Online UU theologies class

For an adult religious education class on Unitarian Universalist theologies, I recorded four short videos. I’ll get to the videos in a moment, but first, a word about online teaching….

Like so many educators, I’ve been trying to figure out how to adjust to our new reality of distance teaching. We feminists have criticized patriarchal pedagogy as disembodied; patriarchal education keeps everything in the head, ignoring the reality of the body. But how do you do embodied teaching when all you see are a bunch of tiny images of people’s heads on your computer screen? A great many pedagogical tools in my feminist-educator toolkit are useless in online learning.

I was talking over this problem with someone I have a great deal of respect for, a feminist who has been doing online teaching for a decade now — she moved to online learning because her subject area is quite specialized, with the result that her students are spread out over the entire North American continent. She said what has worked best for her is to record short videos, of under ten minutes, with lectures outlining a topic area; after showing one of the videos, she moderates an open discussion of the topic.

I’ve been teaching a biweekly adult religious education class — with mixed success — and I decided to try this approach for last night’s class. I was scheduled to teach an hour-long class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies. I focused on four UU theologies, as exemplified by five different persons, prepared four short talks, and recorded four short videos. The class went reasonably well, from my point of view. While the videos were playing, I was able to monitor the chat in the videoconference call, and I could look at the video feeds (of those who left their video on) to monitor facial reactions. The videos were followed by a lively discussion — though with 21 log-ins, it was less than spontaneous, since everyone had to stay muted except for me and one person making a point or asking a question.

Making the video lectures took more time than I would have liked. Yet by recording these short lectures in advance, I could trim out all the times I coughed (with all the smoke in California, I’ve been coughing a lot), and if I stumbled verbally, I could trim or re-record the part where I stumbled. I could also clean up the sound while editing the video, and control the lighting and composition of the visuals.

Another benefit to pre-recording the lectures: I can post them online, where they’re accessible to people who were unable to attend (e.g., due to child care responsibilities). And I can re-use the videos to teach the same class in a year or so, because the discussion that followed the lectures will always be different; plus, with several short videos, I can record new videos on the same topic.

My final conclusion: Although this method of teaching is nowhere near as good as in-person teaching, it was still the best approach I’ve yet tried for online teaching.

In a subsequent post, I’ll include a link to one of the videos, followed by the text of the lecture.

Critical Zoom update

If you’re one of those using Zoom to carry out online programs and ministries for our congregations, you’ll want to update to the latest version of the Zoom app (a.k.a. the Zoom client). The latest version is 4.6.10, and I got notification about it an hour ago.

This update has one absolutely critical security feature that you must have: you can prevent participants from changing their screen name. The previous version gave participants the ability to change their screen name to anything, including something obscene, and the host couldn’t do anything except boot that person off the call.

There are other security enhancements, too. Update now.

Adventures in creating online content

My younger sister the children’s librarian has inspired me. Her library is closed, or course, so she’s creating online content by uploading an average of a new video every day to the Harvard (Mass.) Public Library Children’s Room Youtube channel. So far, she’s got a simple craft project, story time that parents can do with young children, and she’s reading aloud the entire Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I like several things about Abby’s videos. First, they’re a great supplement to Zoom calls — some of us are getting Zoom burnout, and it’s nice to be able to watch a video when YOU want to watch it. Second, they’re Goldilocks videos — not too long, not too short, but just the right length. Third, they don’t put a big burden on parents — the crafts project can be done by kids on their own without parental supervision, kids can watch the installments of Alice on their own, and the story time for young children has them doing what they’re going to be doing anyway which is sitting in a parental lap.

So I repurposed this Youtube channel, where I already had some religious education videos. I added a video we used in last Sunday’s service. I created a couple of playlists, one for crafts (Abby’s craft video is included there), and another for story time (Abby’s Alice stories are going there, because Alice in Wonderland is a sacred text). I’ve got a children’s librarian from our congregation half convinced to do a story time, I’m planning a story time (I think I’ll read aloud from an old edition of the Jataka Tales), there will be more crafts projects.

