Moving from Stablehost shared hosting to Amazon Lightsail

[Apologies to teacher subscribers of my site who receive this update expecting an email about science teaching. I’ve written about this as a record of the poor service from my web hosting provider so that others might find it and make an informed decision based on my experience. I’m posting this under the personal section of my site.]

A few weeks ago I received an email from my hosting provider, Stablehost, informing me: “This mail is to inform you about your account fiendish activities. As per our terms of services, you may not: Use 75% or more of system resources for longer than 90 seconds. … According to your monitoring data, we can see that your account is constantly overplaying the allocated CPU and memory usage. You can check that yourself from cPanel >> CPU and Concurrent Connections. For your reference, I’ve also attached the same to this ticket.”

As you can see I was given a nice helpful graph with no labels for the bottom axis (important because it helps identify if this is a temporary problem or a longer-term issue) There was no discussion, and despite having access to my records seeing that my sites have been hosted there for many years, my account was unceremoniously deactivated.  When I contacted support I was told tersely (some might say rudely) simply they could only respond to me by email and I had to reply to the original email I had been sent.

Checking Cloudflare (who sit between my website and my hosting provider to help reduce demand on their servers, overkill for a tiny little site like mine) I could see a flurry of activity from foreign web servers that matched the times of increased demand (I found these in my CPanel once they reactivated my account, not from anyone in support) In fact when attempting to glean additional data from support I was simply told: “I have checked and noticed now you [Sic] account usage is normal.”

Following a server snafu the previous year, I had already moved my DNS entries to Cloudflare as Stablehost simply deleted my DNS records, including my MX entries, so all my mail stopped being delivered (they did helpfully reinstate it when I pointed out their mistake). The lack of information about my usage didn’t fill me with confidence and I ended up regularly checking my usage figures once my site was back up and running (with no idea if I had used 75% of resources for 90 seconds as the data they provide in the control panel is not that granular)

I thought about moving to another host but that could be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, so I decided to look elsewhere. I could move my site over to WordPress.com which would provide automatic updates but I’d lose a lot of the flexibility that comes from self-hosting (including my plugins that repeatedly Tweet my posts) I decided to try Amazon Lightsail who provide a ready to use WordPress experience (at the same price as WordPress.com – £3 per month) with hosting in London.

Moving over my content took a little tweaking of the settings in Lightsail (I was using the all-in-one WP migration plugin) and we were ready to go. There are plenty of guides in the documentation and that previous adopters have shared so I won’t list them here. I would say that Lightsail is best suited to someone who has the experience or the willingness to tinker with the settings as it isn’t quite as simple as click and play (especially if you want to enable https)

My site has been running on Amazon’s servers for several weeks now and I have noticed is a massive improvement in speed over the shared hosting. The whole site (browsing and the admin panel) are now quick and responsive – a huge leap forward from shared hosting with Stablehost. As expected, my tiny site isn’t using much processing power which makes me suspect the information I was given my Stablehost…

If you are starting out and want your own website/blog, and you don’t mind having a WordPress URL and adverts on your site, the free option from WordPress.com is probably best for you and avoids any potential security issues with having to keep your WordPress installation up to date.

 

Do you need a fancy microphone to deliver remote lessons or CPD?

I was delivering CPD online for STEM learning and one of my delegates told me the sound was a little quiet. I had not had a delegate mention this before, so I fiddled with some settings and went away to do some investigating (what we scientists do best!)

I had been using a very good quality USB condenser microphone, but this was on the desk in front of me and not mounted at head height. A quick scout around the house revealed a collection of microphones which I tested.

I tested all the microphones using Google hangouts to video call and Audacity to make recordings.  Naturally, I kept the settings the same to make any comparison fair.

Desktop USB condenser microphone on the desk

Very good sound quality but quiet because of the distance from my mouth but quiet unless I brought the microphone within a few inches of my mouth. Increasing the gain did not make much difference and caused an echo.

Bullet USB condenser microphone on a stand on the desk

This was a smaller model but the same manufacturer as the larger mic above. Despite being slightly closer to my mouth by being on a stand, the volume wasn’t any louder than the first USB mic.

Webcam mic mounted on top of the screen

I have a cheap USB Logitech C270 webcam which has a built-in mic. This picked up sound better than the expensive USB condenser mics, probably because it is mounted at head height. The sound quality was not quite as good as the condenser mic when mounted right in front of my face but was far less intrusive. In fact, the quality was better than most of the other solutions tested…

Analogue microphone on a headset (built-in sound)

I found my Brittney Spears microphone (unused) at the back of the drawer and added this to the test. The quality was extremely good but the proximity to my mouth meant it also picked up every swallow and breath. Reducing the gain helped, but then the sound quality was around the same as the webcam mic then. I also found the socket was sensitive (and annoying having to unplug the speakers to plug in the headset jack)

Analogue microphone (on USB soundcard)

I tried the same headset on a cheap USB soundcard. The playback quality was about the same but the mic picked up a whine when the gain was turned up to a useful level, probably as a result of being in a cheap plastic case and not being shielded.

