It’s showtime for school districts and how well they can implement distance learning classroom technology. In May, the CDC issued guidelines for reopening schools. These include adding physical barriers and table dividers in areas where it is difficult to maintain safe distances, and recommendations for schools to implement staggered schedules. Other hybrid models of education would see students attending school on campus on certain days or weeks, with some instruction done on a virtual basis while they are at home or at another remote location.
As coronavirus surges leading up to the start of the fall term, some districts are considering fully remote learning where students learn from off campus on a full-time basis. That might mean teachers are working from home as well and will need their own setups for remote instruction. Or teachers may return to schools and use equipment kept inside classrooms and labs.
As far as equipping students with technology, schools that have previously implemented a flipped learning or blended learning classroom approach have a running start at navigating the educational landscape during the pandemic. Making sure that teachers have the right equipment for the job ensures that they can prepare lessons designed specifically for part-time or full-time virtual learners. The better students and see and hear their instructors and collaborate with their classmates, the more engaged they will be. Let’s look at some of the equipment teachers will need to have success.
Laptops and Tablets for Educators
The Chromebook have become the de-facto choice for student issued laptops. For teachers, basically any laptop made in the last five years is capable of running the browser-based Chrome OS so teachers have their pick. Most midrange laptops will work great for creating lessons and acting as a hub for peripherals. Note that while most new laptops have a microphone and webcams built into the computer, educators likely want to use USB external devices for a more professional and engaging experience as we’ll discuss further below.
When considering laptop specifications, teachers don’t need the hardware performance that a high-end gaming laptop might offer. Midrange laptop specs typically would be an Intel Core i5 CPU or equivalent; 8 GB of RAM; a 256 GB solid state drive; a 12 to 13.3-inch HD display. Schools will find good value laptops for teachers in the $600-$850 range.
For a teacher, using a tablet offers portability advantages. Also, a stylus on a touch screen is a valuable tool for brainstorming with students and conducting class lectures online. For this, a hybrid 2-in-1 laptops offer a lot of value f in a remote learning environment. Popular choices among educators include Microsoft Surface Pro 6 or Microsoft Surface Pro 7 hybrids. For standalone tablets to use in conjunction with a laptop, consider using an Android tablet if schools are using Chrome OS: a Samsung Galaxy Tab s6 offers a similar price point and user experience to a Surface Pro.
Note that if teachers plan to use a Surface Pro as both a tablet and as their main laptop, thy will need a key cover for typing and a USB-C docking station so they can plug in USB peripherals and video out to a larger display. Vendors may package together Microsoft Surface Pro key covers and USB docks for added savings.
Peripherals for Virtual Instruction
Educators planning on teaching remotely on for a prolonged period of time want to deliver a polished and professional look and feel. Online instruction should look at least as good as the YouTube videos many students are used to seeing, so here we’ll get into some of the peripherals that streamers and content creators use for their setups. Equipment featured here is largely plug-and-play and compatible with Chrome OS, Windows, and Mac OS environments.
USB Microphones and Headsets
Most laptops have built in microphones, and these offer passable solutions. However, if you are looking for better the audio quality, which is a proven way to improve engagement, an external USB cardioid microphone are probably a good fit. For classroom lectures where a teacher engages the class, a using a gaming headset is a viable option to clearly hear students speaking in a group. A good use case for having a standalone desktop cardioid microphone is if you are recording materials you will use again as part of your online coursework or curriculum, in which case having a better sounding lecture will noticeably improve the overall quality of the materials. These microphones will not break the bank, either. Lots of great value for under $100 per unit.
External Web Cams
Professionals that video conference regularly often prefer a step up from what a built-in laptop webcam offers. Having an external webcam for a laptop delivers several advantages. First, you get a polished and professional look at relatively low cost; you will find many cams under $150 offer 1080-pixel HD resolution when streaming and recording. Webcams in this range also have autofocus features which are handy for presentations that involve props, objects or displays, and if teachers like to move about the frame, they will remain in focus. Educators may also benefit from a camera with a wider field of view. High-end web cams offer as wide as a 120-degree FOV which is designed for multi-person conference setups. For classroom teachers, a mid-range 78-degree should suffice. Finally, many offer built-in microphones that deliver superior audio from what you’d get from your internal mic in a laptop. It’s not as robust as a dedicated USB microphone, so while probably appropriate for lectures and talks, you’ll want something more for recording course materials.
Natural light is ideal for video streaming, but during early morning hours and cloudy days you will need your own source. Photographers get the look they want by making light bounce into the frame from different directions. You can achieve this by using a multi-head floor lamp—ideally one that has different brightness levels. Another method popular among YouTube content creators is to use a desktop ring lighting kit, which is designed to provide even illumination with little shadow. Ring lights are inexpensive way to add a cinematic polish to talking head videos.
A whiteboard is every classroom’s centerpiece for organizing the day’s lessons and keeping everyone on the same page. When teaching virtually, educators have to find a way to replace it. There are several options for replicating a white board in a distance learning setting.
On-screen white boards
There is a plethora of tools available for digital whiteboarding using a tablet, laptop or smartphone. These allow teachers to prepare whiteboard materials ahead of time for students to reference as the teacher provides instruction. Some top picks for educators include:
Canvas (Chrome app) – Great for screen doodles if you have a touch screen device, Canvas is close to the feel of an actual white board for quick writing. Simplicity is its beauty.
Jamboard (Google app) – Google’s Jamboard is designed to operate with their 55-inch LCD digital whiteboard, but you can use the app on most laptops, tablets and smartphones for free. The app offers a feel similar to a basic PowerPoint slide—add sticky notes, drawings, images, and easily move elements around the frame. Best of all, users can send around their “jams” collaboratively.
Whiteboard (Windows 10 app) For schools in the Microsoft Office ecosystem, Whiteboard is a great fit. It allows you draw, sticky-note, import images, and query the web using Bing, and collaborate—with a Microsoft 365 account.
Interactive digital white boards
School districts initially began to incorporate smartboard technology in classrooms to better engage students that completed an increasing amount of classwork from a digital device. Now with schools considering a hybrid model where students attend school in part time in shifts, smartboard technology is poised to become a valuable resource in overcoming the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. At schools where teachers are in class full time while students rotate in, a smartboard allows teachers to engage both remote students and students attending in person simultaneously with the same set of tools. You can write on them using a finger and erase with the palm of your hand, the same way you would using traditional classroom whiteboard. The technology allows all students, whether remote or in the classroom, to collaborate in real-time when the content on the whiteboard is pushed out the student devices connected to it. Depending on the size of the room, educators typically install classroom digital whiteboards ranging from 55 inches up to 75 inches.
View interactive digital whiteboards in stock.
What’s next for schools after COVID-19?
As the world moves past the COVID-19 pandemic (it will end someday, right?) undoubtedly the way teachers instruct students will have lasting changes. Already we are already witnessing many companies shifting to a WFH model that they intent to implement on a permanent basis. Will families get accustomed to online learning and want to move forward with it after the pandemic? Will learning models change for how teachers conduct classes? Will the results of remote learning affect public school vs charter school politics? Only time will tell, but it is useful to think about what might be coming in the next few years.