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  • Michael R Sheehan

Parents Guide - Online Learning at Home


How a Parent Can Get Their Kid Set For Success


Things certainly have changed since last school year. Masks, nasal swabs, social distancing, which is hard enough on adults, let alone children, and the breakdown of many of our familiar patterns, habits, and daily duties. Most of us now look back fondly on tasks that last year were drudgery.


One of the most significant changes to our society has been made plain by the advent of the school year. In 2020 the focus is not on back-to-school clothes, or homecoming, or even drop-off & pick-up, instead we are all trying to master the home wi-fi so that the web meeting that is third grade does not crash, the signals don’t drop, and you are able to work from home while your fourth grader recites fractions on the other side of the table.


As many parents are experiencing issues with remote learning for their children, failure of their home technology should not be one of them. There are a number of ways you can improve the school technology experience at home without breaking the bank, as well as working beyond the capabilities of a school-issued Chromebook, for those who got one.


BUYING A USED SYSTEM


One of the questions that I often get, but got a lot more this summer was “What laptop or PC do I buy my kid at Best Buy for school?” My response was the same every time, don’t.


I tell them all, “Go on eBay or other re-sale sites and look at used corporate laptops from a few years ago.”


In almost all cases they were stunned by the answer as well as my follow up statement: “You can save a lot of money and end up with better tech.”


Companies like HP, Dell and Lenovo have very different designs and manufacturing standards with their corporate line of equipment than they do for the home market.

I recommend the Lenovo ThinkPad line over every other manufacturer. Lenovo owns 25% of world sales of PCs and 50% of Lenovo sales are to corporate organizations.

There are two main points that makes used Lenovo laptops appealing to parents. First, the market for used Lenovo ThinkPads is overflowing with hardware. There is no money to be made here for resellers, there are simply too many systems. This makes them extremely appealing to parents because they are CHEAP! You can pick up a formerly leased corporate ThinkPad on eBay for less than $200 that was almost $2,000 when sold new.

The second point is that, due to the sheer size of the ThinkPad market in the corporate world, replacement parts are also very low cost and very easy to obtain. Corporate IT departments are under great demand to make sure that a defective unit gets back into its owner’s hands as soon as possible. So, replacement keyboards, screens and batteries can be found almost everywhere online, and for very little money. Replacing a keyboard on a ThinkPad has easy to follow instructions and can be performed by anyone who has ever put children’s toys together.


When shopping for a used ThinkPad you will find many of them don’t come with a hard drive. This is to be expected as many companies will keep the hard drives for security and compliance reasons.

Once again, this is a quick fix. In most cases you can purchase an inexpensive hard drive from Amazon and install it yourself. I personally recommend the various SSD models from Microcenter. These are cheap and functional drives, great value for the kids.


GETTING WINDOWS 10


For most families out there, I strongly recommend running Windows 10 over Chrome OS. The first response to this is almost always “But my kid needs Chromebook and ChromeOS for school!” This is simply not true, and we will get into the details of that a little later. First, let’s focus on Windows 10.


Microsoft has made it pretty easy to get Windows 10 onto computers these days. If you have an existing Windows 10 system, then all you need is a USB Stick of 32GB or higher and Windows 10 OS Installer which you can find here. The installer will place Windows 10 on the USB stick to install on your used ThinkPad for you. No more trying to figure ways to get the install files on the hardware. Just plug the USB stick into the ThinkPad, boot it up and follow the directions. All the hard work is done by the installer, you will only be asked to install things like Maps and user account creation.

Do you have to pay for Windows 10? Yes, but there ARE options.


First, in many cases your local school may have an educational account with Microsoft to purchase low cost student licenses. As this machine is for your child in school, that license should apply. To find out, please contact your local school representative or School Committee member.


A second option is to contact your IT Administrator at work, if one is available. Many times corporations setup a take home agreement with Microsoft when they negotiate enterprise licensing agreements. It is very possible you can get Windows 10 for free or at a discounted rate.


There is another option to use as well, operate Windows 10 without purchasing it. I am not speaking about borrowing a license from your IT buddy or stealing one from online. I am saying that it is possible to run Windows 10 without payment and activation. Microsoft has made changes to Windows OS to allow it to operate for years without actually purchasing it.


