If you’re like many of the millions of American parents who have been directly affected by the Global COVID-19 Pandemic beginning in the United States around early 2020, then you understand the challenges and frustrations that have invariably come with remote learning for your kids.
Virtually, in the blink of an eye, parents went from breadwinners and caregivers to homeschoolers and the resident IT help desk.
The latter being no easy chore even for actual IT professionals!
When the pandemic first hit here in The Bay State, schools immediately closed. In my family’s town, it was on Friday, March 13th.
First, there was two weeks off for kids as the school system attempted to figure out how to go forward with a remote learning model that had not existed in any appreciable form before for the grade schoolers.
Needless to say, it was a bit of an expected technical challenge.
Most of the work assigned to our kids were in the form of review material with no appreciable new materials being taught.
Couple that with technological challenges almost equal to the quest of how to lockdown that states, test, trace, and develop a vaccine all to fight COVID-19. As well as, Congress figuring out a way to help small businesses and individuals alike with some form of comprehensive COVID relief package.
So many things were happening at once.
And providing some kind of technology equity for lower-income students to have both Internet bandwidth along with a working Internet-capable computer (most likely a Chromebook laptop) was also part of that challenge. This was because it quickly became evident that students were going to be staying home and learning remotely—to the end of 2020, and most likely hybrid (remote and in-person combo) until the end of the 2021 school year (i.e. around June 2021).
However, this post is not going to focus on any of the political and social challenges that came with the quarantining of America, and its subsequent reopening.
And, right now we’re still in the midst of remote learning for millions of school children all across America, while we all wait our turn to get vaccinated.
Needless to say, that as a parent myself, I’ve been tasked with much of the IT-related work to help my kid navigate a complex system of remote learning resources, upload work, attend virtual classes, improve the home’s Wi-Fi network, and deal with tech-related snafus that happen en masse.
Fortunately, I have the benefit of having been an IT professional in another life back in the late nineties and early aughts before I became a professional digital content marketing writer.
Now, that IT experience has come back into play as I help my child get the most out of her remote learning responsibilities and try to achieve equity with her peers who are attending hybrid classes right now.
So, during this time, I have picked up a few tips and tricks that might help other parents out there who are struggling with keeping their kids’ remote learning tech up and running smoothly until vaccination day and a return to President Biden’s in-person school initiative.
Let’s start with some stats:
- Nearly 93% of people in households with school-age children reported their children engaged in some form of “distance learning” from home but lower-income households were less likely to rely on online resources.1
- From May 28 to June 2, when many school districts across the country are normally in session, 80% of people living with children distance learning reported the children were using online resources.2
- A survey of 1,500 U.S. families by advocacy group ParentsTogether released in late May found 83% of children in families in the highest income quartile were logging in to distance learning every day. Just 3.7% of those families reported their children were participating in distance learning once a week or less, compared with 38% of students from families in the lowest income quartile.3
- Special needs students in grades three through eight will return to school (after the 2020 summer) with roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading and less than 50% of the learning gains in math compared with a typical year.4
- “Remote learning is not the same as online learning,” cites Aroutis Foster, PhD, a professor of learning technologies at Drexel University. True online learning happens on digital platforms designed for that purpose, often with personalized content for each student and options to use their choice of digital tools. “Online learning facilitates different types of learning preferences, provides learner flexibility and uses online quality metrics,” Foster says. But for many students, distance learning during COVID-19 included none of those features, and instead involved tuning in at a set time to listen to teachers lecture on Zoom or Google Meet.5
And it is that last point where the Tech Tips & Tricks begin.
Right now, my child’s school district is utilizing a combination of Google Classroom and Zoom (two prominent SaaS platforms on the market) to carry out most of the class meetings, assignments, and communications.
There’s also a plethora of third-party websites and apps that are also being utilized for specific classes such as: Epic! Creations or simply Epic! (for reading resources), Edulastic (for Math practice and assessments), Señor Wooly (for Spanish learning), Gizmos (for virtual lab experiments), and a host of others.
I’m not going to delve into these additional resources as they are extensive and there’s a lot of instructional material available online about them already.
And the reason being, is that I have learned a few lessons along the way to hopefully make life a little easier for all of you harried parents out there trying to work and school your kids remotely.
