Back To School: 2020 Edition
Whether the upcoming school year will be homeschool, distance learning, hybrid or onsite, there’s no question that it is going to be unique. We recently got together with our friends at Good Day in Sacramento and Oregon to answer your most common questions about what technology will best support your student’s back to school adventure.
Question 1: What is your most important suggestion to help save the sanity of all of us working & learning from home?
Answer: Avoid sharing devices, if possible.
If your child will be learning at home and it’s within your means, designate a PC or Chromebook for each child. It’s hard enough to keep kids working and focused on schoolwork – having to wait on a shared device just makes it all harder.
And if we’ve learned anything over the last 15 years of working in computer repair, its that kids destroy devices. They smash them, drop them, break screens, lose keys, spill juice or soda on them. Not to mention, they download anything and everything they see. It may seem like a cool new game but what you end up with is all manner of malicious programs (viruses, spyware, etc) on your one shared computer.
The moral of the story is that it’s best not to share your one work computer with your 3rd grader if it is at all within your means to avoid doing so.
But before you rush out to buy something for your student, ask your school if they have loaner units available. Many schools are loaning out Chromebooks that were previously used in the classroom to students that are having to learn from home this year.
Question 2: Can an Android tablet, iPad or a Kindle cut it?
Answer: A tablet is better than nothing, but probably not going to provide enough functionality to get them through the whole day.
Tablets are basically like large mobile phones.
This means that while they work great for Zoom meetings (the integrated camera and audio make them an easier tool to use to get on video conferences) and can allow some minor functionality like searching up something online, accessing recorded lessons in Google classroom or YouTube, they are going to be frustrating for students needing to actually do work.
Imagine trying to work on a book report or create a slide show using your smartphone.
There are some pros to tablets, particularly if you have some lying around. My kids would take their tablet into their room for Zoom meetings and to do the work that required quiet audio (like their Rosetta Stone foreign language work). They also used their tablets for some of the apps their classroom was already using (in our case, iReady and Clever).
The price point certainly can’t be beat. There are super low priced options, like a Kindle Fire HD 8 for $60 which supports Zoom and has a basic internet browser. An Android-based tablet that supports the Google Play store will offer more apps to choose from. The Samsung Galaxy Tab A is starts at $150
Just mind the limitations. Some apps (Google Classroom, Docs & Sheets; Rosetta Stone, iReady) may work, but others may not. You can add a Bluetooth keyboard, like this one, but you’re adding technology challenges (connectivity) to what may be an already steep learning curve for your student.
Question 3: If you have to buy a device – Laptop/PC or Chromebook?
Answer: Surprisingly, Chromebook.
Normally, we would advise against a Chromebook.
It’s limited in functionality, like a tablet with an attached keyboard. Chromebooks are basically disposable devices: you can’t reasonably repair or upgrade because the cost of repair typically meets or exceeds the cost of getting a new one.
We would never suggest spending a lot of money on a device your kid WILL destroy. It’s better to spend $250-300 on a decent Chromebook than get a super cheap laptop.
There are other benefits of a Chromebook over a laptop:
- Kids using their own dedicated Chromebook won’t get their parent’s computers infected with ransomware
- If they smash the screen or drop it in the bathtub, all the data can easily be restored to a new one just by signing into their Gmail/Google account.
- Limited resources work in your favor: many popular kids games like Fortnite or Overwatch simply won’t work on a Chromebook, which is great because the last thing your kids need is more distraction.
- Google’s built-in parental controls are robust and easy to use to limit and monitor children’s activity.
The biggest challenge at this point may just be getting your hands on one. Inventory in stores like Costco or Best Buy is limited so prepare to call around if you need to find one in stock.
If you buy online, pay attention to shipment timeframes as even those listed on Amazon as in-stock are often showing several weeks of shipment delay.
Best Buy was offering this Lenovo 14” touchscreen Chromebook for under $300, stock permitting.
Check with your student’s teacher before purchasing, though, as functionality for your student depends on the programs your child’s school will be using. If your distance learning platform is based on Google classroom, a Chromebook will be just fine. If your kids class was already using Chromebooks in class, that’s also a good indication that a Chromebook at home will be just fine.
Must have features:
- Front-facing camera – for Zoom/video conferences, and it will enable your student to take photos to submit/email proof of completed work
- At least 4GB RAM; aim for 32MB or more of onboard memory
- At least 10 hours of battery life
- Decent screen size (aim for 14” or more to avoid eye strain)
- Optional: Touchscreen (easier for younger kids already used to touch-based mobile devices)
Question 4: What additional free tools do you recommend for common challenges?
For the most part, your child’s teacher will dictate the tools that your child will be using for their classwork and for submitting work. However, some free tools are universally helpful for issues that all distance learners face.
Your student will inevitably receive work in PDF format. If you want to avoid having to print it out, fill it in, scan or take a picture of each page and then submit it to the teacher via email or through the online classroom, you need a PDF editor.
Lumin PDF is an editor app or browser plug-in that allows you to work on and submit PDFs online. Then simply save the edited PDF to your device and upload or email it to your teacher.
Lumin PDF’s free version allows you to mark, comment and strikeout text. As an added bonus for grownups, it also allows digital signatures.
It may seem counterintuitive to give your young student a spell check, but keep in mind it may be the only alert they see that they’ve spelled something wrong or used the wrong tense.
Grammarly detects grammar errors, typos, and even tone to help build cleaner writing skills.
You can download the free browser extension or they also offer a desktop tool.
Question 5: Are there reliable free resources to enhance learning?
Offers daily schedules for students aged 2-18, with engaging video lessons in topics from math, history, language, science & much more. There is frankly a dizzying array of knowledge available through Khan Academy – it offers a remarkable resource for parents homeschooling or looking for additional material on challenging topics.
Nat Geo offers a great resource for at-home science experiments kids can do with little to no help and minimal ingredients, not to mention a great library of engaging, fun videos about animals around the world.
Younger kids will enjoy:
Scholastic offered their learn at home resources for free at the start of the shutdown, but it looks like its now $6/month. If you’re homeschooling or just looking for a great way to encourage reluctant readers, Scholastic offers a large library of wonderful, engaging themed lessons. One fictional story is read aloud to your student, the other is a related non-fiction, and each day’s lesson is filled out with engagement quizzes, activities and an optional expansion activity.
We LOVE this amazing collection of video read-alouds by well-known actors and actresses. Most of your child’s favorite stories will be represented and students of all ages will love the voices and cartoon compliments to these popular story.
One of our favorites is Snappsy The Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) read by David Harbour – you won’t be disappointed!