Remote learning: An online set-up for every budget

As we enter our third lockdown, and with schools shut for the foreseeable future, now is the time to review your child’s online set-up. Maybe you don’t have enough devices for the entire family and you’re looking for a low-cost option to see your child through until schools open again. Or perhaps your child already has an online setup but you want to see if there are any improvements you can make which will help boost your child’s learning.

This article will talk you through different options for every budget and explain key pieces of equipment and what features to look out for. If purchasing extra devices isn’t an option, this article will show you how to make the most of devices you may already have in the house to help your child. Even small changes can make a big difference to productivity and learning. 

What your child needs for an online lesson

Screen

If your child’s school is doing online lessons then your first requirement is a screen. Either a laptop or desktop is the best option as they have bigger screens than tablets. If buying a laptop is out of the question then a Chromebook can be a good alternative, with prices starting from £240.

Your next best option is a tablet. There are many tablets to choose from but the major feature you need to check when narrowing down your options is whether the tablet is compatible with the platform your child’s school uses for their online lessons. For example, most schools use either Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. An Amazon Fire tablet is a good budget tablet option. However, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams aren’t available on Amazon devices so you wouldn’t be able to use this device for online lessons. An Android tablet or an iPad would be better.

If a laptop, Chromebook or tablet isn’t on the cards perhaps you already have a device which can be used for online lessons. Microsoft Teams and Zoom can both be accessed on an Xbox or Playstation

Alternatively, although not entirely practical due to their small screen size, your child can use their smartphone. To try and make this more user friendly, you can connect  your child’s phone (or other devices such as a tablet) to your tv. If you have a smart tv your child can join the lesson on their phone and then mirror their phone onto the tv screen. Screen mirroring allows your child to display whatever is showing on their phone on the screen in real time. Alternatively, it’s possible to make a wired connection from your child’s phone to a tv screen or a monitor. Which cables and adapters you will need to do this will depend on your tv and phone.  

If none of the above are options for you, contact your child’s school to see how they can support you. The government has promised schools laptops to allocate to disadvantaged students (although many schools are yet to receive any). See if your school has any devices they can lend you or if there’s a scheme you can apply to. Some councils or charities have separate schemes to help students access online learning. If your child still can’t access online learning then the government has said pupils without digital devices can still go to school during lockdown. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, your child’s school may be able to provide you with resources such as printed booklets.

Headphones

If members of your family are sharing their work/learning space headphones are a great and inexpensive way of blocking out noise and potential distractions. Over ear headphones are the best option in this situation as they passively block sounds such as people talking (you don’t need to splash out on noise-cancelling headphones). 

Even if your child has a quiet space to work, a pair of headphones can help with their concentration. Putting on headphones can make them feel as if they’re in their own world. It may also help your child distinguish between ‘work mode’ and ‘relax mode’.

Important feature to look out for: If your child is taking part in online lessons then it’s important to buy a pair which has a built-in microphone so they can easily interact in lessons. Microphones positioned near the mouth are better than ones near your ear.

Devices to write on

One of the biggest struggles with learning remotely is how to complete tasks set by the teacher and send them back for marking. If your child’s teacher sends Word documents and you have a laptop then everything is quite straightforward. But what are your child’s options if they don’t have a laptop, or if their assignments require anything beyond typing out an answer?

Maybe someone in your household already has a touchscreen laptop in which case you can use a program such as OneNote and a stylus to write on documents. The only issue is writing on a vertical screen can be a bit of a pain.

The next option is a tablet and stylus with a note-taking app. When picking a note-taking app, a great feature to look out for is the ability to open PDFs and write on them. Your child can open any worksheets or tests with the app and fill them out using the stylus. Once complete, they simply save what they’ve done and send it back to the teacher. If your child has an iPad, Notability is a great app (£8.99) which we use with our online courses. 

A cheaper option (but one which requires your child to have a computer or laptop already) is a graphics tablet. Unlike a tablet with an online whiteboard, you can’t see what you’re writing on the tablet itself. Instead, you write on the tablet and what you write appears on your laptop screen. This can take a bit of getting used to but becomes very natural with time.

Don’t despair if buying another gadget isn’t an option for you. There are lots of document scanning apps which enable you to take pictures of documents and convert them into a PDF. This means your child can write an essay in their schoolbook or fill out a worksheet, take a picture of the pages using their app and combine them into a PDF to send to their teacher. We tested out a few and found Adobe Scan to be fast and straightforward to use. The PDF can be emailed to teachers as an attachment or a link and you don’t need an Adobe subscription to use the app or open/download the PDF.

Printing

Many households don’t have a printer. Maybe you rely on the printer at work, or your children have been printing anything important at school and bringing it home. If you’ve now found yourself short there are affordable options for printers (for example, we found printers at Argos from £29.99). When deciding on a printer don’t go by the price of the printer alone. You should also research how expensive the ink is as that will be your most expensive running cost. Sometimes printers are cheap but their ink is expensive. 

If buying a printer isn’t an option then don’t be afraid to contact your child’s school to see if there’s any way they can print documents for you to pick up. Or, you may be able to print cheaply at your local library


It’s important to remember that you don’t need to aspire to buy your child all of these devices or gadgets. A strategic investment can make a huge difference to your household so consider what you already have and what would best suit your family’s needs. For example, if you or your children are struggling to share a laptop or tablet but you don’t want to buy another device then a printer could be a good investment. The printer could be used to print worksheets etc which will enable your child to work without the device, leaving it free for someone else to use. This option also means your child will spend less time in front of a screen.

We hope this article has helped you to create or improve your child’s online set-up. Even small changes can make a big difference to productivity and learning. If you have any questions or have suggestions which we haven’t covered here please let us know in the comments below.

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