As online teachers, we are well aware that we need a reliable and fast computer for teaching. But, as tutors, not technophiles, precisely what constitutes “fast” and how can we ensure our machine’s reliability? Teaching online requires a few essentials that are non-negotiable; a notebook or desktop, a good quality set of headphones and a fast, reliable internet connection. Altogether these bits of hardware will enhance your teaching strategies and ensure an enjoyable online learning experience for your students. We’ve worked hard to ensure we can teach ESL online, so we need to ensure that our tools don’t let us down when it comes to giving the actual classes.
I’m not particularly techno-savvy, but the truth is, since I started teaching online two years ago, I am light-years ahead of where I was before. Previously, I would rely on my children to set up the television or my smartphone. Now, in an emergency, I can work things out.
When I became enveloped in online education my hardware wasn’t the issue; it was my internet connection. I was teaching from a relatively new (it was two years old) 4GB Ram, 500GB Disk notebook. I had bought a costly set of AKG headphones that luckily had a price reduction of 50%. Even then they were pricey, but as I was in for the long haul, I decided they were a good investment.
The notebook that I initially started teaching on was stolen in January 2017. As annoying and frustrating as that was, I had classes the next day, so time was of the essence. I borrowed a notebook. Zoom and the courseware were quickly installed, so I was good to go within hours. Luckily, the stolen notebook was insured, so I went shopping at someone else’s expense (yes, I had been paying premiums for a while, but I regard insurance as an investment). I hit a few roadblocks along the way. All the information about speeds and processors that are an essential part of an online tutor’s tools of the trade was confusing. In all honesty, I had only really concentrated on my internet speed and headphones and hadn’t considered the importance of the innards of my notebook. It worked, and that was all I needed to know.
I’m lucky enough to have a neighbor who breaks technology information down to “byte-sized” chunks for me. A year ago, I didn’t know an HDD from an SSD. I was given a list of essentials by my neighbor and started looking at notebooks that were within my price range. This was an investment for my future income, so I had to think logically. I bought the notebook with specs even better than my neighbor had recommended. He was quite pleasantly surprised that I had listened to his wise words, and that I surpassed his recommendations by buying a gaming computer that had an SSD.
I have learned far more than I ever thought I’d need to know (or wanted to know, if the truth is told) with regards to speeds/memory/processors/HDD or indeed SSD. Personally, I regard notebook maintenance as akin to having my vehicle serviced; I know how my SUV works and I know when there’s something amiss, but I prefer to leave it to the professionals. That, and I don’t like getting my hands dirty – they’re often waving around on camera when I’m using TPR while teaching online.
I’ve learned never to take anything for granted; especially my work laptop. One thing I have learned is that it’s best to have a computer for work and one for pleasure. The less external programs or memory used on a computer, the faster and more reliable it will be.
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) or processor is the most critical part of any computer. It acts much like a brain in that it sends to and receives signals from other devices and runs programs. The faster the processor is, the faster your computer will respond and the quicker you will be able to accomplish tasks. Consider this: When you are running Zoom and the courseware, you want to prevent any lag that could impede your teaching or that could affect your student’s learning experience. The general rule of thumb is that your computer should have at least an Intel i5 or AMD A8/A10 processor to ensure adequate performance.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is the memory Zoom and courseware runs in. If you have insufficient RAM, your courseware will get swapped in and out of RAM to your disk, making performance erratic. As an online teacher, you will need to have several programs open and operating all at once. To run all of these programs at an optimal speed, you will require at least 8GB of RAM. Some tutors have success with 4GB of RAM. My previous notebook initially had 4GB of RAM. At that time, I believed 4GB of RAM to be sufficient for my laptop as I had nothing to compare it too. When I upgraded it to 8GB there was a perceptible improvement in its performance. For peace of mind, it was definitely worth the money.
My present notebook has 8GB of RAM. To ensure I don’t clog up the notebook’s RAM, I only have as many windows open as necessary to tutor. These would be the tutor portal, courseware for the next lesson, pre-loaded Alo7 approved supplementary pictures and Zoom when I enter the classroom. I’m a firm believer in keeping things simple. I detest sifting through browser tabs to look for information that I need for the lesson.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD) vs. Solid State Drive (SSD)
HDD and SSD are your computer’s long-term memories. They are similar to the brain’s hippocampus where the information moves from short-term to long-term. There’s no argument that an HDD is essential, but what about SSD? The difference between HDD and SSD is that the former has some moveable parts which can become unreliable. The SSD is as the name suggests, is solid. There is less that can go wrong with it, so it’s more reliable than an HDD and much faster. SSDs are pricey but well worth investing in for your peace of mind. I have an ultra-fast 256GB SSD on my notebook.
