Big changes this fall
I thought it would be a while before I had to choose a device for distance learning. My two- and five-year-olds have access to a tablet that just about runs PBS Kids apps, and every once in a while I’ll let my son click through a book on my laptop. We hadn’t even thought about getting a kid-friendly device for a couple more years, hoping to limit the draw of screen time until the kids are a bit older.
That left me scrambling in April when my son’s pre-K class was having weekly Zoom meetings and he was taking a karate class online, too. We repurposed an old laptop. It’s too slow to run everything I need for tutoring, but works fine to just run Zoom. But it’s heavy and clunky and not at all kid-friendly. With remote schooling on the horizon for kindergarten this year, we, like many families, are finding it’s time to choose a device for distance learning for our son.
What does distance learning require?
Tools and platforms for distance learning
Distance learning seems to be taking a few different forms, depending on the district and the age of students. So far, some schools have sent packets or prescribed practice on a website. That is likely to change as school districts find their groove for distance learning this fall.
A good starting place for choosing a device is to ask the school district. Districts should be able to offer some guidance about whether the majority of students will be on Chromebooks, or if tablets or Windows or iOS laptops will be more common. If most students are using Chromebooks, a laptop would give good results because you can use the Chrome browser on any laptop for a very similar experience. If students are mostly using laptops, on the other hand, a Chromebook might limit what your child can access.
Some districts near me have provided hardware (usually Chromebooks) to families who need them, while other places have left families trying to choose a device for distance learning on their own. If you’re in the market for a kid-friendly device for distance learning, here are some things it will likely need to handle:
Many schools are using Google Meet for their video meeting platform. It’s designed to run well with Chromebooks and also has apps for Android and iOS. Zoom is another popular choice and it will run on just about anything, as well. The important thing is to make sure your student’s learning device has enough processing power and RAM to run a video meeting with a shared screen without lagging and freezing. Most new devices can handle this requirement, so if you’re shopping for something now, this should not be a tall order.
Another thing to consider for video meetings is your household internet speed. Even with a fast device, limited bandwidth on your network can be a barrier. Now is the time to:
- Check your internet speed
- Consider upgrading to a higher speed (a bigger number in Mbps, megabits per second) from your internet provider
- Consider upgrading your wireless router, moving the router and the kids closer together in the house, or plugging in to the modem for a wired connection for video meetings
- Manage usage on your home network, limiting streaming, downloads, and other demanding activities during video meetings.
- Experiment with other things in the house that might interfere. Some people have wireless connection problems when the microwave or another appliance is turned on.
Browsers and websites are getting more demanding, even as computers get more powerful, so there’s a constant arms race to make sure the hardware can keep up. Just about anything on the market today can handle web-based practice like Khan Academy or iReady, or videos on YouTube.
Older students, especially, will be required to upload evidence of their learning.
- Documents – Google Docs is the first choice of many school districts and it’s my recommendation for students, whether the district offers it or not. Google Docs (and its spreadsheet buddy Sheets and presentation pal Slides) runs in a browser on any computer or through iOS and Android apps.
- Videos – These can be uploaded to a teacher-selected platform or sent via YouTube or Google Photos. Most devices on the market today will have a webcam, but doublecheck before buying a low-end laptop or Chromebook.
- Images – A device with a camera (like a tablet or phone) can easily take a photo of written work, or use a free app like TinyScanner to scan the page using your device camera. You can get creative with a webcam to capture a still picture as well, using careful positioning of the work and the camera.
Laptop – more features, higher cost
One of the more expensive, but much more flexible, options you can choose as a device for distance learning is a laptop computer. Depending on your choices (and there are so many options) you can spend anywhere between $300 and $1000 on an adequate laptop. If you can make the investment, and your kids are of an age where they can take care of a laptop for 5 years or more, consider stepping up to a laptop with more RAM and a faster processor to have a device that can handle new software as it arrives.
The MacBook is a more expensive laptop for distance learning than comparable Windows machines. There’s nothing a student needs a Mac for, but if your family has mostly Apple devices and you want to keep things consistent, one nice option is this refurbished 13” MacBook Pro. It’s less expensive than a new Mac, but powerful enough to handle distance learning.
There is a dizzying assortment of laptops on the market that run Windows. Some have long-standing brand recognition (HP, Dell, Samsung) and tend to be more expensive. I have had a long string of laptops from Acer and Asus, two less expensive brands, and have had great experiences. One nice option for a Windows laptop for distance learning is this Acer. With a dual core processor and 4 GB of RAM, it would be a great option for productivity and video streaming for a student.
One of the great things about laptops is they arrive ready to use right out of the box. Plug them in and turn them on. However, when you’re planning on lots of computer time for distance-learning, it pays to invest in some of the accessories that will make your child more comfortable and efficient.
Having the right accessories can make your child’s distance learning experience less frustrating and more productive.
- A power strip – This option with USB ports will leave room for a few of the family’s devices, including USB ports to charge things like Bluetooth headphones, tablets and phones.
