Schools are doing more on-line but this brings its own new set of challenges for students and parents to overcome...
As we enter a new lockdown, whilst we have achieved so much in helping our communities to become more resilient, there are new rules and new issues to overcome. Schools are doing more to facilitate on-line learning but this brings its own new set of challenges for students and parents. What follows is a roundup of information and advice around the technical challenges with online learning to help parents to get their child up and running. As you might expect, some of this information is focused on the Ashburton area, but much of this information is generic.
Online learning is generally delivered using video conferencing or collaboration software such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams or Zoom. The schools in Ashburton, like schools in many other areas, are using Microsoft Teams. This is part of a suite called Microsoft 365 which provides web-based apps for writing documents and presentations, keeping notes, sharing information, email and more. Being web-based, these apps, including Teams, can be accessed on a suitable system using just a compatible web browser.
Whatever device you are using - it needs to be able to access Microsoft 365.
To use Microsoft Teams and other Microsoft 365 applications effectively, your computer or device should meet the recommended minimum specification:
Computer and Processor: 1.6 GHz (faster is better)
Memory: 4 GB RAM (more is better)
Hard Disk: 4 GB of available disk space
Display: 1280 x 768 screen resolution
If your device does not meet the minimum specification, that does not necessarily mean it won’t be able to run the applications, but you may have performance and reliability problems.
The device does not have to be a Windows PC! The sole requirement of your hardware is that it MUST be able to run the required software.
Windows PCs, Chromebooks, iPads, Smartphones, Xboxes, Playstations
All these devices can run Teams and Microsoft 365 web applications but that does not necessarily mean that they are all a good choice of device for online learning.
Windows PCs and Chromebooks are general computing devices that are designed to run web apps such as Microsoft 365 - providing they are able to run the required software, they are a good choice for online learning.
If you are using a Chromebook you can install the native apps, which may give you an improved user experience. To find out how to do this, click here.
There has been a lot of publicity around the fact that you can, at a push, run Microsoft 365 apps on your Playstation or Xbox. However the primary function of these devices is gaming and in some tests they have performed badly running apps like Teams. Unfortunately, reliability problems tend to lead to more support calls for busy school IT teams, so using gaming devices is probably best avoided if possible.
iPads and many smartphones specifically support Microsoft 365 through native apps, however the lack of a keyboard, mouse and full-sized screen can make many tasks very challenging. If you have no better option, you should use your device’s store app to install the native Microsoft 365 apps - they will work better and more reliably than trying to use the web apps through the device’s web browser.
Windows PC’s and Chromebooks are good options for online learning, other devices may be used temporarily in a pinch but you may find it a struggle!
The main requirement of your software is that it must be compatible with Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams.
You can use Microsoft 365 and Teams web apps using the latest versions of Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome. You may have problems if you are using an unsupported web browser - in this case use your device’s app store to download native versions of the Microsoft 365 apps if available.
Windows 10 is not a requirement for running Microsoft 365 or Teams, but the latest version of Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome is necessary to run the web apps.
Logging into Microsoft 365
To use Microsoft 365, you need to log in with your user account. Your school will have provided you with a school email address and password to use. You can use these login details for both web-based and native apps.
Use your school email address and password to log into Microsoft 365.
Bandwidth and Connectivity Issues
The most common technical issue faced by students working at home is problems with connectivity - particularly during Teams calls.
Teams provides video conferencing and collaboration. For this to work, sound and video must be transmitted in real-time - unlike NetFlix and similar video apps where long stretches of sound and video can be stored (buffered) to allow the video to continue uninterrupted if there is a temporary drop-out. Real-time sound and video can put a strain on your broadband connection resulting in unreliable performance - so what can be done about it?
Teams requires 130Kbps (0.13Mbps) for audio and between 0.5Mbps and 1.5Mbps for video transmission. If you are on a basic broadband package, you might have at most 10Mbps of download and 1Mbps of upload capacity. This should be fine if Teams is the only application using the internet, however if someone else is using the internet you are likely to experience problems as the upload requirements may exceed the bandwidth available.
There are some things you can do in order to help avoid problems:
Run a speed test so that you know the capacity of your broadband, do this at a typical usage time: https://www.speedtest.net/
Eliminate other uses of the internet during Teams calls if possible - particularly streaming video or gaming
Make sure your router is plugged into the BT master phone socket for best results - see here for more information.
Try making Teams calls in the same room as the router to get the best WiFi signal - or use a powerline adapter to make WiFi available in the room where you work.
Switch off your camera during Teams calls - this may not be ideal but will dramatically reduce your bandwidth requirements.
Try using the mobile hotspot on your smartphone to give your laptop access the internet over 4G - only do this if you have an adequate data plan.
Not all problems are down to poor broadband, but taking the above steps can improve performance and reliability.
The Department for Education is offering support for online learning in the form of free mobile data to families meeting certain criteria. You will need to apply for this through your school - find out more here. SDCC have published a helpful guide for their students here.
SDCC have produced some basic guidance for students about online learning - find out more here.
Finally, we are lucky to live in an exceptionally supportive community who are rallying around to help us overcome the challenges we are facing during this crisis. Justine Fitton has been working tirelessly with local schools to try to source computers for those that need them for online learning.
If you have a laptop you are prepared to give away or lend to another family who may be able to make use of it, or if you are struggling with online learning due to a lack of suitable equipment, please message Justine on Facebook here.
Alternatively, speak to your school, there is an ongoing effort within the schools, with support from the community, to put in place the necessary provisions for online learning.