Hardware for Distance-Teaching

This is perhaps the least sexy part of an extended conversation about distance teaching. Hardware is just stuff you can buy, so it doesn’t demand anything special from a teacher aside from money, either your school district’s or your own.

One of the great things about hardware is that you can almost always get by with less, as dictated by constraints. The barebones minimum that you need is simply that which you almost certainly already have: a laptop with wifi, webcam, and microphone.

Most of us benefit from having access to a bit more hardware. In order of subjective importance, then–most important first, niceties last–is my list of things that I’m currently using in my online teacher. (This list assumes that your base working computer is a laptop.)

  1. external backup drive
    There’s no way I’m going to do anything data related without a backup of my computer. A former colleague of mine, just yesterday, dumped coffee into her MacBook Air. Of course it was an accident; nobody does these things on purpose.
    Backups before all else.
  2. external monitor (and cable, dongle)
    One of the best things you can do to help manage your newfound digital teaching is to give yourself some extra screen-based real estate. It’s possible to simultaneously manage windows with your calendar, website, word-processor, email, and Zoom meeting all on your laptop’s screen, like an animal, but who would want to? If at all possible, finding a spot where you can set up an extra monitor will empower you to better juggle everything. A top priority.
  3. graphics tablet
    This isn’t something that would have been very high on my list before I started teaching from home, but it turns out to be pretty important now. From highlighting written documents during a Zoom session to actually writing out things, doing math, or drawing arrows to emphasize relationships, a small tablet has made a huge difference in what I can communicate on the computer.
  4. ear buds/headphones
    Most video-conferencing software–Skype, FaceTime,Meet, Zoom, etc–benefits from keeping the audio output from your speakers away from the audio input of your microphone. Most software does a remarkably good job of managing feedback loops so that you may not need ear buds or headphones, but it’s a nice thing to have access to, especially if you’re trying to be kind to a partner or worker within earshot of your teaching.
  5. mouse (blue-tooth)
    For most people, an external mouse makes everything better. Logitech makes some very nice ones.
  6. external keyboard and laptop stand
    The ergonomics of using a laptop are famously disastrous: if placed in your literal lap, the keyboard is in the right position but the screen is to low for proper posture, and if propped up at some height in line with your vision, you can reach the keyboard. Placed on a desk, both your neck and hands are forced into unhealthy positions.

    The best solution is to place the laptop at a height where you can easily see it–mine is currently propped up using books, and my partner’s is sitting atop a pile of shoeboxes–and use an external keyboard at an appropriate height lower down. A well-designed stand can dress up your workspace nicely.

    You didn’t get into teaching to spend hours each day at a computer, but this is where we are now. The least we can do is take care of ourselves.
  7. comfy chair and awesome desk
    These, too, can make your new life as a desk jockey much better and more healthy for you. Not all of us have the luxury of a dedicated work space, or that holy grail, a home office. Bu the more you’re able to carve out a literal or figurative “room of your own” in which to work, the better it will be.
  8. external microphone
    Your machine may have an adequate microphone, but an external microphone is almost always better. If you’re meeting with students or recording videos for them, improving your sound quality is a big bonus for them.

My partner needs less hardware than I do, so she’s got her “home office” piled onto a card-table in the living room. I’m fortunate to have a 5-foot wide desk from Ikea that I can spread everything out on. It’s a bit of a mess, but hey, we’re all suffering a little bit here. I’m consider myself lucky to be well-equipped, at least as far as my hardware situation is concerned.

Thank you, Apple, for the dongles.

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