USB C phone headset

I’ve got a USB C headset for my phone (which means it doesn’t need a headphone socket). As with the desktop mics, holding the microphone in front of my mouth improved the volume/quality considerably but was impractical in use. This made me realise that phone headsets are badly designed for capturing speech and only suited to occasional use.

Laptop mic (built-in microphone, HP Envy laptop)

Whilst this was on a different computer, I used the same software and settings to test it. Like the desktop microphones, the placement on the desk meant that the volume of sound picked up wasn’t as good as other solutions. When speaking in front of the microphone the speech playback was of reasonable quality and on a par with other microphones

What am I using now?

After testing the microphones, I decided to balance the quality of audio against convenience in use. The webcam mic, mounted on top of my screen was the best overall solution as it had the best sound pickup with no cables in the way (and delegates don’t have to hear me sounding like a heavy breathing phone call pest on the other end of the call)

There was little difference in speech quality (although this could be different for music/singing) between fancy USB mics and cheap analogue mics, so use whatever is cheapest. For many people, this might be the microphone in their laptop.  Find your microphone settings (under sound in the control panel on Windows) and remember that it’s cheaper to speak a little louder than to buy a fancy new microphone!

Delivering CPD workshops online – what’s worked for me

We are now well into the coronavirus lockdown arrangements and we’ve seen big changes in the education sector and widescale adoption of distance learning. The reduced social contact also limits our ability as a CPD provider to deliver face to face CPD.  Now is the perfect time for online CPD but how best to deliver it?

The tools?

As a facilitator of CPD, I’m used to a certain level of interactivity with the teachers I work with. As well as the basics I take for granted such as being able to see delegates smile/nod/yawn or seeing if they are paying attention, the ability to ask targeted questions and act as a catalyst for group discussion is crucial. It is also easier to distribute materials – for example, a reflections/next action sheet where attendees crystallise their ideas and consider the next steps. Even giving out slide handouts and taking the register is a lot easier in person.

Because I’ve used video conferencing before, I was fortunate to already own the right equipment – a USB microphone and a reasonable webcam (only 720p but as I appear not much bigger than a 1 inch square in most meetings this is more than adequate) I did buy an additional piece of software called XSplit Vcam which allows me to change the background without using a green screen (my desktop PC only has a core i3 processor which isn’t powerful enough for the option built into some of the video meeting software packages). If you don’t want to pay for software, you might find  Snap Camera does what you want instead.

I haven’t felt the need to buy noise-cancelling software but a lot of people have been using Krisp during the lockdown (and a limited free tier is available)

Why Zoom?

Having spent a large amount of time using Zoom I chose this as my tool of delivery because of the wide range of facilities it offers – both when organising meetings and the ease of use as a participant. I have access to tools like Google Meet/Microsoft Teams but these have more limited feature sets compared to Zoom.

  • The video/audio quality is always reasonable in the meetings I’ve attended and I like the fact that so many faces can be seen at once (other platforms have copied this feature)
  • It works across most platforms (including mobile) and there is also a web client for those who don’t want to install the software
  • Microphone management is good – you can mute all of the attendees as the host, and decide if they can turn their own microphones back on.
  • You can enable a waiting room, ideal for marking attendance registers, seeing who is yet to arrive (or stopping people entering who have acquired the link from another source thinking they can sneak in unnoticed – yes this really does happen!)
  • I can easily put people into random breakout rooms (setting up manual ones can be tricky to do while you are talking to delegates, and if you set them up in advance you aren’t sure who will show up – you don’t want a breakout room of 2 people). I’ve found breakout rooms of 5 or 6 people is optimal for letting everyone contribute but still allowing for those who are uncomfortable with turning on their microphone/webcam.
  • Screen sharing easily lets you share system sounds – so you can show short video clips embedded in your presentations
  • I haven’t used tools like meeting recording, raising a hand or reactions (e.g. clapping) but they are also built into software if you need this functionality
  • You can download a list of attendees quite easily (be warned, you will also capture delegates email addresses which might not be the work email address you are expecting to see)

Replicating the face to face experience?