Tip #1 — Wi-Fi vs Ethernet
If you’re like me, most of your home’s Internet activity is done via Wi-Fi (or wifi). Here’s a quick list of what devices we’re running on our network:
- 3 x iPhone 11s
- 1 x iPad Air 4th Generation
- 2 x Dell Laptops (1 x Windows 10, 1 x Chromebook)
- 1 x Mac mini
- 1 x Apple TV4K
- 1 x Nintendo Switch
- 1 x Sony Blu-Ray Player (very rarely used nowadays with video streaming being the main source of entertainment)
- And, 1 x Windows 10 Gaming Computer
That’s quite a lot for one home WiFi network!
And we have a whopping 300MBs per/second download speed through Xfinity.
Of course that’s 300MBs from the ISP to the wifi router. From the router to the devices its more like 50MBs (divided among them). Don’t be fooled by those speed-tests that tell you your Internet is blazingly fast.
So, you can imagine with all that load on the home wifi, something’s gotta give.
And that something is usually Google Classroom, and especially Zoom meetings—just when you need them the most.
So here’s the tip—actually two tips in one:
Get an ethernet adapter for your kid’s school-issued Chromebook and hardwire connect it to the wifi router. They are relatively inexpensive. This will save you a lot of aggravation from trying to configure your wifi router’s settings to optimize that wireless bandwidth when you really have no idea what you’re doing!
Of course, you could always spend a fortune on a Multi-Band WiFi Router but is that really necessary? Maybe, if you have more than one child doing remote learning and lots of other wifi activities. But I’m guessing that you came here to save both time and money.
The other option would be to simply turn off all wifi-dependent devices except the kid’s Chromebook during school hours.
For my family, that’s not a big deal. My Mac mini is always ethernet connected to the router, and we have a fairly fast 4G network with unlimited data for our iPhones. All the other devices are usually turned off or in sleep mode.
Plus, we have a xFi Pod range extender in the same room as the Chromebook, which helps boost the general connectivity to the router. And at $120+ that’s enough home network large expense for my family right now.
The ethernet adapter has been effective when it comes to Zoom meetings for work, hardwiring the Dell Laptop. This solution could work well for you if the wifi connection is just too glitchy otherwise.
When you get the adapter (like the one pictured above), you can connect the USB-C end to the USB-C port on the Chromebook, run a Cat 6 (or greater) ethernet cable from the back of your wifi router to the other end of the ethernet adapter.
Then simply go into the Chromebook settings and turn off the wifi. The Chromebook should be able to automatically connect to the Internet via the ether connection.
And super stable!
Tip #2 — Uploading Your Kid’s Work — 3 Methods
Okay, you’re going to love this one!
So, the teacher will create an assignment in Google Classroom that requires the completion of a Google Doc/Slide with your kid’s name and the name of the assignment on it for the file name.
This is usually automatically generated and directly uploaded to that particular assignment.
A lot of times however, an image of something that the child creates or fills out has to be taken and then added into the Doc/Slide.
One thing to note, which would make this process super easy, is that the school-issued Chromebook and the school-issued student email address and the school’s Google Classroom domain are CLOSED SYSTEMS. Meaning that you cannot email or share files from outside that system. This is meant to protect the children from online predators and such.
However, just imagine how easy it would be for the parent to take pic, quickly upload it to their Google Drive, then share the file with the child’s Google Drive. Done!
But that’s not doable at this time for obvious security and safety reasons.
Here are a 3 methods to do that in varying degrees of difficulty:
- The Google Classroom App: This is by far the simplest (even more simple than #2). Download the app to yours or your kid’s smartphone (which usually has the best digital camera in the house anyway), or any camera-enabled mobile device, snap the pic, log into Google Classroom via the app, navigate to the class and the assignment, open the aforementioned doc/slide there and insert the image. Done.
- Taking a pic with the Chromebook: This is not as easy as it sounds. The reason being is that the usually inexpensive school-issued Chromebook has a very poor integrated digital camera/webcam. This is perfectly fine for Zoom and Google Meet meetings. However, when snapping a pic of say a math worksheet two undesirable results occur:
- The image is of such poor resolution and lighting that the teacher can barely see the actual work on the sheet, if not at all.
