras, most laptops have a microphones built into them that do an adequate job, but having an external microphone will increase the quality of your audio, depending on the microphone.
Some microphones require an audio interface to work, so the best thing to get is a USB microphone to avoid the additional cost of purchasing extra equipment. There are so many mics to choose from, it’s best to find something in your budget and read the reviews, although I would recommend, on the pricier end, the PreSonus Revelator, Elgato Wave 3, and Blue Yeti. On the lower price spectrum, there is the Razer Seiren Mini, PYLE USB Microphone, and the Victure USB Microphone.
One thing you should consider is the space you are in. When we broadcast the CTE, we decided to do it at our CTL office. Our office has a noisy ventilation system that could be heard during the presentation and there wasn’t much that could be done about it. Try to be in a room away from external noises that can be picked up by the microphone, and if some things are beyond your control (like construction happening outside your house), then make people aware of this.
Another thing to consider is the distance from the microphone. The closer you are to your microphone, the better it will be at picking up your audio. Stephanie Ciccarelli has an extensive article on microphone setups which is worth the read.
I used the Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun microphone for CTE. It’s overkill, but I used it because that’s what I already had. I bought it for filming years ago and I’m not going to spend money on a USB microphone when I own this. The problem with this microphone is that it needs to be plugged into an audio interface to work, the Focusrite Saffire 6 in this case. I need to plug it into this because I can’t plug XLR cables into my computer and the microphone itself requires power from the audio interface. Maybe you have an XLR microphone sitting in a drawer somewhere, and if that’s the case you can use, but you would need an audio interface, and they range in price from $120 – $500.
For CTE, I spent hours creating motion graphic videos (slideshows mostly) using After Effects. If you have the skillset and the time to do this, then go for it. More than likely you don’t, so the best thing you can do is to make sure you are not blocking any content if you are going to be overlaying yourself over any sort of presentation.
One thing many people do is use different backgrounds or backdrops. Most software can automatically separate a person from their background allowing them to insert an image as a background. I’ve also seen people buy physical backdrops that they hang from Backdrop Support Systems, or just hang from whatever they can in their space. These backdrops range in price from $20 – $80 and have the advantage of looking natural. Software which separates people from backgrounds, don’t necessarily do a good job, especially around hair, so backdrops look better. However, you can also get a greenscreen, and if set up properly it can assist greatly in separating you from any background. You can buy a greenscreen backdrop in various sizes that range in price from $30 – $200.
Depending on the room you’re in, or the software you are using, you might need to light your greenscreen, which brings us to our subject: lighting. Lighting can make a big difference in how you look. If you are using a DSLR as your webcam and you are not lit well, the results can be unsatisfactory. Likewise, if you are using your laptop video camera, you can increase the quality of the video by lighting yourself better. This can be as simple as going into a well-lit room, opening some curtains, or turning on lights. Julie Schiro explains quick lighting hacks in her how-to video for cheap lighting on YouTube. Got some time? There are many more videos on YouTube that show you multiple ways you can set up lighting.
Being able to control your lights by placing them where you want and controlling their output yields better results, so that might involve moving some lamps around your work area, or buying studio lighting. There are plenty of inexpensive lighting choices ranging from $60 – $200. Some lights come with stands which is also essential since you need to be able to mount them onto something.
If you are lighting a greenscreen, you need to consider even distribution of light. In some cases, you might not need to even light the greenscreen, but if you do, be careful of hotspots and shadows. Longer shaped lights might be a good choice here. There are also apps you can get for your phone to see if your greenscreen is lit well.
Video conferencing software has evolved quickly over the past year, but it still has its limitations. Enter OBS. Open Broadcaster Software is a free and open-source cross-platform program for video recording and live streaming. It is great for asynchronous (pre-recorded) and synchronous (live) teaching.
OBS allows you to record your screen, and then some, allowing you to create videos which can then be edited to create a final product. I’ve written a previous blog post about free editing software, or if you find the idea of editing videos unappealing, you can try to get your lesson in one take and share that.
The first thing you need to do is learn how to use OBS. Kevin Stratvert’s YouTube video on How to use OBS for Screen Recording or Streaming is a good place to start. From this video you can get a sense of how you can use it for screen and (multi)camera recording. If you do decide to isolate yourself using a greenscreen, Kevin has a how-to video on that as well.
There are plugins you can get for OBS as well which increase its coolness factor. Michael Feyrer Jr. has created a video demonstrating how to take your transitions and visuals to the next level with a move transition.
If you want to livestream from OBS into Teams, things get a little complicated. I should point out, that for this post, I will use Teams as the example for live streaming. The University of Windsor does not support Zoom, but from what I understand, live streaming in Zoom isn’t much different than Teams. You can also live stream using OBS in Blackboard Collaborate, but I have not tried that. There are YouTube videos on how to do this if you would like to use OBS with Blackboard Collaborate.
Another important point is that I’m working in a Mac environment. The good news is if you are working in Windows, it should be easier for you to connect OBS to Teams, although I can’t write instructions on how to do this since I’m on a Mac. Feyrer Jr.’s YouTube video demonstrates how to get OBS working for Teams on a PC.