Distributing resources. Perhaps you want to share the slides from a presentation or distribute in advance for delegates to look at. You can email these out but it’s easier to share a folder using a cloud tool like Google Drive, Microsoft Onedrive or Dropbox. If you are sharing resources during a workshop, you can paste the link into the chat window but shortening the link with a tool like Bitly and giving it a custom memorable URL will make it easier for delegates to note down (you can also add a QR code which they can scan if they have a modern smartphone)

Interactivity. Sometimes you want a show of hands or to ask a simple question for feedback. I’ve used PollEverywhere to take feedback from participants (there are similar tools like Mentimeter) and this feedback can take the form of a poll (this functionality is also built into Zoom for a more seamless experience) or a range of other activities such as ranking statements to replace a simple card sort. Be aware that you are limited to a relatively small number of respondents on free tiers (and you can’t download the responses unless you pay) These tools also work well in a lecture type environment when you want some interactivity (and where I found out about the cap the hard way when four times the expected number of delegates turned up)

Taking feedback and capturing dialogue. Breakout rooms are great for getting delegates talking to each other, but how to share the feedback when this will benefit other groups? It can be hard enough getting people to feedback orally when you can see them in person so I’ve adopted text-based feedback instead. Some platforms make better provision for this (I’m thinking of Adobe Connect) but I used a template in Google Docs with a custom Bitly link. Each group types their feedback into the same template as they discuss an activity and this is visible to the other groups (it can be a little distracting to see several other people typing on the same document but my delegates soon got used to this) You can also easily download this document and share it as a file.

Working with Post-it notes and cards. I like post-IT notes because they are a convenient size, they stay in place and you can move them around. The best online tool I’ve found for mimicking this functionality is Google Jamboard. Jamboard is an online whiteboard that can be shared with up to 50 people. Whilst the tools it provides are limited, it lets you create sticky notes and move them about. There are also mobile versions of this tool (I found I could annotate the whiteboards easily using my Apple pencil on my iPad)

Gathering ideas before or during an event can be a challenge. I’ve used Padlet to gather feedback before workshops, and this feedback is used in the following workshops. You can also allow delegates to comment underneath comments other people have left, and to give a thumbs up/down comments which can be useful feedback tools. You are limited to three Padlet boards on the free tier.

Suggestions based on my own experience

If you are using PowerPoint through screen sharing, it is much easier if you have two screens and use the presenter view. I always share my second screen and have the presenter notes, together with an image of the next slide on my first screen. I can easily move web pages (for example shared feedback activities) onto the second screen if I want delegates to see them. This is the same way I use PowerPoint when I deliver face to face CPD, and also how I used it as a teacher with my projector.  Google Slides also has a presenter view if this is your preferred presentation tool of choice.  If you use Adobe Connect and upload your slides you miss this functionality but you can use your spare screen to keep open a copy of your presentation along with any notes. If you haven’t got a second screen but you have got a tablet, you could try an app like Duet Display or Spacedesk (Mac users can also use SideCar) Duet Display even responds to touch commands and an optional subscription lets you use your Apple pencil.

Do your housekeeping announcements at the start, just as you would with face to face CPD (only your focus will be on microphone/camera etiquette rather than fire alarms and toilets – I would hope the delegates know where their toilet is!)

Make sure you know how to use the tools you are using. It makes sense to start with a smaller number of delegates before you run CPD for a large number – especially where there might be a risk of reputational damage!

I always include a graphic for discussion where I intend delegates to discuss something. Teacher professional development is more effective if teachers take part as a group and the breakout rooms allow group work to happen successfully.

Check how many people can use the tools you are using. In the past, I’ve hit the limit on the free version of PollEverywhere when more people than expected turned up to a meeting. Recently I found out that Google Jamboard has a 50 participant limit (I had 70 delegates for that workshop)

Use the chat feature. This can be distracting as delegates often talk to each other in the chat window as well as talking to the facilitator. I write down key points to return to later if it isn’t convenient to pick them up. Zoom saves the chat at the end of the meeting so you have a record of any useful resources or comments that come up (that includes private messages sent between delegates)

Like with face to face CPD, ask delegates to reflect on what they want to take away from the CPD and what their short, medium and long term actions will be. This reflection (with the possibility of discussing it with other delegates) will make it more likely to have an impact going forward. Teachers are very busy professionals and it’s easy to forget these actions once immersed back in school life.

Update: I’ve added this paragraph as a result of recent experience. I had just started my presentation when somebody in the audience managed to scribble all over my slides (by accident one would hope!) and clicking forward through the slide deck didn’t remove the marks. Fortunately, a quick scan of the menus in Zoom revealed the option to delete the annotations. After the session, I found out that I had enabled the option to allow anyone to annotate shared screens – make sure this is set to only allow the person sharing their screen to annotate by default. It is quite disconcerting to see someone else drawing over the slides you are sharing with your audience…

I’m not sure if presenting live is better or worse than having a pre-prepared course that delegates follow at their own pace (we call this synchronous vs asynchronous delivery) but it is much easier to talk to a PowerPoint than it is to create a full course. It also allows you to customise your workshop in response to your audience. I don’t think I’ll ever want to stop doing face to face CPD, but I hope that we will continue to deliver some courses online when social distancing measures are over.