How to create an A+ space for learning at home

If you’re a parent of one of the estimated 57 million U.S. students returning to elementary, middle or high school, they might be learning from home – at least to start – to help quell the spread of COVID-19.

University and community college students may be in a similar situation.

For many, transitioning from in-class lessons to at-home education could be an overwhelming shift. But to optimize remote (or “virtual”) learning, there are smart tech tools and simple tips to creating an effective setup.

And hey, mom or dad may also be working from home, and so a more efficient and organized household will likely be a happier and productive one.

Here, we look at several helpful suggestions to getting the most out of a student’s school space at home.

Even if you own a laptop, picking up an external monitor isn’t a bad idea to give you a bigger display, and multitask easier, and let you pivot in various ways.
Even if you own a laptop, picking up an external monitor isn’t a bad idea to give you a bigger display, and multitask easier, and let you pivot in various ways.

Create a good workspace

Every home is different, naturally, and so students need to find a spot that works best for them. But it’s recommended to create a dedicated place to study rather than reclining on a sofa with a laptop, in front of the TV, or while sitting up in bed. Having your own work area — with good lighting, a comfortable desk or table, and with a closed door (space permitting) — should all help keep kids in the mental zone for school, and free from everyday distractions.

If a lack of space means you must “integrate” into the household instead of “segregate,” try to find a spot that’s quiet and comfortable, and perhaps consider noise-cancelling headphones if siblings (and parents) are also working under one roof.

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Essential gear

Arguably your most important tool is a computer. You may not need to buy a new one for a student, as most school-related applications – collaboration tools, word processing, web browsing, and such – shouldn’t require a lot of horsepower. That said, older PCs and Macs will take longer to boot up, run applications slower, and may not be conducive for multitasking effectively (see computer upgrade options below).

If your computer doesn’t have an integrated webcam for video conferencing, you can pick up an inexpensive external one online that plugs into an available USB port. Some students use their smartphone, which has a camera, for video calling into a classroom.

If you do a lot of talking, a handsfree microphone headset is recommended for convenience, sound quality, and comfort.

Students should consider ‘ergonomics’ when using your tech at home all day, as you want to minimize wear and tear on your body. Wireless keyboards and mice are a good idea, to position them however you like on a desk or table.
Students should consider ‘ergonomics’ when using your tech at home all day, as you want to minimize wear and tear on your body. Wireless keyboards and mice are a good idea, to position them however you like on a desk or table.

Upgrade options

Should you need to buy a computer, at least there are several back-to-school deals to take advantage of. You’ll need to decide on an operating system (Windows, Mac or Chrome), form factor (laptop or desktop), brand, and what technical specs (specifications) you need.

With operating system, stick to what you’re used to, but take the time to find out what platform the school would prefer you to be on (a curriculum may dictate what kind of device you need). On form factor, a laptop is portable, which can be easily moved around the home, but a desktop has a bigger monitor and keyboard, and you can upgrade components over time, if desired (such as a better video card or more storage).

When it comes to choosing a processor, the engine that drives your computer’s performance, try to buy a little more than you think you need today, so you can grow into it (and not have to upgrade so often). In other words, if your school suggests a machine with an Intel Core i5 processor, stretch a little further, if you can, and pick up a beefier Core i7 processor, to futureproof your investment.

On brand, stick to a company you’ve had a good experience with or ask a friend; ask the retail or online store what their return policy is like in case you don’t like what you bought.

Laptops extras

You can turn a laptop into a full workstation. That is, don’t forget you can attach a more comfortable keyboard to a laptop (yes, even though it already has one), which would have larger keys and allow you to position it however you like on a desk or table.

Similarly, you need not be stuck squinting into a small 13- to 15-inch monitor as you can add an external one, if you like, to the laptop’s HDMI, USB-C or VGA port.

And an external mouse – opposed to a laptop’s built-in trackpad – is recommended for ergonomic reasons. Some mice are wireless, while others will need to be plugged into an available USB port. Running out of USB ports? You can pick up a “hub” that lets you plug several devices into one USB port.

The downside to newer – and thinner laptops – is the decline in ports, and so hubs like this Satechi model lets you connect many devices to your USB-C laptop.
The downside to newer – and thinner laptops – is the decline in ports, and so hubs like this Satechi model lets you connect many devices to your USB-C laptop.

Dual monitor setup

If you have the room on your desk, falling monitor prices have spurred an increase in dual monitors. Students studying graphic design, video editing or animation have long used two monitors – one for their “palette” and the other for their “canvas” — but we’re starting to see all kinds of students adopt two monitors for a boost in productivity.

For example, some like this setup for added convenience, such as having a web browser open on one screen while working on a document on the other. In case you’ve never sat in front of two monitors, when you swipe your mouse across one screen and towards the second, the mouse cursor continues onto the second monitor after it reaches the edge of the first. Make sure your computer supports dual monitors.

Other monitor options

Speaking of monitors, some savvy workers have used a device they likely have in their home, such as a tablet or a spare television, as a second monitor. There are pros and cons, of course. For instance, apps like Duet Display and Air Display 3 (both $10) turn your iPad into a second monitor.

While not quite as good, there is also a free tool called Splashtop Wired XDisplay for Windows and Macs, which also works with Android devices.

As for using a television, if your laptop or desktop has a HDMI port, you can connect it to a TV, sure, but unless it’s a 4K TV it might be a little hard on your eyes to read text clearly when so close to it — and if it’s an older TV it might not render motion smoothly. It doesn’t hurt to give it a try, though.

Wi-Fi tips, and security too

You’ll want strong and reliable Wi-Fi when schooling from home. You might need to move a little closer to the router or install a “mesh” system to broaden the range of wireless Internet in your home (especially for larger or older homes, with, say, concrete walls). If you’re working near the modem, a wired connection is more ideal – for better speed and reliability – so you may be able to plug an Ethernet cable into your laptop or desktop.

Finally, it’s incredibly important to protect your schoolwork, and other files, from various threats. Sure, you may have all your files in the cloud, like on Google Docs or OneDrive, but it doesn’t hurt to back up your important work on a regular basis – and an offline solution, like an external hard drive or USB stick, can minimize the damage if hit with a cyberattack, hard drive malfunction, power surge, and other threats.

Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at https://marcsaltzman.com/podcasts.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Back to school: Tips to creating an A+ space for learning at home

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