- Just try to figure out how you can take a “selfie” of the worksheet while holding it up, keeping it steady, having it obscure the camera so you cannot properly see if its lined up, and hit the shutter button at the same time! It’s so not easy. And sometimes it just doesn’t take no matter how many times you try.
- But, if there’s no other choice, then get your kid to help hold the worksheet while you hit the shutter button. And remember to put the light source behind the Chromebook not in front of it when taking the pic.
- Using a USB flash drive: This method is really cumbersome! However, if for some reason you cannot run the Google Classroom app on your mobile device, and taking a still with the Chromebook is not working, then this might be your only hope. Observe:
- Use your smartphone or a digital camera to take a good image of the worksheet (or object to be inserted).
- Upload that image to your computer either by synching the device with it or emailing it to yourself [you can also use Apple’s AirDrop if you’re using iPhones and Macs].
- Insert a run-of-the-mill USB flash drive into your computer.
- Drag the image file on to the USB flash drive’s file window.
- Eject the USB flash drive and take it over your child’s Chromebook and insert it.
- Navigate to the aforementioned assignment and doc/slide and proceed to insert the file image from its location on the USB flash drive.
- Note: this method presupposes that you know how to both navigate file systems on different types of computers and how to locate the specific image file—and that you have a spare USB flash drive ready. Like I said, it’s very, very cumbersome but if there’s no other choice then go for it.
Tip #3 — Give Your Chromebook a Good Old Fashioned Powerwash
Back in the day, we Mac users would occasionally have to “zap the PRAM” (i.e. Perimeter RAM) in order to get a glitchy Mac to function properly (primarily on startup but for other issues as well).
Well, those days for the Mac have all but past, but not for Chromebooks.
Powerwashing is pretty much the same as zapping the PRAM on a Mac. It can clear up a host of technical issues—especially when enrolling into proprietary domains such as a school’s Google Classroom environment.
Essentially, you are resetting the Chromebook back to its factory settings. Don’t worry, aside from a few specific customizations, all of your documents, bookmarks, and backgrounds should still be there—it’s all in the Cloud. If there are more than one user on the Chromebook (which there shouldn’t be if it is a school-issued device), you’ll probably have to add their accounts back onto the Chromebook, then after you log back into Google on the home screen, it should be as it was—albeit a better operating version of it.
Method #1: The step-by-step process is as follows:
- Press the Esc + Refresh + Power keys. The screen should go black.
- At the next popup screen with an exclamation mark, press Ctrl + D keys.
- A new screen will come up asking you to press Enter to reboot the computer.
- When the turn off OS Verification screen comes up, hit the Space bar.
- A new screen comes up with a red exclamation mark, hit Enter.
- The OS Verification is turned back on, and then the Chromebook will reboot.
- Once it’s booted back up, you will be prompted to choose a wifi network.
- And if all goes well, you should be back to the home screen where you can log back into Google.
There are two other methods worth mentioning as well—the one above is for catastrophic freezes that nothing else will get it back to normal operations.
Method #2: Use the Google Chrome browser’s settings to initiate a Powerwash.
Simply go to the Settings page on Chrome, scroll down to Advanced and click, then scroll down to the Reset option and select Powerwash. The Chromebook will ask you to restart the device. Restart it. Then it will do the Powerwash all on its own until you get to Step #7 above.
Method #3: Use the Login Screen to start a Powerwash. This is done by first restarting the Chromebook (you know how to do that). Then on the Login Screen press Shift + Ctrl + Alt + R. When prompted to restart…restart. After the restart, a new window will appear asking you to Powerwash the Chromebook. Click Powerwash and then Continue. Done.
And that’s it!
Hopefully, you child’s Chromebook will be back to normal or you could try Method #4: Call the School!
Tip #4 — Peripherals, Peripherals, Peripherals
And finally, let’s discuss something that might make both your kids’ and your life a little easier: Peripherals for the Chromebook.
Now the school will most definitely not buy or loan out any peripherals such as an external monitor, a mouse, a printer, or a keyboard. However, chances are you already have these lying around your house—especially if you’re a remote worker right now during The Pandemic.
Recent Chromebooks should have at least one, maybe more, USB-C ports. These come in handy for all sorts of stuff.