Getting a feed from OBS into Teams on a Mac requires a plugin from NDI (this is also the case for Windows as well). First download the OBS-NDI plugin. Next, scroll to the bottom of the NDI home page to download NDI Tools. Once you start the installation process, the only thing you need to install is NDI Virtual Input. Feyrer Jr. also has a YouTube video that shows how to get this working on a Mac as well.
When you open OBS, go to Tools in the top menu, click on NDI Output settings and then check the Main Output box. Then open NDI Virtual Input. You will now see NDI in the upper right-hand portion of your desktop screen. With OBS open, click on it and then click on the option with your computer’s name and (OBS) at the end of it. A checkmark should then appear beside it. (If this part is confusing, it is covered in Feyrer’s how-to video at the 4:06 mark).
If you are on a Mac, NDI may not be recognized by Teams and it may be necessary to do some fixes by entering commands in Terminal. Visit Microsoft’s forum and follow the instructions on this page (under the ***UPDATE*** section) and NDI Video should then work in Teams.
Now when you open Teams and you go to choose a camera, you will see NDI Video as an option. Choose that and whatever is in the work area of the scene you created in OBS will now show up in Teams. Within OBS, you can switch scenes you have created to easily and quickly move between previously created scenes. If you are on an older Mac, or a less powerful one, your video may lag, so it is something to be aware of.
OBS can now feed video into Teams, but displaying PowerPoints using OBS isn’t necessarily the best way to do so. The only reason you would want to is to overlay yourself over the presentation, otherwise it would be best to use Teams to display your PowerPoint. When you play a presentation, whether using PowerPoint or Keynote, the software takes over your computer so you can’t do anything but work within that presentation software. However, you need to be able to control OBS and Teams, so a way around this is to use PowerPoint and with a presentation open, click on the Reading View option in the in the View menu. This shows only your presentation in the window and allows you to move from slide to slide and still be able to use your computer.
The one caveat to showing a PowerPoint using OBS is that Teams doesn’t know that the feed coming from OBS is a PowerPoint. As far as Teams is concerned, it’s a camera pointing at a person, it doesn’t know it’s displaying a PowerPoint. If you were to upload your PowerPoint into Teams and run it from there, Teams will automatically resize your feed so that it shows others the full slide as it was created. Teams will also spotlight your feed, meaning that your presentation will be the only feed shown (even if others have their cameras on). You would have to spotlight yourself manually if displaying a PPT from OBS.
You also need to tell users to have the incoming feed to “fit to frame” by right clicking over the feed, or choosing the three dots by the presenter’s name, and choosing “fit to frame”. There is no way for the presenter to force their incoming signal to fit to frame on the user end. Hopefully this will be an option in future versions of Teams.
Next, we need to be able to take the audio from OBS and have it go to Teams, and this can be complicated. You may not need to do this since your microphone may be enabled in Teams, but if you are playing a video in OBS, you will need the audio from the video to get to Teams from OBS, and for that you will need software that acts as virtual cables that allows audio from any app to be sent to one another.
BlackHole is an open source virtual audio driver that allows applications to pass audio to other applications with zero additional latency. As of this writing, the Windows version of BlackHole is not ready, but a Mac version is. VB-CABLE Virtual Audio Device may work for you on Windows.
Quentin Stafford-Fraser has made an extensive video which describes exactly what needs to be done to make BlackHole work, the only thing is he is using Zoom in his video, but the same settings apply to Teams and when you are setting up Teams to receive audio from OBS, you set the mic input as he did, which is BlackHole. At some point I may need to create a video to show how this is done in Teams as it does not exist.
Now, you can do everything as he has described and find it still not working correctly. You may need to delete the audio profile you created in Audio Midi Setup and recreate it, and restart all your applications again. Also, the order your audio devices are listed in do make a difference when creating new profiles in Audio Midi Setup.
If you’ve been brave enough to go through all this to create this setup, you can do some pretty interesting setups. You might have to get creative with your setup to make it work for you. For CTE we had our host, Erika Kustra, reading a script from a monitor hooked up to her laptop. She controlled the scrolling of the script with a mouse in her hand. Since she needed to hear herself, so she logged in to Teams as herself (while my account was used to display her and the presentation). She used a bluetooth earpiece to hear the Teams meeting, although this meant she heard herself speaking which she found a little disorientating after a while. This setup also meant she could read comments as they were coming in.
John Moore shows how to create a setup involving putting two external presenters over a PowerPoint presentation as if they were in the same room. Other setups may be more involved depending on what it is you want to do and what equipment you have. This post can only cover so much, but feel free to leave a comment down below if you want to share something you’ve discovered that is easier to set up or work with or come up with a great setup. One of the things I tried to do, but haven’t had much luck with it yet, is getting an audio feed from a Digital Audio Workstation (like ProTools) and sending that audio signal to Teams. The benefit of this is that I can add a vocal effect to a speaker, or apply a noise removal plugin to clean up audio in real time. If you know how to do something like this, drop me a line, or leave a comment below.