This does lead to a few challenges. First, you will have an ACTIVATE WINDOWS Watermark on all your displays along with constant notifications to register it with Microsoft. Second, certain personal features on Windows 10 will be disabled. This will include custom desktop wall papers and color themes. If you can live with the messages and without customized options then feel free to use Windows 10 without cost. Remember to thank Microsoft for that.


CHROME AND YOUR CHILD’S ONLINE CLASSES


I wish to dispel the largest myth about online schooling that is too often repeated; that you need a Chromebook for your child’s classes. This is simply not true. The two primary reasons schools leverage Chromebook are fairly simple: the low cost of the units and Google provides an excellent hosting platform for teachers to use.


That platform comes at a massive cost beyond dollars – productivity.


The minimalist, web browser-based OS of a Chromebook is only able to do so much regardless of what the commercials from Google say. They are prone to lagging, memory issues, and are unable to run other applications that run on the Windows desktop OS. One of the biggest hurdles is the Chromebook’s inability to use Microsoft Office. Microsoft has recently offered a scaled down version of Office for Chromebook, based on Office for Android phones. It will only allow downloads of apps from the Play Store, and lacks many of the features and abilities of standard Office. Therefore, if you want a working laptop that will function like a standard laptop, don’t get a Chromebook.


All you need is the Chrome Browser.


The Chrome browser is able to access 100% of your child’s school work, online classes and Zoom meetings that the Chromebook can. Plus, you have far more control with your own system on Windows 10 with Chrome browser than you would having a Chromebook in your home.

All you need is the school-issued user accounts for your child (which you should already have) and all third-party apps and links. Gather that together, spend a little time during setup for your kid to bookmark third party sites in Chrome browser and you are off to the races.


As for Google Classes, this operates the same way as it would on a Chromebook. Log into Google as your child with school provided credentials and you will see exactly the same interface in the Chrome browser as you would on a Chromebook.


GET A QUALITY MOUSE & PAD


Using an adult computer can sometimes be tricky for kids, whose hands are not yet sized for the dimensions of a standard keyboard. Track pads are difficult enough for adults to use, let alone children. Continued use can cause strain, and therefore pain, to kids, who will not want to continue. Additionally, your child will likely be using a mouse for the rest of their lives, so it pays to get them used to it now. I recommend the Logitech line of computer mice. They have a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, left & right-handed models, and some with special features. One size most definitely does not fit all, and Logitech recognizes this.


And along these same lines, you should get a mousepad for the mouse as well. It will protect the furniture, improve the functionality of the mouse, and its lifespan. Picking one out online with your child will help ensure that they not only love it, but they also think of it as their own special setup of school supplies, and will use it.


BEWARE THE SOUND AND FURY


Sound is a very important part of the school experience, even more so when your child is not present in the classroom itself. It can be very distracting to work from home (as we are all learning.) One of the best investments you can make for your child’s online education is a quality set of headphones.


Full Closed-back headphones will likely be your best bet, since they block out most of the distracting noises of siblings or the household, allowing your child to concentrate better. Many models have built-in microphones, so your child will not have to shout.

Buy headphones that have a 3.5 mm jack, these headphones can then be used on a wide variety of devices, including laptops and smart phones.


BONUS parenting tip: Get yourself a Y-shaped 3.5 mm adapter. This will allow you to jack your own headphones or headset into your child’s feed so you can hear what they are hearing, if you choose.


GO BEYOND THE BASICS


OK, we have covered the essential list of things you as a parent can provide that will improve your child’s online school experience. But we never stop at the basics, do we?


Let’s look at a few things that, if possible for you, will greatly enhance your child’s ability to treat home schooling like the schooling they are already familiar with.


A second screen. Seriously. Sites like eBay and other resale outlets are terrific places to locate monitors of all sizes and types, in every price range. The only technical note of importance you need keep in mind when shopping for a monitor is that it must have at least an IPS panel with 1080p display. IPS stands for In-Plane Switching, and it means that the liquid crystal inside the display is able to shift, depending on what is being displayed. This not only produces richer, fuller color and provides a wider viewing angle, it will also ease eyestrain when your child is staring at it all day. Their eyes will thank you. 1080p means that for every inch of real estate on the screen, there are 1080 pixels (dots) so it is a fairly high resolution.