Blog readers, if you know of some videos that you think would be appropriate to share on this Youtube channel, please send me the links. I can’t promise to put everything up, but I’d really like to see your suggestions — send them to danharper then the little “at” sign then uucpa then a dot then org.

Make yourself look good on camera

With the shelter-in-place order, any socializing we do is on camera. Plus many of us have to use videoconferencing for work. As long as we’re going to be spending lots of time on camera, we might as well look our best. So here are some tips for making yourself look good on your laptop’s (or your phone’s) crappy little web camera.

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, have your laptop or phone sitting on something stable. Ideally, you want to move the camera as little as possible, for two reasons. First, if you’re in a videoconference, you want to focus attention on your face, and if you move the camera around that’s going to be a distraction. Second, unless you have a really fast internet connection you probably want to save bandwidth; if you have a stable backdrop, that will be less information you’re sending out, and so you’re less likely to have degraded audio or video.

Second of all, don’t place your camera too low. If your camera is too far below your face, people will be looking up your nose, and if you’re middle-aged they can see all those incipient jowls that you’ve been trying to hide. In other words, don’t do this:

Camera placed too low, and only one source of lighting

Boy, do I look ugly in the photo above! Don’t make yourself look ugly. Place your computer or phone so that the camera is about at the level of your chin. However, don’t place your camera too high; there’s a psychological disadvantage to giving your viewers the impression that they are higher or taller than you.

In addition, learn about the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that your screen is divided in thirds both horizontally and vertically, sort of like a tic-tac-toe board. Have your eyes placed so that they’re about a third of the way from the top of the screen. Move so that your head is NOT in the center of the frame, but about a third of the way to one side (I like to move to my left, so that my right hand, my dominant hand, can make gestures in the space to my right). Setting up your camera using the Rule of Thirds will make you look more professional, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in movies and on television.

Use the Rule of Thirds to place yourself in the frame of the camera

Now let’s take a look at lighting. In movies and television, they use what’s called “three point lighting.” That just means that they use three light sources to light someone’s head. First, you set up the “key light,” which is the most important light. If you’re at home and on a videoconference during the day, your key light is most likely determined by the nearest window — in that case, try to sit so that the light from the nearest window is coming towards you at about a 30 degree angle — and you want diffuse daylight, so make sure there’s a curtain or something to give diffuse light. At night, sit so that the strongest light in the room becomes your key light.

With only the key light, your head will look a little one dimensional or washed out; and if you have any wrinkles or blemishes, they will tend to stand out. Therefore, you need to set up another light, called the “fill light,” which will fill in the stark shadows cast by the key light. The fill light should be less bright than the key light. The drawing below shows where the key light and the fill light come from:

Diagram of three point lighting

Then if you want really professional lighting, you’ll add what’s called a “back light.” This comes from the same side as the key light, and it lights up the back edge of your head. By lighting up that back edge of your head, it makes you look that much more three dimensional. However, it’s super time consuming to set up a back light, so I don’t bother when I’m on a videoconference.

Now here are some examples of what I look like with these different lights. Here I am with just the key light — it’s adequate, but pretty stark:

Continue reading “Make yourself look good on camera”

Further adventures in livestreaming

The shelter-in-place order has made livestreaming our church’s worship services a little more complex. We just had a tech rehearsal with worship leaders and tech support people each in their own locations, using Zoom as our basic platform. We have learned a lot since we livestreamed last week! Here’s a summary of what is currently working for us:

