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Williams looks like a floating head with arms when dressed in black in front of his $10,000 lightboard, an illuminated glass chalkboard. Photo: screenshot from Sean Willems, “Designing A Home Video Studio For Online Synchronous Teaching,” September 2020.

If you had to teach remotely and money were no object, what kind of home studio would you build? You might find inspiration atop a Tennessee garage. That’s where a business school professor commandeered his kids’ playroom and spent more than $25,000 on audio and video gear to create a state-of-the-art Zoom classroom for the pandemic era.

From buying a $3,000 camera lens to screwing tracks into his ceiling for hospital curtains, University of Tennessee’s Sean Willems seems to have spared no expense or effort. The cables alone ran $500. His 420-square-foot home studio contains, among other things, an illuminated glass chalkboard, two floor-to-ceiling poles (fancy substitutes for tripods), three cameras and four film studio lights, which give Willems’s visage the kind of soft glow that could turn Gwyneth Paltrow green with envy. Call it remote teaching’s equivalent of a Maserati. 

Yes, all this for teaching a couple of classes over Zoom.

A student’s view of University of Tennessee Professor Sean Willems teaching from his home studio. (Video provided by Sean Willems.)

“I wanted to have some level of shock and awe for the students,” Willems told me over a vivid Zoom interview. “They’re just looking at a screen. Of course they’re gonna check their phones and look at other stuff. I wanted to find a way to keep them in the moment. My big thing about teaching is to always be in the moment.”

Zoom equipment
Inside Sean Willems’s home teaching studio is a glass chalkboard, called a lightboard, which needed a separate camera and computer monitor. To create the floating head effect, Willems installed black curtains on ceiling tracks and wears black t-shirts. Photo: Sean Willems, “Designing A Home Video Studio For Online Synchronous Teaching,” September 2020.

Willems is admittedly “obsessive” about his hobbies, which include a large bicycle collection. He has the personal wealth to afford this pedagogical extravagance, thanks to having founded a software company earlier in his career.  He estimates that he spent over $50,000 after factoring in his high-powered computer and an additional monitor. “It’s totally insane,” Willems said. 

Willems lured himself into this financial insanity after the pandemic hit and the in-person summer course he teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management switched to virtual instruction. He wasn’t caught flat-footed. Willems was already an experienced online instructor from teaching several MITx courses on manufacturing and supply chains. While filming those lectures in the MIT studios, he was bewitched by the gigantic lightboard — an illuminated glass chalkboard — and knew he wanted one for his home studio. It’s particularly amusing when Willems is wearing a black t-shirt, which he often does, and he looks like a floating head with arms.

“When you shoot a video over PowerPoint, it’s so boring,” explained Willems. “Once you teach them on the lightboard you’re like, ‘Oh, I should do everything on the lightboard.’ ” 

The lightboard set him back about $10,000 and he kept buying from there. “If you’re going to do it,” said Willems, “you should just go all in.” Willems said that MIT subsequently reimbursed him for some of the expenses, such as a notebook computer connected to the microphone, but said he paid for most of it himself. 

Zoom equipment
A wide-angle view of Willems’s entire home teaching studio, on which he spent more than $25,000. Photo provided by Sean Willems.

Finding remote teaching inspirations from the real world wasn’t easy. TED Talks, he told me, were too rehearsed. Vloggers, he explained, zoom in on their own faces. He watched PBS’s Frontline documentaries and liked how the cameras were far away from the expert talking heads. His main camera is 11 feet from him. He knew sound quality would be important and bought a sleek wireless wearable microphone. Willems said he spent more than 12 hours a day for a month, figuring out how to hook up the equipment and make it work together by the time the MIT class began in early June. 

Willems teaches in front of a standing desk, not sitting in a chair. The desk is large enough for a document camera so that Willems can instantly show students what he is writing on a piece of paper. Photo: Sean Willems, “Designing A Home Video Studio For Online Synchronous Teaching,” September 2020.

He described building his studio and lessons learned in a post, “Designing A Home Video Studio For Online Synchronous Teaching,” which he wrote in the style of an academic research paper and published on his personal website in September 2020. He estimates he wasted about $5,000 in mistaken purchases on the way to discovering what works. His final suggested list of equipment is itemized in the post. So far, he’s helped MIT finance professor Andrew Lo replicate a high-end studio in his home but helping other teachers set up Zoom studios isn’t a new line of business for him.

Of course, not every professor wants to build a “totally insane” home studio. For those who don’t want to break the bank, Willems outlined a stripped-down budget version for $1,000 (see Appendix A in the post). And without buying a new camera, but using an iPad that you already have, you can even get away with a budget of $800, he wrote. 

Zoom equipment
A rolling computer station on wheels serves as the central nervous system, connecting camera stations and toggling between them. Photo: Sean Willems, “Designing A Home Video Studio For Online Synchronous Teaching,” September 2020.

Is any of this expense worth it when it’s possible to run a Zoom class from your laptop without additional equipment? 

During my Zoom interview with Willems, I felt like I was directly conversing with a television infomercial actor. I usually get Zoom fatigue after a half hour but our interview lasted an hour and 20 minutes and I never felt the urge to check my email as I usually do. In Willems’s summer 2020 evaluations, one MIT student said the Zoom classes felt “very personal and very smooth.” Others described them as “awesome” and “amazing.” 

But Willems’s favorite comment was from a student who was less than impressed. “I think the course did a good job adapting to the digital format although the cases were still not as stimulating as they would have been in person,” the student wrote. 

“That’s honest,” said Willems.  “We’re only approximating the on-campus experience. I’m not better. This is not better than what’s being done on campus.”

May we all get back there soon.

This story about Zoom equipment was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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