A wireless keyboard. There are a lot of different keyboard types, styles, and functions, which means they can vary in price from super cheap to costing more than the laptop itself. If possible, purchase a “keyboard with system” to ensure that the mouse and keyboard both accept input from each other. This will help your child type in whatever position is most comfortable for them, and it will give the laptop keyboard a rest.


A Docking Station. If you followed the advice above and have a Lenovo laptop, docking stations are very cheap, around $20 or so. Be careful to purchase the docking station that fits the make and model of the laptop. Plug everything into the docking station (wireless keyboard, mouse, additional monitors, headset, printer, etc.) This will allow your child to take the laptop (and mouse) with them as they move around the house, then simply plug the laptop in to the dock to access all those devices.


A computer chair and/or standing desk option. You know your child better than anyone else. Some kids have so much energy they cannot sit still, so standing, and the ability to bounce, or move around to help concentration, may be the right option for your child. Some kids want to curl up and cozy their way through school. Some kids want to sit at a desk like they do in school. Whichever you choose, remember that your child’s posture and ergonomic comfort is just as import as that of an adult. A proper chair has back support, and is at the right height for your child’s arms to extend to the keyboard at a 90-degree angle when seated. Hunching, or raising their hands above the level of their elbows to type, will cause physical problems if left unattended.


Office 365 – Family Pack. Most schools will provide Office or Google Docs. If your school offers Google Docs, I recommend getting Office 365 as well. It is less than $100 per year, for up to 6 people, offers a terabyte (1,024 Gigabytes) of storage per person, as well as lots of templates to make assignments easier, the ability to share files & photos, location alerts on their phones, free tech support, and more.


Microsoft Family. This goes one step further than Office 365, it allows you to monitor their activity, set screen time limits, filter out adult content, setup rules on how their device performs, a family calendar, and even control the Xbox.


A FEW HIGHER-END NETWORK OPTIONS


Not all of the items in this section will be useful to every home situation. I include them here because improving your home network can benefit everyone, not just the kids. And sometimes it is not the hardware, it is in fact the network.

We have all seen the scenario where zoom meetings or online connection get dropped off for seemingly no reason. Then we (or your kids) have to go through the connection routines again, logging back in, or trying to catch up on what they missed. While sometimes it can be an issue with the laptop itself, often it is the router or wireless access point that is the cause of the problem. Multiple users can often draw more bandwidth than the WAP can handle.


Plus, smart devices in the home, like Alexa, or Siri, smart lights, and smart phones, and any other modern device that uses your home network also draws bandwidth for access.

WAPs – Wireless Access Points – are connected by Ethernet cable to your router, extending its reach, accessing the router’s signal and broadcasting it, wirelessly. Make sure that your router and WAP is MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple In, Multiple Out.)


Another way to extend the reach of your signal is using Mesh Network gear.


This gear allows you to extend the wi-fi reach, and can be found at lots of locations like Target, Amazon, and Wal-Mart. Some of these systems even allow you to use the power lines running through your house as a kind of antenna. It is called POWER LINE. It will NOT affect your power bill in any way.


Most wi-fi routers and systems today allow multiple configurations, like HOME and GUEST, or even allow dedicated networks on the same hardware. These are called virtual LANs (Local Area Network) or vLANs. If you create a vLAN for your children, it opens up a lot of options, like additional security, scheduled time on and offline, and the ability to use web filtering services, like Cisco’s Family Shield, which is FREE.


As parents, we strive to provide for our kids the best we possibly can.


Sometimes, Life throws us a curve ball, or several at once, and we must scramble to make the best of the situation. Remote schooling from home is considerably different from home-schooling, and parents who want what is best for their families, often do not have access to information outside their normal scope. It is my hope that you have found a measure of useful information here, and your efforts at providing a fully functioning home IT environment for your children’s learning is as successful as you want your kids to be.


Please download our Parent Friendly Guide to Online Learn at Home.


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Posted by Michael R Sheehan. Primary Consultant and Founder of ConaLogix LLC. Mike plays many rolls in life; Fractional CIO, IT Consultant, Industry Disruptor, Advisor and Technical Architect to a number of clients and companies. He is also a parent of three. Its the hardest job that he loves the most.


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