With distance learning increasing in popularity, teachers and students alike are navigating the new world of being on camera during school. Though not all schools require students to be visible on camera at all times, many do, and most teachers need to have one or two webcams for their virtual classrooms.
But setting up a virtual classroom isn't quite as easy as training a webcam on your face while you teach or learn—it's important that you learn a little bit about lighting, camera placement and how to set up your teaching or learning space so you can put your best virtual foot forward this school year.
In this guide, we'll explain how to set up your distance learning workspace with an eye toward how to position your webcam, how to set up a great physical backdrop or virtual classroom background, and even a few computer settings that will help you and your space look best on screen.
COMPUTER AND DESK PLACEMENT
A desk or kitchen table might seem like the best location for a virtual classroom. But, although it seems like an easy, natural solution, it may not be perfect for distance learning.
But why not? Isn’t a desk a desk?
You probably didn’t place your desk or kitchen table with your online classroom background in mind. Many desks in home offices and bedrooms are pushed up against a wall, which is okay for limiting your distractions, but how does it look when your webcam is on? The lighting might not be ideal, something you don't want people to see might accidentally be in the background, or a family member might make an unexpected cameo during a serious classroom moment.
If possible, position your computer or desk with your virtual background in mind. If you have the space, try rotating your desk so that it’s facing the room and the wall is your backdrop. Just make sure you have enough space to pull out your chair and get in and out of your spot with ease.
If you have to use the kitchen table or another table in a shared space during class, try to pick a position where there won’t be a lot of roommates, siblings, parents or children behind you. Areas like kitchens, hallways and doorways can be high-traffic areas throughout the day, and most people don’t want to accidentally end up on screen when they grab a snack from the pantry.
While we’d love to be able to tell you exactly how to get that perfect webcam angle, the truth is that perfect angle is different for everyone. That’s one of the reasons we recommend USB webcams that can be adjusted, rather than the built-in webcam that comes with most laptops.
Many teachers and students will use at least one webcam, with the most common view being your face. We recommend placing your webcam so that it’s slightly above or in line with your eyes when you’re sitting up. A webcam placed on top of your computer with a slightly downward angle is a solid choice. It’s generally a flattering angle, and gives the impression that you’re looking directly into the camera when you’re focused on the screen.
If you have trouble keeping your webcam balanced while sitting on top of your computer, you might want to invest in a small tripod or place the webcam on a stack of books sitting on your desk.
TWO WEBCAMS FOR TEACHERS
One webcam is generally enough for most students, but teachers often find themselves needing a second webcam to illustrate their lessons. After all, typing and sharing notes via screenshare doesn’t feel very much like standard classroom workflow the way writing on a whiteboard or overhead projector is.
You might want to invest in multiple cameras so that one can always show you, while another can point at a note-taking surface such as a whiteboard or piece of paper. This might require a flexible webcam stand or tripod for an overhead angle, but you might be able to get creative and MacGyver an overhead solution. For example, if you have access to a microphone stand with a boom, you could easily position the boom over your notes and attach your webcam to the microphone stand for your online teaching background!
TWO WEBCAMS FOR STUDENTS
Though many students only need one webcam, some schools require students to get a second webcam to provide a wider view of the student’s workspace during tests. Ask your teachers or administration a week before your first test if they require multiple camera angles. Most simply require your face (and eyes) be visible to curb cheating, but it varies by school.
SETTING UP YOUR PHYSICAL BACKDROP
Pay close attention to what’s behind you on camera.
Before the first day of school, teachers take time out of their summer to set up their classrooms and create a welcoming educational environment for their students. A French teacher will likely put up posters of Paris and Montreal, while an elementary teacher might have colorful motivational banners and wall art.
Students take time to decorate their spaces in school, too, and both students and teachers need to make sure their physical spaces are clean and tidy. Just because students and teachers aren’t in the same physical space doesn’t mean they shouldn’t spend a little time working on their virtual classrooms.
We’re sure that the last thing you want to hear is that your desk should be clean during distance learning. But the truth is, clutter is distracting, and it’s harder to get work done when your space is a mess. Students and teachers alike should make sure their backdrop is clear of clutter and mess, including piled-up books and notes, dirty dishes and stacks of clothes.
Clutter isn’t the only thing that can be distracting during distance learning. A distraction can be anything from pets jumping into your lap while you’re giving a lecture to an optical illusion poster behind you, or your phone constantly lighting up while someone’s trying to ask a question.
Desk placement should help keep background distractions to a minimum. Keeping your door closed so pets, roommates, children or siblings don’t barge in when they shouldn’t is also important, as is keeping your phone on silent and out of the frame.
INAPPROPRIATE FOR SCHOOL
If you wouldn’t be able to put a poster on your classroom wall or bring an item to school without getting in trouble, it shouldn’t be in view during remote learning sessions, either. We know, we know—your home is your space, and you should be able to have what you want in your home. But the truth is, students have already gotten in trouble for having inappropriate items in the background of their virtual classrooms, and we don’t want that to happen to you.
