Internet, a computer or laptop with a webcam, a headset and good lighting is all the essential equipment to teach online that you’ll need. There are a few more items, though, that can really make you stand out. Let’s find out more.
5 years ago, when I first began teaching online, I bought a cheap pair of ‘call centre’ headphones with a microphone, a clip-on ring light and little else. While the classes were OK, it soon became apparent to me that a few pieces of better quality equipment would also increase the quality of the classes.
If you want to stand out amongst a sea of grainy-looking classes with bad audio, I’ll answer the question “What is the ESSENTIAL equipment to teach English online?”.
In this post, we will cover all the basics, with budget, mid-tier and high-end options (plus, tips and tricks).
To teach English online, you need the internet. English teaching companies may require that you have a minimum internet connection speed (which can vary greatly).
Freelance and marketplace teachers will also benefit from a fast, steady connection.
A GENERAL guide is 10Mbps Download/10 Mbps Upload or higher. Australia has slow internet overall, so “the faster, the better”… but it’s normal for your upload speed to be slower. If your connection cuts out regularly or is patchy on a Skype/Zoom/Video call with friends and family, it might not quite be enough.
You can check your internet speed at speedtest.net
One of the easiest ways to increase your internet speed is by purchasing an inexpensive ‘Ethernet Network LAN Patch Cable’ (from ≈$5AUD on eBay Australia).
By plugging your computer directly into your router/modem via Ethernet cable, you can increase your speed significantly. Modern laptops lack Ethernet ports, so you may need a USB (or Micro) to Ethernet (RJ45) adapter (≈$20AUD on eBay Australia).
I have been teaching for almost two years with the above speeds and have not had any issues, except for a few nights with stormy weather, but the faster the better.
Even moving closer to your router/modem will help improve your speed. You may have luck with a wi-fi extender that can dramatically increase the wi-fi speeds in hard-to-reach areas of your house (from ≈$50AUD on eBay Australia).
Also, if you use a VPN, you may wish to turn it off before class and back on again after; I’ve found that they really slow down your connection.
It’s also good to have a back-up connection via wi-fi hotspot (on your phone).
I’ve relied on this a few times and it has been a lifesaver. It looks slightly different on every phone. On Apple phones, it’s ‘Personal Hotspot’ (see image).
If you don’t have unlimited data on your plan, it can be expensive, so best for emergencies.
Like internet speeds, some companies will require that your computer has minimum operating specifications. A Windows 7 (or above) laptop/desktop or Mac with 4GB+ RAM and Intel 5i+ (AMD10) are generally required, but please check out the technical requirements of each company as they are all different.
Teachers have reported issues with Chromebooks and Linux systems on some teaching platforms. Some companies run their software on Google Chrome, so you may need to download this browser. Some companies allow you to teach from a tablet (like an iPad) or phone, but the majority require a new-ish laptop or desktop.
If you’re using a laptop, a stand (≈$50AUD on eBay Australia) that elevates your webcam to eye level is really helpful if you can’t adjust your chair, although a stack of books or a shoebox will also do in a pinch. Remember, try and get the webcam to as close to your eye level as possible, as you don’t want your students staring up into your nostrils or feel like you are looking down on them from a great height.
If you have a less than 5 year old laptop, you should have a integrated webcam that will be sufficient. If you are working on a desktop computer, you may need to purchase one. Aim for 1080p (at 30fps) for best video quality.
Note: if the webcam you want is compatible with your operating system (Windows or iOS) before buying as many released this year are only compatible with the newest version of major operating systems.
After good lighting and a quality microphone, a good webcam will set you apart in the job interview and make your classes much higher high quality, so it’s worth the extra expense if you can afford it.
Budget webcam: (≈$70AUD on eBay Australia) Creative brand 1080p webcam.
Mid-range webcam: (≈$120AUD on eBay Australia) Logitech brand 1080p webcam.
Hid-end webcam: (≈$300AUD on eBay Australia) Logitech brand HD Pro webcam.