(1) Before the rehearsal, whoever owns the Zoom account needs to log in to their Zoom account and go over the settings carefully (see the screenshot below to see where to find “Settings” when logged in to Zoom). The critical settings you need to be aware of are as follows:
(a) Do not allow “Join before host.” This is to prevent someone from hijacking the feed with inappropriate screensharing before you take control.
(b) UNtick “Participant video: Start meetings with participant video on.” You want participant videos off, partly to prevent distraction, but also to prevent trolls from putting inappropriate content on their video feed. (Zoom will allow participants to start their video feed again, so you’ll also need someone to monitor participant videos during the service; see below.)
(c) Tick “Mute participants upon entry.”
(d) Tick “Allow co-hosts,” for two reasons: First, you’re going to need 2-3 people to manage the video feeds; second, make all worship leaders co-hosts because that puts them at the top of the participant list so you can more easily find them when switching back and forth between worship leaders and musicians.
(e) Tick “Allow host to put attendee on hold.” Just in case.
(f) Under “Screen sharing,” make sure you select the option where only allow host(s) can share screens. This prevents so-called “Zoombombing,” where trolls put up inappropriate images on your Zoom feed.
(g) Tick “Disable desktop/screen for users.”
(e) Tick “Allow users to select original sound in their client settings.” This improves the audio quality of musicians enormously.

(2) Well before the service starts, make sure you have email addresses for all co-hosts and worship leaders. Cell phone numbers would be a good idea too. If something fails, it’s nice to have a backup communication method besides private chat within Zoom.

(3) Start the Zoom call at least 15 minutes before the stated start time for the worship service, and make sure your co-host(s) who are managing participants also log in early. You want to have at least two hosts managing participants before the stated start time, when you’ll have your big influx of participants log in. Have your worship leaders log in early as well, and assign them co-host status so they appear at the top of the participants list.

(4) During the worship service, you’ll want people in the following tech roles:
(a) One host to “Spotlight video” of whichever worship leader or musician is on.
(b) One or two hosts to manage the participants. If you have a really small service (say, 30 or fewer participants logged in), you might be able to combine this role with the previous role.
(c) One or two people to work on audience engagement; these people will be monitoring the chat. Specific tasks might include monitoring chat for joys and sorrows (we’re going to allow joys and sorrows in chat); pasting hymn/song lyrics into chat at the appropriate moment; watching for newcomers to the service and perhaps greeting them privately in chat; generally monitoring behavior.
(d) Optional: we’ll also have a few knowledgable people monitoring audio and video quality, and providing feedback and/or advice as needed.

(5) Send out a script ahead of time. Our script, which was the basic order of service, proved to be inadequate. The primary worship leader (the senior minister in our case) is going to send out a full script, and our music director is going to insert cues for the host who’s in charge of switching the video feeds.

(6) We did a brief postmortem to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and of course we’re doing email follow-up as well.

One final point: While putting on a worship service is always a team effort, it becomes even more of a team effort when you’re livestreaming (especially when everyone has to watch from home), because the tech crew becomes an integral part of the worship team. I consider this a major benefit of livestreaming services: in these times, when we’re all feeling a little isolated and scared, being a part of a team effort can be quite comforting.

Copyright free hymns

For me, the biggest stumbling block for livestreaming worship services has always been copyright issues.

Especially troublesome are hymns.

Many of the most popular hymn tunes are protected by copyright. Even if a tune is in the public domain, the arrangement may be copyrighted (and it can be difficult to find out if the arrangement is, in fact, copyrighted). Even if the arrangement is copyrighted, some people will claim copyright for their typesetting of the hymn. If a hymn is protected in any way under copyright, you’re not supposed to photocopy or project or electronically disseminate the printed version of the hymn; if any part of the music is protected under copyright, you’re not supposed to broadcast audio of it. No, not even if you own hymnals with the hymn: owning a hymnal just allows you to use the hymn in an in-person event such as an in-person worship service.

The solution to this problem: copyright free hymns.

For the past few years, I’ve been collecting copyright free hymns and spiritual songs. I have huge disorganized files (both electronic and hard copy) of public domain tunes and texts and arrangements. I’ve pulled many songs from the great early African American collections, including Slave Songs of the U.S. (1868), the Fisk Jubilee Singers songbook (1873), and Cabin and Plantation Songs, assembled by the Hampton Institute (1901). Although most of the hymns I’ve found are Christian, I’ve also found some good hymns and songs with Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, Ethical Culture, or secular content. All the hymns I’ve found would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service; indeed, many of them are public domain versions of hymns in our current hymnal that are protected by copyright in some way.