Personally, I use my notebook only for work. I don’t have videos/photos etc. saved to it as I don’t want to impede my machine in any way by taking up unnecessary memory. Admittedly, I do err on the side of caution in keeping as much memory free as possible, but it’s to my advantage.
Webcam and Audio
There are many arguments as to whether a tutor should use the webcam that is integrated into the computer or should buy an external one. Many tutors swear by their external webcams because they can use a standing desk with it. Regardless, only HD (high-definition) cameras should be used. Modern notebooks come with an HD camera, as mine did, and it gives a clear and crisp picture. As its integrated, it’s one less thing for me to worry about. I check that my camera is working before I enter the classroom. This is a good habit to get into so you don’t have any unpleasant surprises.
As I mentioned before, I use headphones, specifically noise-canceling ones. I owe it to my students to sound clear when I speak. I want to be able to pick up any incorrect pronunciation immediately so that I can correct them. Most companies require headphones rather than earphones. Bear in mind that the headphones should also be tethered rather than using Bluetooth. This reduces any possible interference.
How many ports are necessary on a computer? My notebook has six, which are usually being used when I’m tutoring, but they aren’t all necessary and make my life easier. Presently, I have my backup WiFi router plugged in, the printer, my headphones’ power source and notebook cooling pad. There just happened to be that many USB ports on the notebook when I bought it; that many are “nice to have” rather than essentials as it’s quite cheap to buy a USB hub.
Online teachers frequently experience the dreaded “shut down” when a computer overheats. In essence, this is a protection mechanism that most modern electronics have to stop your laptop from overheating and suffering permanent damage. Your computer will have a built-in fan, but sometimes this is insufficient to cool the HDD as the ambient temperature will affect the core temperature of the machine. The computer will perform a hard shutdown (without warning), but you can usually restart after a minute or so. This is especially true of the older machines in which the computer has to work that much harder to keep running programs. I experienced this with my old notebook. My emergency go-to was a metal microwave rack (to raise the notebook so air could circulate beneath it) and to run a small desk fan aimed directly at the notebook. Sometimes improvisation in computers works just as well as it does in the ESL classroom. I have since bought a notebook cooling pad that has six small fans. It is powered via a USB port and has different speed settings. It doesn’t cost much and ensures one less thing to worry about. I regularly clean the fans on my computer and the notebook cooler with a hair dryer on the cold setting. This prevents any dust or pet hair from clogging up the fans.
Unfortunately, Antivirus (AV) protection has become a necessary evil as there will always be opportunists trying to steal your data or being a nuisance in wanting to delete files or alter your computer for whatever reason. It is something that should be considered a necessity as viruses/malware/spyware can slow down your computer and ultimately corrupt it. We don’t always notice that our machines have a virus as the slowdown is sometimes gradual. Once infected, the issue happens slowly. You may only be aware that there is a virus on your computer once it’s too late.
When looking at buying a notebook or screen, it is a good rule of thumb to opt for a 15-inch screen or larger. The resolution should be 1920 x 1080 pixels or higher as this gives optimal acuity and is kind on the eyes.
Most online teaching companies require minimum download and upload speeds of 4 Mbps with a ping of less than 100ms (milliseconds). The download and upload speeds are critical regarding downloading courseware and running the teaching platform. Your internet connection’s reaction time is the “ping.” The closer to zero your ping is, the faster your connection. As the reaction time increases, so does the lag in communication, which can be frustrating for you and your students. Your machine should always be connected via an Ethernet cable as this ensures stability and most online teaching companies insist on it.
Fiber came to my area eight months ago. I have a simultaneous connection of 20 Mbps upload speed, and 20 Mbps download speed with a ping of approximately 5ms. Again, my increase in internet speed was a personal choice as I had experienced a poor connection in the past—the lag made it almost impossible to teach.
In short, the minimum requirements to teach online are the equivalent of an Intel i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, noise-canceling headphones, an HD webcam, and a reliable 4 Mbps down and upload internet connection. Remember that these are your tools of the trade so any upgrades or backups such as a second internet connection or an uninterrupted power supply will only enhance your students’ experiences and your enjoyment of the wonderful world of teaching ESL online