- USB hub – One frustrating difference among devices is the number of USB ports. Right now, I have a wireless mouse, headphone charger, and drawing tablet all plugged into mine and there is no room left! A USB hub gives you more flexible options for plugging in peripherals.
- Headphones – Especially in a household with multiple family members working and learning at home, headphones can go a long way towards keeping the peace. I have these wireless Bluetooth headphones from MPOW and I love them for tutoring online. For a child, these MPOW wired headphones have the excellent feature of limiting volume to safe levels. Another fine option is any “gaming” headset. These are designed for hours of comfortable wear by video gamers and include a microphone for talking to other players.
- Wireless mouse – Amazon Basics makes this simple, inexpensive one. A USB dongle stays stored in the mouse when you aren’t using it, but they are so small that I usually just leave it plugged into my computer.
Looking for distance-learning support? Contact me for a consultation to discuss how 1:1 or small-group tutoring can help your child succeed this year!
Chromebook – affordable, simple, fewer features
Chromebooks are popular in schools because they are simple to use (no software to install or troubleshoot) and inexpensive. However, they also have a reputation for being slow and clunky. They could be a great choice to get you through this year of distance learning, and then become the family’s homework computer or backup device.
Some of the newer ones are finding an audience with people who want a lightweight, simple device for travel or working on the road. Their biggest weakness is that they require an internet connection to get many things done, but so do many of the distance learning lessons schools are offering, so that may be a moot point. You can, however, write in a Google document (or spreadsheet or slide presentation) offline and sync to your Google Drive account when you reconnect. This can be a great option for procrastinators, like those of us who need to use airplane mode to write a blog post, for example…
Here are some Chromebooks that would get the job done, and a few other things to think about:
- Samsung Chromebook Plus – This 2-in-1 Chromebook flips all the way open to double as a tablet. More expensive than some of the basic laptops but having a touchscreen might be worth it for younger learners who aren’t as deft with the mouse or touchpad. You could also try out a renewed (open box or refurbished) one from Amazon for quite a bit less
- Asus Chromebook C523 – This Chromebook from Asus has a 15.6” screen, which is the size I prefer for tutoring, blogging, and heavy-duty writing. It’s plenty big enough for what your kids need for school. This one lacks a touchscreen, which brings the price down.
So what’s the downside of Chromebooks?
Chromebooks sometimes get a bad rap, and they’re not my favorite device for online tutoring. Students using one can’t take remote control of my mouse during a Zoom meeting, which means I have to use some workarounds to make lessons interactive for them.
Older Chromebooks are also known for freezing in Zoom sessions, and for video and audio lag. I think the problem is less the Chrome operating system and more that older Chromebooks were built to be cheap, so they are underpowered.
The big downfall of Chromebooks is they are not as flexible or fully-featured as Windows or Apple computers. They are designed to run web-based applications, anything that can be used in the Chrome browser. Like all computers, newer Chromebooks have more RAM and better processors than older computers. That means they can handle more processes at a time and hold more information at the ready.
So while older Chromebooks can slow down and freeze up when doing demanding work like a video conference with screen sharing, newer Chromebooks can handle that load better.
Tablets – portable but less flexible
A tablet can be better if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a younger learner. The touchscreen is often more intuitive than a keyboard. Some web-based games and apps may not work as well on tablets, but on the other hand, the world of apps opens up so many possibilities. A tablet would not be my first choice for distance learning for an older student (third grade and up). But it may work if you need to choose a device for distance learning for a child in the primary grades.
The available apps in the Apple App store make the iPad an easier, more flexible choice among the tablets available. Those features come at a price. But with a case and keyboard, the iPad can be a great tool for academic work, including distance learning. Features are a bit more limited for video conferencing on an iPad. For example, if a teacher shares lesson material in Zoom, a student using an iPad can’t see the teacher’s video and the shared screen at the same time. On a newer iPad, students are able to accept remote control of the host’s screen to click and drag objects, but it can be a little finicky.
Android tablets are getting better, with more apps available every day in the Google Play app store. For distance learning, they are adequate for video conferencing, using Zoom or Google Meet. In Zoom, they can annotate on the screen but not take full control of the host’s mouse. They work better as a secondary device in a Zoom meeting. You can use a tablet as a document camera or for viewing the video meeting only while students work on paper or another device. This tablet from Samsung is a great choice if you decide to go the tablet route.
Kindle Fire – A Kindle Fire tablet only runs apps from the Amazon app store, so it’s more limited than Android or Apple tablets. However, a Fire can be a great, lower-priced option for reading, web browsing, games and media. It is not a great choice for distance learning because of the limited choice of apps.
There’s no one right answer
When it’s time to choose a device for distance learning, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Older students, in middle school or high school, are more likely to need specialized software downloaded onto a Mac or Windows laptop. Younger students might be overwhelmed by all the options on a laptop and find the simpler, less fully-featured, Chromebook an easier tool. The youngest students may find the keyboard difficult and they might be more successful with a tablet, but that’s a tool that won’t necessarily grow with them as school expectations increase. Ultimately, you know your child best, but I hope this guide will give you some options to consider!