Q&A: How to handle technology issues with online school

NEW YORK—The pandemic has forced students to attend virtual school to prevent spread of the coronavirus. But the more we rely on technology, the bigger the consequences when gadgets or Internet service let us down.

Technology being technology, all sorts of things can go wrong. Your Internet service may be inadequate for all-day videoconferencing or simply overstressed. Hardware and software can be confusing, can break, and sometimes just fails to work. There can be unanticipated consequences from turning on a new video camera in your home for school lessons.

Kelly Mack works on her laptop to teach remotely from her early 1940s vintage camper/trailer in her backyard at home in Evanston, Ill.

Here are answers to some common questions from parents now forced to manage their kids’ virtual educations.

Q: We don’t have a computer/enough computers/fast enough Internet service for online school. What do we do?

A: This affects millions of people, and there are no perfect solutions.

It’s possible to use smartphones as hot spots for computers, but that’s an imperfect solution at best. Not all plans let you run hot spots off your phone, and if you can, you probably face data caps—which makes it impractical for all-day online school.

Some cable companies are offering low-cost service for eligible families, although those programs are typically limited to areas the companies already serve, often provide only minimum broadband speeds and frequently aren’t available to former customers who owe the cable company money.

Schools may provide Internet hot spots or free Internet at home for families without good service. Get in touch with the district or talk to a teacher about how to get help from your schools. They may also be able to send computers or tablets to kids, although there’s a shortage of education-style computers at the moment.

Q: Our service slows way down when several people do video calls at the same time. Are there simple ways to fix that?

A: Talk to your Internet service provider. It may be time to update your modem or router, and some offer Wi-fi extenders to improve the network. ISPs can also try repositioning your existing equipment to improve the range and strength of Wi-fi connections.

Other options include “mesh” style Wi-fi networks that let you position several base stations around a large house, giving you a stronger signal most everywhere. If necessary, it may be time to pay up for higher-speed service.

You can also try talking to teachers and coworkers to reschedule calls to go easier on the network. Turning off your own camera during video calls can help, too. Sometimes teachers can record lessons and send them to kids to watch later if live streaming isn’t possible.

Q: My kids are anxious about seeing themselves on camera and get frustrated in constant video meetings. What can I do?

A: Keeping video cameras on is one way teachers try to ensure kids are paying attention and not beaming out to play video games, but not all kids react well. Discuss any anxieties with teachers to work out solutions—for instance, your kid might not need to keep their head in frame at all times. If a child definitely needs to be on screen, practice being on video calls with family members, said David Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Exposure to the scary situation helps children get used to it.

Another option: Services like Zoom let you remove your own image from your screen while keeping your camera on. Zoom explains how to do that online.

Kids frustrated by having to sit in front of a computer all day and missing their friends may act out, sighing loudly or disobeying the rules, Anderson said. Instead of issuing punishments, try to come up with coping plans—offer breaks and activities they enjoy in return for participating in virtual school. For older children and teens, give them room to do the activities they love independently.

“Remind them what they’re working toward and what they can look forward to,” Anderson said. “Build up coping thoughts for kid to get through the rougher part of the day.”

Image credits: AP


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