What is the essential equipment to teach online?

Reliable 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. 

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

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Table of Contents

The basics

When you first consider teaching online, it can seem like you’ll need an overwhelming amount of equipment. The reality is that you can start very simply and build up more essential equipment to teach online over time. We’ll cover all the basics, with budget, mid-tier and high-end options (plus, tips and tricks to get the most out of all the equipment that you buy). 

This was my first setup. I learned quickly that it wasn't enough. You can see my current setup at the end of this post. (c) Kate Zarb

Internet

Each English teaching company will require that you have a minimum internet connection speed (which can vary greatly from company to company) and includes both Upload and Download speeds. Freelance/marketplace teachers will benefit from a fast, steady connection. 

A GENERAL guide is 10Mbps Download/10 Mbps Upload or higher 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 Amazon). In essence, if you are using the wi-fi in your house, the signal has to travel through the air and reduces the speed significantly. Here is an example of my connection (top) via wifi and (bottom) via Ethernet cable, you can see a large increase with the latter.

By plugging your computer directly into your router/modem, you can increase your speed by a significant amount. Modern laptops often do not have an Ethernet port, so you may also need a USB to Ethernet adapter ($12AUD on Amazon). I have been teaching for almost two years with the above speeds (I’m on a TPG FTTC 50Mbps plan) and have not had any issues, except for a few nights with heavy rain and stormy weather.

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 ($35AUD on Amazon). 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 in the form of a wi-fi hotspot (on your phone), in case your internet ‘drops out’ mid-class for any reason. 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’. If you don’t have unlimited data on your plan, it can be expensive, so best only for emergency use.

Computer

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 ($19AUD on Amazon) 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.

Webcam

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. We recommend that you aim for 1080p (at 30fps) for best video quality. Also, note if the webcam you want to purchase is compatible with your operating system (Windows/OS) before buying as many released this year are only compatible with the newest version of major iOS/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.

Our recommendations:

Budget webcam: ($39AUD). Nulaxy 1080P webcam is well reviewed, but budget cameras often have a strange ‘fish-eye’ type lens, including this one.
Mid-tier webcam: ($79AUD on Amazon). Creative brand 1080p wide-angle webcam.
High-end webcam: ($223AUD on Amazon). Well reviewed quality Logitech brand webcam with auto-focus and light correction.

Photo by tyler hendy from Pexels

Lighting

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.

Our recommendations:

Budget Ring Light: ($9AUD on Amazon). 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 on a budget and/or just getting started. You can use it to make yourself look good in selfies as well, which is a nice bonus. 

The only ‘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 Amazon).This well reviewed ring light comes in a variety of sizes from 6″ – 19″ 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. This is what I currently use.
High-End Ring Light
: ($136AUD on Amazon). This 18″ ring light is good quality and one of the most adjustable on the market. If you are looking to set up yourself as a freelance teacher and want to project a professional online image, this is the perfect choice.

Headset

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 compatability.

Our recommendations:

Budget Headset: ($25AUD on Amazon). Basic and with none of the aformentioned features, this is the cheapest well reviewed headset on the market. You may need an adapter ($7AUD on Amazon).
Mid-tier Headset: ($63AUD on Amazon). With noise-cancelling microphone, a mute button, and USB connection – this ticks most the boxes for the price.
High-end Headset: ($199AUD on Amazon). All of the above features, but wireless.

Tablet

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.

Our recommendations:

Budget tablet: ($62AUD on Amazon). Simple, cheap and easy to use.
Mid-tier tablet: ($69AUD on Amazon). Comes highly recommended, slightly larger.
High-end tablet: ($98AUD on Amazon). We use a Wacom tablet personally and find them the easiest devices to plug-and-play. Second hand Wacom tablets (older models, usually) can be purchased on eBay for more than half price. We picked up for about $20AUD and it is still working 12 months later, so bargains can be found.

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.

Backdrop/Background

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 ($40AUD on Amazon) and a decent muslin fabric ($22AUD 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, an Australian/New Zealand themed collage – you are only limited by your imagination! Lots of people have a World Map ($19AUD 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. 

Whiteboard

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.

Props

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. Here are some fabulous videos showing the props that some teachers use with children.

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. 

Online English teaching setup
This is the author's current, 2021 setup. (c) Kate Zarb

Summary

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.

See the full list of equipment in our Amazon wish list here

Good luck and happy teaching!

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This post is part of our “Ultimate teach English online guide“. Go check it out.

About the Author:

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, well… succeed teaching English online. Whether you are just starting out, want to apply to one of the 300+ global companies or build your own small independent teaching business, she can help.