• Carrie S. Cutler

Tips for Spaces and Tech that Make Online Learning a Snap

I was recently interviewed by Reform Austin for a piece entitled, "Get Kids Ready for Online Learning." The article focused on choosing tech for online learning. In this blog post, I add on to those ideas with suggestions for setting up at-home learning spaces.


Being prepared is half the battle.


As a mom and educator, I’m eager to tackle some of the challenges associated with online learning. While I can’t control the lack of face-to-face experiences for my kids, I can work to make the experience as stress-free as possible by being prepared for online learning this fall.


Tech Dress Rehearsal: A few days before school started, we did a dress rehearsal. We set up a Zoom call to check the webcams, microphones, headphones, and connectivity of all our devices. We Zoom-ed in our adults kids who are in college, too.



Computers: Google Chromebooks and traditional laptops work well for students in high school and junior high, but a desktop computer may be sturdier and easier to navigate for elementary and preschool-age kids. While a webcam and microphone are standard on laptops and most new Chromebooks, a desktop will probably need these if your child is expected to log on and participate in synchronous instruction. Think about the mouse your child will use, too. Your child may work more efficiently with an external mouse rather than the mouse pad on a laptop or notebook. And consider going with an old school wired mouse since the wireless type required Bluetooth connection or a USB that can be easily lost. And if internet is being taxed, having a wired mouse means one fewer device on the Wi-Fi.

Printing and Scanning: Stock up on printer paper and ink so that your child can print out and work problems using paper and pencil (handwritten) methods if desired. Most printers have a built-in scanner. If you haven’t yet, downloading the appropriate software and learning to use the scanner will save time and frustration later. Find out if taking a photo is acceptable to teachers as this is much quicker than scanning and attaching the file to an email.

Organizing Your Child’s Work: Kids will be submitting their work online via the school's online portal such as See Saw, Canvas, or Blackboard. Saving (storing in a computer file or online) their work is a good back-up practice. Organizing computer file folders makes it easy to find things, if needed. I started out using my child's name and subject as the folder names but soon found that too cumbersome. Remember, I have 6 kids learning from home. So, I limited the number of folders and told the kids to be very specific about the assignment title when they save it in the computer. If they need to find those files later, they can sift through by the title of document.

Headphones and Headsets: With lots of kids in the house, background noise is a real issue during online meetings, making headphones a must. Regular wired or wireless headphones kids use to listen to music work fine if your child won’t be talking during a class meeting--if they’re watching a video asynchronously, for example. I find that my kids can focus better when they’re wearing headphones. Having a good headset with a microphone cuts down on annoying background noise during synchronous online instruction and meetings. A lot of teens already have a headset for gaming. Most of these can be used for computers as well. Check to see if they’re compatible. I like my Logitech USB Headset H340. The headset is adjustable down to an elementary-age child’s size, and the microphone is short so it works well for kids. Note that some headsets must be plugged in via USB, so they don’t work on smart phones.

Internet Access and Speed: You will be downloading a lot of videos, pdf files, and apps. Check with your internet provider to determine if you have the best/cheapest/fastest-for-the-money plan for your needs. A lot of companies are offering COVID specials right now. If internet at home is spotty or otherwise problematic, check for local accommodations like libraries, the YMCA, cafes, or school parking lots that are broadcasting Wi-Fi for free.

Internet Safety: Prior to the start of school, have a conversation with your children about online safety. Tips for talking to your child about privacy, cyber-bullying and internet predators can be found at www.connectsafely.org. Check in with your children often to make sure they are practicing safe online behavior.


Setting Up the Learning Space: We have found that spreading our kids out throughout the house rather than crowding around one table limits distractions and gives them personal space for learning. The photo above shows our 7-year-old son Quinn's spot. He likes to look out the window as he works. (Yes, I need new blinds or maybe if I wait another 15 years vertical blinds will come back in style.) I posted Quinn's class Zoom meeting schedule and login information on his cork board so he can be as independent as possible. Below you see 9-year-old McGregor's spot. He chose a Christmas tablecloth to brighten the mood.




Old-School School Supplies: You’ll still need some traditional necessities like paper, pencils, pens, crayons or colored pencils, glue, scissors, and binders (one for each subject or one binder with subject-area dividers). Stay organized with a bin or special place for each child to keep their supplies. Some schools will be checking out textbooks to the students, so make sure those are kept in a safe spot until they must be returned.

Final thoughts: The best tool you can provide your kids this fall doesn’t require batteries, the internet, or recharging—it’s you! Kids take many of their cues about attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors from the adults who care for them—mainly parents and teachers. So, speak positively about school despite all the challenges we’re facing right now. Talk nice about teachers who are working their tails off for your kiddos. Encourage your children to work hard even when things are tough. Don’t become frustrated by technology; ask for help. Most of all, be your children’s cheerleader.


Years from now, they may not remember all the school lessons from this difficult time, but they will remember how they felt—cared for, supported, encouraged, and loved.



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Carrie Cutler

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