I’ve just put 24 of these copyright free hymns and spiritual songs in a Google Drive folder here.

I’ll put a list of the songs currently in the folder below the fold. And I’ll be adding more copyright free hymns and spiritual songs as I find time to produce fair copies of the versions I have.

A thumbnail view of a copyright free hymn
Continue reading “Copyright free hymns”

Adventures in livestreaming

In Santa Clara County, gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, and if you have gatherings smaller than that you have to keep people 6 feet apart. So guess what? We’re livestreaming our Sunday services!

It’s been fun figuring out how to livestream our services, and I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

Last Sunday, Ann and Dox set up the simplest livestreaming system possible: Ann mounted her iPhone on a tripod, logged into Zoom, and that was our livestream. As you’d expect, audio was mediocre, but it wasn’t terrible. And we avoided copyright issues by only giving access to the livestream to our members and friends (and NOT recording the stream). Ann’s system worked, showing that anyone with a smart phone can livestream their Sunday services. This Sunday, we’ll continue with that simplest livestreaming system possible.

What if you want to go a step up in quality over what the smartphone can provide? Well, I tried setting up with a pretty good quality webcam attached to my laptop, but the audio was so poor it wasn’t worth pursuing. So the next step up means having about $2,000 worth of hardware on hand.

So this Sunday, in addition to Ann’s system, we’re going to add a livestreaming option that will take that next step up in quality. We’ll have a prosumer camcorder (worth $1200) mounted on a tripod ($130), with a wireless omnidirectional mic with the receiver attached to the camcorder and the mic set up right in front of the preacher ($400; thanks, Dox, for lending us this mic). The audio and video feed from the camcorder will get run through a Magewell USB Capture HDMI ($300) directly into my laptop, where I’ll be pushing it into Zoom.

Since we plan to handle joys and sorrows through the Zoom chat feature, Greg will be sitting 6 feet away from me with a second laptop; he’ll be managing the participants as they log in to Zoom, and then scanning the chat for joys and sorrows. We’ll have a third volunteer, Carmela, whom people can call on her phone for support if they have a hard time logging in to Zoom.

As you’d expect, we did a dry run this afternoon, with several people logged into a test Zoom meeting. Our testers uncovered all kinds of problems. The shotgun mic we had provided inadequate sound, and that’s when Dox lent us his wireless omni mic. The internet connection was unstable, so we wired my laptop directly into the wifi mesh using an Ethernet cable. The camera angle we had originally was not so good, so we moved both the camera and the pulpit.

It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. In fact, I had a blast, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow! I’ve wanted to do livestreaming for a long time, partly so we can reach people who are traveling or who are ill or shut in, and partly because I love helping produce video. If COVID-19 is a cloud, this has definitely been the silver lining for me.

Coming soon: Adventures in online learning — Highlights of how we’re setting up online Sunday school.

Update: Sunday, March 15, 6:26 p.m.: Problem One: Livestreaming with our second option went pretty well … during the second service. During the first service, the audio committee tried to set up the regular wireless mics we use during the service (so they could record the service, and broadcast it on campus), but their wireless mics caused interference with our livestreaming set-up meaning audio quality was poor. That problem was solved for the second service by switching to wired mics for the sound board. Then our audio was fine, except that we had turned on the wrong audio compression setting in Zoom and while voice was great, piano sounded terrible.

Problem two: Ann’s Zoom feed went well, with decent audio and video. But we had a LOT more participants this time, and she had a hard time muting everyone. Next week, we’ll probably have to get her a cohost.

Successes: We had about 35 log-ins at the 9:30 service, and about 70 log-ins at the 11:00 service. Assuming there were 1.5 humans per log-in, we probably served 150 people; that’s pretty close to our usual Sunday service participation. We had a bit of a “social hour” after each service, and Amy got to chat with anyone who stuck around in the Zoom conferences. Amy preached a killer sermon, perfect for the times. And we had a couple of people log in who now live beyond driving distance, and who said how pleased they were to be able to finally “attend” a UUCPA service again.