“I’ve got a theory:  If you love your workspace, you’ll love your work a little bit more.”

-Cynthia Rowley

This is part 1 of a 2-part series.  Part 1 is all about what should be on your desk.  Part 2 will dive into what should be on your desktop.

Teaching is a science, but it is so much more than that.  Good teaching requires creativity and ingenuity that make it a work of art.  I like to blend these two definitions and call it a craft.  And like any good craftsperson, I care a lot about the tools of my trade.

This list covers what I need around me to inspire, empower, and engage my online students.  I can’t do this without reliable tech, a full heart, and a nourished mind.

1.  Coffee.  Lots and Lots of Coffee:

I was 34 years old when I had my first cup of coffee.  Becoming a father has turned me into a time management ninja and a caffeine connoisseur.  I have done my best to make up for lost time ever since.  Heck, even my shampoo has caffeine in it.

I keep coffee within arms reach any time that I am working.  I have my main coffee mug, my backup coffee mug, and my travel mug for trips to campus.

My personal favorite is Scooter Doodle from my local Scooter’s Coffee.  It’s fun to say, and even more fun to drink.  I am sure I drink 6 cups of coffee a day, but even I have my limits.  If you want to take your coffee habit to the extreme, Biohazard coffee has 928 milligrams of caffeine.  This is literally not for the faint of heart.  Proceed with caution.

2.  Good Audio Quality:

Your online students don’t expect high-quality video, but they will never forgive low-quality audio.  Thankfully, improving audio quality is painless and relatively inexpensive.

Here are three tips for creating a quiet environment for recording your online course content:

1.  Start with a quiet place to begin with:  Pick a quiet room (or closet) that keeps outside noises outside.

2.  Make your “quiet place” even quieter:  Hang things on the wall, surround yourself with blankets, or hang ATS Acoustic Panels if you want to go pro.

3.  Schedule recording times smartly:  Good timing is the key to good audio quality.  The best recording studio in the world can’t keep the kids from knocking on the door.

Once you have created an audio-friendly office, it is time to choose a good microphone.  My two favorites are the Blue Yeti USB microphone (for audio and screencast recordings) or the Rode SmartLav+ microphone (for when I am on camera).

If you are only willing to spend $100 on your online teaching career, spend it on one of these two microphones.  Your students will thank you.

3.  Good Lighting:

It is hard to tell you about the importance of good lighting.  Let me show you instead.  These pictures are worth at least a thousand words:

Too little light is a problem.  This is what happens when you only rely on overhead lights.

Too much light is an even bigger problem.  This is a combination of overhead lights and a cheap desklamp behind my camera.

Be like Goldilocks.  Aim for just right.  This is my current light setup that uses three LED lights from Ikan.

These lights are the most expensive upgrade that I have made (other than my new computer), but it has been worth every penny.  I feel better about the videos that I make, and I save time by having quality lights that I can leave on my desk.  It used to take me 10-20 minutes to try to get the lighting decent.  Now I just turn them on and hit record.

4.  Good Video Quality:

If you have paid attention to any of my previous work (Here, Here, and Here for instance), you will know that I think creating video content is an essential strategy for effective and engaging online teaching.

Teachers like me that make a lot of videos may be the exception, but we are quickly becoming the rule.  Thankfully, once you have the audio and lighting taken care of, you are 95% of the way there.

Don’t let concerns about camera quality keep you from making videos for your online students.  Get started with whatever you have.  Grab your cell phone and get filming if that is your best option.  Done beats perfect every time.

That being said, the best advice I can give you is to avoid using your computers built-in webcam.  Nothing is flattering about a camera that aims right at your chin (or chins in my case).  I use the Logitech C920.  It does everything I need for under $70.  If you are looking for a serious upgrade, I would recommend the JVC GY-HM170U Ultra 4K HD 4KCAM.  It is on my wishlist for after we get the kids through college.

Your students aren’t expecting perfect videos.  They don’t want to connect with a polished actor.  They want to connect with YOU.  Don’t let camera quality (or anything else) stop you from taking your online student engagement to the next level.  You will not regret it.

Watch this video if you need help overcoming the fear of making videos for your online courses:

5.  A Good Computer:

When I first started teaching online, I was using a $300 refurbished computer that was several years old.  It was fine for Word documents and Solitaire, but I quickly learned that one of the most important things to do as an online teacher is to make sure that your technology can keep up with you.

