by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Even though it’s only early August, many families are on the verge of sending their kids back to school. That’s a major change from when I was a kid, when families didn’t even have to think about getting ready for school until after Labor Day. So, if you haven’t yet done so, this is a good time to think about school-related tech devices as well as tech policies for your family and your community.
Before you spend anything on new tech, check with your school or district to see what they offer and what they recommend. Some schools issue devices to students such as Chromebooks, tablets or laptops. School provided devices are typically referred to as “one-to-one” or “1:1” programs and are often motivated by the desire to provide a level playing field so that all students have the devices they need to support learning. According to FutureSource Consulting, the percentage of schools undertaking 1:1 device programs in the United States increased from 61% in 2020 to 63% in 2021, which the research organization attributed, in part, to the pandemic.
If your student is lucky enough to get access to a school supplied device, make sure you and the student understand the school’s acceptable use policy along with privacy and security policies. There is not necessarily an expectation of privacy when using a device provided by a school or employer and there may be rules associated with the use of the device that would not be in-place if it’s a device the family owns. There may also be software installed to limit or monitor what sites or apps the student can use and what they are allowed to do with the device.
ConnectSafely Education Director Kerry Gallagher advises parents to “ask teachers how much of their student’s homework needs to be done on a screen. Sometimes parents expect less or more on screen homework time and its helpful for there to be a common understanding so parents know what to expect at home and can supervise effectively.”
Also inquire about your school’s policies regarding phones and other personally owned devices. Some schools ban the use of smartphones on campus while others restrict their use to certain times and places. While I understand phones can be a distraction, I also understand why many parents want their child to be reachable or trackable when at school and be able to reach out to parents or first responders in an emergency. If your student does carry a phone at school, please refrain from calling or texting them during school, unless there’s an emergency.
If the school doesn’t offer devices, ask a teacher, administrator or other parents what devices they recommend. While any brand tablet or PC can be useful for students, some schools recommend certain types of devices such as Chromebooks, Macs, Windows PCs or iPads or other tablets and the type of device might vary by grade. Elementary schools and middle schools, for example, are more likely to recommend tablets than are high schools, which typically prefer Macs, PCs or Chromebooks.
Whatever device you decide to buy, look for special education pricing. Apple, for example offers education discounts for “current and newly accepted college students and their parents, as well as faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers of all grade levels,” according to Apple’s online education store. Microsoft also offers education discounts on its online store for students and educators. But even if you do find an education discount, shop around. In some cases you might find better prices from retailers on the same or similar products or be able to take advantage of other discounts based on where you work or organizations you belong to.
If you opt for a tablet, consider getting one with a keyboard or purchase a separate Bluetooth keyboard that will work with nearly any tablet. This allows the student to take advantage of all the tablet apps and its onscreen keyboard while still having access to a physical keyboard.
Not all schools support Google Chromebooks, but if your school does, consider that option. They are typically less expensive than PC and Mac laptops, start up faster and are less prone to viruses and other malicious software. Chromebooks are especially popular in schools that participate in the Google for Education program that provides shared workspace, cloud-based apps and other tools for classroom use and homework.
Online ethics and safety
I’ll get to online safety in a moment, but this year I have to add something about the ethical use of generative AI services like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Google Bard and Microsoft Bing. These services make it very easy to get answers to questions and can be very useful for research and idea generation. However, they can also be used to write essays and papers, which is almost certainly a violation of school policies and an ethical breach. I urge parents to speak with your students and their teachers about the ethical use of AI. Students should not rely on them as a definitive source because they are not always accurate and don’t always cite sources. Remind your student that they — not whatever research tool they use — are responsible for the accuracy of what they turn in.
As always, back-to-school time is a good time to talk about how we and others are treated online. Remind your students to be civil and kind online and expect to be treated that way by others. Make sure they understand both the family’s and school’s policies for acceptable online behavior and know how to block and report anyone who is abusive online. ConnectSafely has lots of resources for parents, students and educators, including guides and short Quick Guides to many of the apps and services used by students.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, which has received financial support from Google, Microsoft and OpenAI along with other supporters.