Before you connect to class, turn on your webcam and take a look around the screen. Is there anything in view that could get you in trouble? Play it safe. Consider replacing those gory zombie movie posters with more school-appropriate posters and decorations.
Teachers: choose posters and artwork you’d display in your classroom. Students: give your space a personal touch with school-appropriate photos of your friends and family or an art project that you’re especially proud of. Maybe even get a wall hanger for the guitar you got for your birthday! You can still make your space your own; just make sure not to have anything visible that could get you into trouble.
GREEN SCREENS AND TAPESTRIES
If you don’t want to completely redecorate your space, but still want to play it safe, consider investing in a green screen or tapestry to use as your backdrop. Green screens can be found for well under $20 online, and many come with solutions for hanging, such as stands or clamps.
Tapestries and other wall hangings can also be found in an enormous variety of designs and sizes. One of our favorite sources of tapestries is Society6, which has tapestries by artists from all over the world, so you’re sure to find something that matches your style.
Though they’re certainly fun, virtual backgrounds aren't generally recommended for distance learning. This is mostly because they can be a distraction, but if you don’t feel comfortable showcasing your home or room for your students or classmates, a classroom background image could be a great solution.
Before using a virtual school classroom background, make sure your school doesn’t have a policy against green screen backgrounds. If your school doesn’t have such a policy, here are a few examples of free classroom backgrounds that could be a neutral but fun option for your virtual classroom.
PERFECTING YOUR LIGHTING
Good lighting is essential for effective communication in virtual classrooms.
When we mentioned desk placement, we briefly brought up lighting as one of the reasons you might want to position your desk so that it’s not pressed up against a wall. But what is lighting, why does it matter and how do you improve your lighting without breaking the bank?
WHAT IS LIGHTING?
Briefly put, lighting is how you and your virtual classroom are illuminated. Good lighting helps you be seen clearly and look your best. Poor lighting might mean you look like a silhouette of yourself, or you may not be visible at all.
There are two main things to remember with lighting. The first is that you want a soft, diffused light source behind the camera, pointed toward you. A great example of this is a lamp with a lampshade. Without a lampshade or some other way to diffuse the light a little bit, you might feel a bit like you’re in an interrogation room, and you’ll look like you have a spotlight on you.
The second thing to remember is that you want to avoid having a bright source of light behind you, especially if you can’t balance it out with a light in front of you. This light source could be from a lamp, but students and teachers who use a window as their virtual background are likely to fight backlight on a sunny day.
Ring lights have gained popularity in recent years, and they’re an excellent choice for students and teachers who are setting up their camera for their virtual classrooms. They provide an even light around their subject, minimizing shadows and blemishes. In other words, ring lights are consistently flattering for students and teachers alike.
You can find affordable ring lights with ease on the internet, and many come with color filters so you can experiment and find the combination that works best for your skin tone. After all, different skin tones reflect light differently, so the default bright white of a standard ring light isn’t going to be equally flattering for everyone.
Another benefit of many ring lights is that they’re often made to sit on a desk. Some ring lights will even allow you to attach them directly to your webcam, which will save desk space and give you high-quality lighting on a budget.
When setting up your camera for your virtual classroom, you’ll want to look at your computer’s settings so that everything runs smoothly.
If your webcam has multiple settings, make sure that your resolution is at least set to 720p (ideally higher) and that your frame rate is at least 30fps. These two settings will ensure your feed is crystal-clear and movement is smooth.
Many webcams come with an automatic exposure setting. The goal is to offset lighting issues, but if you have a ring light and use it consistently, you might want to manually set your exposure. A lower exposure (which you can use if you have strong lighting) will prevent “ghosting,” or the appearance of a laggy webcam.
Like auto-exposure, automatic white balance exists to give a little assist to those who have subpar lighting. If you have good lighting, experiment with setting your own white balance around your skin tone.
Now that we’ve told you to consider turning off a few settings, we want you to turn on the anti-flicker setting. If you’ve ever noticed horizontal bands running through someone’s webcam feed, it has to do with power frequencies.
Don’t worry, we won’t get into what that means (that’s a question for your science teacher). What you do need to know is how to fix it. Go to your webcam settings and make sure the anti-flicker is set to 60Hz if you’re in the Americas or Japan. If you’re anywhere else in the world, it should be set to 50Hz.
If you have a Windows device, check to make sure that your programs default to the webcam you want to use. After all, the last thing you want is to think your USB camera is set up just the way you want it, only for your computer to default to the built-in webcam. If you have a Mac, you can’t set up a default webcam across all programs, but you can do so for specific programs like Zoom.
Now that you’ve learned how to set up your webcam, it’s time to invest in a better microphone. Check out the microphones we recommend for students and teachers, and if you still need a webcam (or are looking for an upgrade), we recently wrote about the best webcams for remote learning.