I am not made of money, but I am definitely not made of time.  I couldn’t afford to spend half of my workday looking at a loading screen, so I decided to invest in my online teaching business and upgrade to the HP Spectre x360.  I don’t know much about RAM, SSD, etc.  I only know that my computer can quickly render videos using Camtasia while having 50+ tabs open. I don’t know how it does it, but I am delighted that it does.  I can get my work done, and get back to being a dad, faster than ever.

6.  Motivation:

I love my online students as much as any teacher can, but my family is the main reason that I love teaching online.  They are the reason why I have built an online teaching career that allows me to have the freedom I want to spend time with them AND the money I need to provide for them.

This picture of Oliver is the first thing I see every time I sit down to work.  It is just the reminder that I need to:

  • Care for (and about) my students:  Every one of my students is somebodies Oliver O’Neill.  This helps me to see each of my students through a much more empathetic lens.  Fatherhood has also taught me how messy and hectic life can get.  I am still firm, but I am now much more flexible and forgiving.  It is entirely unfair to hold my students to a higher standard than I hold myself to.
  • Exceed expectations:  My kids know that their dad takes a lot of pride in his work.  I want them to see that anyone can make the world a better place if they are passionate about what they do and focus on helping others when they do it.
  • Be present:  I try to give my students all of my attention while I am on the clock.  I throw myself into my work so that I can give that same attention to my family once my work is done.
  • Be productive:  What is missing from my desk is just as important as what is there.  I think of my workspace as a distraction-free zone.  I can’t be the husband, father, and teacher that I want to be if I waste my time.  The cell phone and sudoku are not invited into my office.  I attack my work so that I can do a great job, connect with my students, and then get back to raising my family.

How about you?  What motivates you to do your best work?

7.  Inspiration:

I love this quote from motivational speaker Lisa Nichols:

“Your job is to fill your own cup so it overflows.  Then you can serve others, joyfully, from your saucer.”

It takes time and effort to get better at anything.  Online teaching is no different.  Most teachers that I know love to learn about the content that they teach, but they don’t devote enough time to learning how to teach it.  Knowing something, and knowing how to teach it to someone else, are wildly different things.  And according to my childhood friend G.I. Joe, “Knowing is (only) half the battle.”

Here is my current reading list that I am using to fill my own cup (with short excerpts from Amazon in italics):

Resonate by Nancy Duarte:

“Presentations don’t have to be boring ordeals. You can make them fun, exciting, and full of meaning. Leave your audiences energized and ready to take action with Resonate.”

Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen

“Using accessible visual metaphors and concrete methods and examples, Design For How People Learn, Second Edition will teach you how to leverage the fundamental concepts of instructional design both to improve your own learning and to engage your audience.”

Connected Teaching by Harriet Schwartz:

“At a time when many aspects of the faculty role are in question, Harriet Schwartz, the author of Connected Teaching, argues that the role of teachers is as important as ever and is evolving profoundly. She believes the relationships faculty have with individual students and with classes and cohorts are the essential driver of teaching and learning.”

What are you listening to, watching, or reading to nourish your mind so that you can feed your students?

Final Thoughts:

These seven things make my workspace work for me.  I would love to see where you do your best work.  What would you add to this list?  What would you take away?

Stay tuned for part 2, where I will dive into my desktop and share the software and services that allow me to be a productive and effective online teacher.  

I want to hear from you.  Feel free to:

  • Leave a comment below.  I will personally reply to each one
  • Tag me @GrowGrayMatter on Twitter or LinkedIn to move the discussion to my favorite social media channels
  • Send me a message through the contact form on the bottom of the About page

Crush it!

Dr. O


  1. Jorge

    Thanks for sharing, I have been postponing show me on the video because my voice sound different on video and that scare even me.Now listen you I think U will ivercine that dear Again thanks.

  2. Andy

    How do you all find a quiet place to teach? I’ve lived in cities all my life. Do I have to move out to the suburbs to do this. All the presentations I watch sound like you’re living next door to a graveyard..

    • Frank O'Neill

      Hi Andy,

      I think that the key is to get a good microphone. It is a big help if your microphone only records what is directly in front of you. The next key thing is to soundproof a much as you can. I have recorded in my closet so the clothes absorb extra sound. The last important thing is timing. I record when I know it will be the quietest. This often means that I do my recording late at night when the rest of my family is in bed.

      If these things don’t work, just do your best. Share your knowledge with the world. If your message is strong, people will forgive the occasional noise.

      Good luck!

  3. Joseph Dworak

    Your presentations were crisp and tight.


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