Let’s look at three schoolwork scenarios and how to optimize them with a peripheral.
Drawing in Google Apps
One of the recent assignments for my child was an art project in Google Slide where she had to overlay shapes on top of a picture of a dog, then remove the dog and only the overlay would remain.
You can imagine how eye-straining this project was using the Chromebook’s little laptop screen (13 inches at best).
This was a maddening exercise that caused my daughter quite a headache.
I surmised that it’s probably the little screen that’s hurting her eyes.
The solution was simple: get a bigger screen!
This was accomplished using a USB-C to HDMI adapter and then connecting her Chromebook to our HDTV via one of the 4 HDMI inputs it has.
The end result was a much easier-on-the-eyes experience as she completed the assignment.
Once you do the physical connection there is a button on the Chromebook that looks like this:
This same key can be used for taking a screenshot (like the Shift + Cmd + 3 key combo on a Mac, or the Alt + PrintScreen key combo on a Windows computer), i.e. Ctrl + SwitchWindows.
However, when connecting the Chromebook up to an external monitor, this key will allow you have more than one virtual desktop—meaning the laptop’s screen and your huge TV. With a little creativity, you can move Chrome (and docs, slides, etc.) on to the HDTV and use that as your main desktop.
You can then close the Chromebook and solely use the HDTV as your monitor.
You can also use Chrome’s Settings to extend your Chromebook’s primary desktop onto the external monitor.
Trust me, it makes those meticulous drawing projects in Google Classroom a heck of a lot easier!
Use a Mouse for All of Google Classroom!
This may sound super simple but believe me when I tell you that using a mouse is a time-saver and a life-saver.
That little click-touchpad on the Chromebook is a bear to use—especially with scrolling and precise selecting and context menus.
Seriously, a mouse should be a standard accoutrement with a school-issued Chromebook.
But it usually is not.
However, for a few dollars you can get a reliable USB dongled RF (i.e. Radio Frequency) mouse that will always, always work!
Forget Bluetooth mice. Even though a Chromebook can use one, they never seem to stay paired and reliable.
As much as I love Bluetooth devices, I find that really only the more expensive and advanced ones actually work as they are billed to do so.
This method is pretty simple: attach the little USB-3/C dongle that the mouse comes with to an open USB-3/C port (Chromebooks will definitely have 1 or 2 of these), turn on mouse, and use.
It’s that simple, but once your kid starts using a mouse on the Chromebook, they will never want to use the click-touchpad ever again!
When You Just Gotta Print
The dream of the “paperless office” or “paperless classroom” is still not there, believe it or not!
We’re pretty close to those days but sometimes there is just no getting around it: you have to print something for your kid’s schoolwork.
Sometimes it’s a math worksheet, sometimes it’s a drawing outline, sometimes it’s a study guide for an upcoming quiz; regardless of what it may be, you have to connect that Chromebook to a printer—wirelessly most likely.
Now this can get really complicated but I’m going to only address one particular challenge on how to set up a Chromebook to print.
Usually, you can do this through Chrome’s Settings under Advanced-Printers-Add Printer.
If you’re wireless printer is on and on your home network, the Chromebook should find it. Then simply add it.
But sometimes, it doesn’t—especially with older wireless printers.
And that’s when you have to get “technical.”
Here’s what you do:
- When you get to the Add Printer option, you will see some fields you can populate to manually add the printer.
- Give the printer a Name.
- Then you need to add the Address of the printer. This is the IP address of the printer. You will get this address from the printer itself. There should be a way to display or print a configuration page of the printer that will include the IPV4 address, which will look something like this: 192.168.256.27 (not these exact numbers but in the same configuration of ###.###.###.###). Refer to the printer’s manual or website to find out how to do this.
- Leave the other fields alone.
- Hit Add and you should be all set!
As for an external keyboard, the Chromebook’s is sufficient for kids’ little hands but you could get an external one that uses the same method as the aforementioned mouse.
And that’s it!
Hopefully, these Tech Tips & Tricks will help all of you working IT homeschooling parents get your kids through some of the technical challenges as they continue to remote learn and attend virtual school for now.
Stay safe, and remember to get you and your family vaccinated as soon as possible so that we can reach enough herd immunity so the kids can safely get back to in-person school this fall!