The fastest way to improve the quality of your appearance online is to set up some basic lighting. In my first budget setup, I used a $6 LED lamp from Kmart (which is sadly no longer available), so a cheap desk lamp or two is a perfect way to start.
Cinematographer Greg Middleton recommends that you bounce the light from a desk lamp off a wall instead of pointing it at yourself directly, if possible. He also says that “cinematographers favour tungsten bulbs or energy-efficient LEDs, which generate steadier light than fluorescents”, so be mindful of the bulb in the lamp too.
I’ve seen a few that are quite yellow and make people look a bit jaundiced. There is something called the Kelvin Scale which ranks lights from blue to yellow.
It is a bit complicated, but basically, you want to aim for light in the middle of the spectrum – that is – closest to ‘Cool White’. Keep an eye out for white bulbs if you are using a lamp, but my experience has been that most LED lights are near to this goal white area.
This article suggests that “The optimum points when adding lights around your face are at 10 and 2 pm if you’re sitting at, and facing, high noon. You’ll also want a slight light behind you – again from an angle”.
Ring lights used to be only in the purview of Instagram models and YouTubers, but they are also indispensable for those educating online. You especially want the students to see your face (and mouth) to help them imitate your movements and to help elicit communication. Ring lights are great at focusing light right onto your face, but you may want to turn on your overhead bulb, a desk lamp and maybe even a light or two behind you. Turn on your webcam and play around with different arrangements until you find the best setup for your situation.
Budget Ring Light: (≈$10AUD on eBay Australia). The ‘clip on’ selfie ring light can clip on the top of your laptop over your webcam and usually comes with three settings – low, medium and high. It’s a great option if you are on a budget and/or just getting started. You can use it to make yourself look good in selfies too, which is a bonus.
The main ‘con’ is that looking into it for long periods of time is not great, so I actually recommend a larger ring light that sits behind your laptop or on your desk that can you look through the middle of. Trust me, your eyes will thank you.
Mid-tier Ring Light: (≈$40AUD on eBay Australia). This well-reviewed ring light is 10″ and sits on your desk (for the smaller sizes) and the floor (for the larger lights). It is adjustable, with many different light/brightness settings.
High-End Ring Light: (≈$65AUD on eBay Australia). The next step up is to invest in professional ‘soft box’
Although you might get away without having a headset, we don’t recommend that you skip this purchase. After being able to see you clearly, students need to be able to hear you clearly too. You also need to be able to hear them too!
Communication with a non-native English speaker is not always easy, so make your life easier and buy the best headset that you can afford. We recommend headsets with a built-in microphone, like the ones that you see in call centres, as they provide the best sound quality.
A few considerations before buying a headset:
- Noise-cancellation. If you are working from a noisy space, having a noise-cancelling microphone is a must.
- Mute button. If you think you may be interrupted frequently by young children in your home, for example, you may want a headset with a quick and easy mute function.
- Wireless headset. If you are a very animated person and especially if you plan on teaching young children, being wireless will help you tremendously.
Do your research and read a few reviews before buying a headset. If you plan on teaching full-time a lightweight and comfortable headset will be worth its weight in gold, but an inexpensive headset from Logitech (see below) was our choice when we first started and is still a reliable backup after a year of daily use.
Note: Depending on your laptop/computer, you may need an adapter for some headsets. Be mindful when looking and buy a USB or wireless headset for maximum compatibility.
Budget Headset: (≈$25AUD on Amazon). Basic and with none of the aforementioned features, this is the cheapest well-reviewed headset on the market. You may need an adapter (≈$7AUD on Amazon).
Mid-tier Headset: (≈$50AUD on Amazon). With a noise-cancelling microphone, a mute button, and a USB connection – this ticks most of the boxes for the price.
High-end Headset: (≈$99AUD on Amazon). All of the above features, but wireless.
This is an often overlooked item for teaching but we think it is one of the things that can really increase the quality of your class. By tablet, we don’t mean a device like an iPad, but a drawing tablet that is common among graphic designers. It usually consists of a small drawing surface and digital pen, known as a stylus (see above).
Depending on the platform that you use when teaching, you can draw on the presentation to underline words, draw pictures and bring focus to certain elements of the class. In classes where you can write on a whiteboard-esque white screen, you can write ‘on the board’ just like in a real-life classroom.
Budget tablet: (≈$50AUD on Amazon). Simple, cheap and easy to use.
Mid-tier tablet: (≈$69AUD on Amazon). Comes highly recommended, slightly larger.
High-end tablet: (≈$90AUD on Amazon). We use a Wacom tablet personally and find them the easiest devices to plug-and-play.
Here’s a great example of the sort of thing you can do with a tablet:
So, that’s all for the tech. Just remember that a few items will greatly increase the quality of your face and voice. Online English teaching companies often offer you an hourly rate based on your demo(nstration) class, so if you are in a quiet, well lit room with a clear, high quality image and sound (plus, give an enthusiastic class) you’ll likely receive the upper rate. The small amount that you pay will be recouped in a few hours work at a better hourly rate.
What you have behind you while you are teaching is really important. The students have only a small ‘window’ on their screen in which to view you and just like when you watch a video online, a messy bedroom in a background is really distracting.
Some companies ask that you have a plain, white background, while others encourage you to decorate your background with colourful signs, posters and child-friendly decorations.
For plain backgrounds: You can purchase a photography backdrop (above) that includes both white and green screen fabrics, but as you can see in the photo – the cheap fabric that comes with it is unable to be ironed and leaves creases. We recommend that you buy a frame (≈$45AUD on Amazon) and a decent muslin fabric (≈$40AUD on Amazon), or you can use any plain fabric like a sheet, for example. Using a green screen gives you the potential to use virtual backgrounds through programs like ManyCam. This can be really spectacularly used for young learners with animations and fun filters. Using a program like ManyCam is quite RAM-heavy so works best with new systems. You can also purchase a small portable green screen that you affix to the wall (≈$68AUD on Amazon).
For decorated backgrounds: You can get really crafty and make yourself a personalised background with cardboard, your name, and an Australian/New Zealand-themed collage – you are only limited by your imagination! Lots of people have a World Map (≈$30AUD on Amazon). Some companies require you to display the company logo on your screen and you can do this by printing it out on paper or using a program like ManyCam to add it digitally.
If you have a lovely, tidy home or office – you might not need a backdrop. Again, it depends on your situation but I’ve found that if you travel a lot, a backdrop can provide a consistent background for your lessons.
You might want to buy a small ‘mini’ whiteboard ($10AUD on Amazon) to write on and can be especially helpful when explaining a vocabulary word, by drawing an image or breaking it down letter by letter.
What props you use will depend on the age of the students that you are teaching and your own comfort level with using them. The list really is endless. You might want to have a puppet, prop food, costumes etc.
Remember, you can use use props for adult learners as well. Use a phone to ‘call’ your students, or put on a paper moustache to role play a discussion with an angry boss etc. Surprisingly, adults often respond to the same, fun activities that children do – just take your cue from how your students respond. Not all cultures are as comfortable with the notion of play and fun, so start conservatively and get ‘sillier’ if and when appropriate.
You can go ‘all out’ when teaching online and you are only limited by your wallet, but in order to be a great teacher, focus on WHAT you’re teaching and let the technology and props support you. If you are on a tight budget, we suggest that you buy the best headset that you can afford and spend the most you can on good lighting and a webcam (if you can). This will really help the student to see and hear you. A tablet, a program like ManyCam, a few props and a fun background are useful extras.
Good luck and happy teaching!
This post is part of our “Ultimate teach English online guide“. Go check it out.
Kate (GradCertEd TESOL) studied a TESOL certificate in 2010 and has been teaching English ever since. Tutoring ‘freelance’ for many years before starting an independent teaching business, she began Teach English Online to support Australians and New Zealanders to do the same. Just starting out, want to apply to one of the 300+ global companies or build your own small independent teaching business? She can help.