With Ann Arbor Public Schools and many other local schools offering virtual learning this fall, families are working on how to setup the best virtual learning environment that they can for their kids. We have several tips to help your family find the best virtual learning environment for your kids. Last spring, my daughter tended to work on the family room sofa, but it is not a good location for video calls because of windows behind it.
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Factors to Consider When Setting up the Best Virtual Learning Environment
There is no perfect virtual learning environment for every student and family. The needs of a kindergartener will be very different from the needs of a high school senior and the same furniture is unlikely to work for both a 6 year old and an 18 year old.
My daughter is starting high school virtually this fall. Just as we would not attend with her in person, we don’t want to be making appearances in her virtual classes. At a minimum, I knew we would set her up with her back would be to a wall. We also decided the kitchen table and family room sofa where she worked this spring would not be great options so that her parents would still have access to the kitchen when our meeting schedule does not align with her lunch break.
For younger children, you may need to help them login and navigate to classes especially the first few weeks. They may also need help staying on task. I would suggest setting younger children up in a common area of the house where you will be available.
What is the internet connectivity like in your desired virtual learning environment? This summer we discovered that my husband’s office had the weakest WiFi signal in the house. We will share a few options to improve WiFi around your home (some no to low cost as well as some more expensive options).
There are several quick improvements to the ergonomics of your child’s setup. Using kid-sized furniture is a good option, you can also use books as a footrest or to prop up the screen, or a pillow to help their posture.
I have also seen blue light glasses recommended to help ease eye strain with the increased computer time.
Test the Video
What is the video background behind your child’s virtual learning setup?
This spring my daughter tended to work on our family room sofa which has large windows behind it. This was fine for asynchronous learning this spring, but does not work well when she is on video. Both my husband and I have made modifications to our office to improve our video conferencing. My husband removed some fun decor to have a more professional image behind him. I had to remove a picture behind my desk because it produced glare. I am still working on the lighting since I am in a dark corner of the room. The light behind me does not work great for video.
Separation of Space
Is it possible to have a dedicated space for virtual learning so they can leave school behind when they are done for the day? This can be a separate space or a space that gets packed up for the night.
If you have younger children at home, is there a way to give your school-aged child space to themselves?
Setup Options for the Best Virtual Learning Environment
If you are setting up multiple kids on a common table like your kitchen or dining room table, I love a setup like this. It gives each kid some privacy, is relatively inexpensive, and can easily be folded up and set back up at the end of the day.
There are both privacy boards and smaller trifold boards that you can use to create this look. I don’t suggest using a 36″ tall trifold board as that would be fairly tall. However, we did find some good boards in the 14-22″ height range. I would have your kids sit at the table and see which height looks good for them.
Is your child worried about the view behind them if they aren’t backs to a wall – parents, siblings, etc? You can fix that with a simple backdrop. There are many options depending on what is behind them. If you can place a table behind them, a 36″ tall trifold board will fill the space nicely. They can add their own art work (directly to the board or attaching with a stapler). The trifold board is a nice option because it won’t show shadows through it.
A sheet or roll of paper can also be a good background option that is used by many Video PodCasters/YouTube Influencers. You can rig a sheet with a clothesline, or use a photographer’s backdrop setup.
Desk & Chair Options
The best work space setup will be different for a Kindergartener and a high school senior. As a freshman, we set my daughter up in her bedroom at the desk we bought several years ago. I found a few desk options on Amazon (at the time of writing they were available to be received in the next 10 days. I think my daughter’s desk was from Target (several years ago).
Even more important than the desk might be the chair. My daughter got a chair upgrade this summer when my husband upgraded his office chair and she finds it much more comfortable than her previous chair. Active children may like a wobble or balance ball chair. Older children, may prefer more of an office style chair. Some children may like a chair that more closely resembles their chairs at school.
Beyond the physical setup, consider what else your child should have on hand. If you’re using a trifold as a privacy divider, you can probably use push pins or staples to attach papers. Otherwise, a bulletin board or magnetic white board would be a good add-on.
A visual copy of their schedule is probably a great idea. I have created templates for AAPS Middle School and High School that you can copy and edit with your child’s schedule. I did not create an elementary template because the base schedule includes large learning blocks that each teacher can break up differently.
It is also a good idea to have a few supplies on hand – pencils/pens, notebooks, scissors, crayons – all depending on your child’s grade.
Tech Setup for the Best Virtual Learning Environment
No matter where a virtual learning space is setup, the technology aspect of it will be very important. There are many ways to improve the virtual experience by upgrading tech.
Internet Connectivity & Speed
Obviously internet connectivity and speed is one of the best things to improve. There are a few simple things (some free or inexpensive) you can do to improve your internet speed. A few of these were mentioned by Dr Kellstrom at the last AAPS board meeting.
How old is your modem? A new modem can increase your speed. If you are currently renting your modem from Comcast or AT&T (the two largest broadband providers in A2), you can often request an updated modem at no added monthly cost. We changed our Xfinity package last October and they replaced our modem at the same monthly rental cost.
Where is your modem? Where is your modem in comparison to your virtual learning environment? Is it subject to interference from a cabinet? We moved our modem from a cabinet in our family room built-in next to the TV to a table in my home office. We are seeing improved speeds in my office, my husband’s office, and our daughter’s bedroom where she will be working this fall. Many years ago our modem was in my office, so we had a cable outlet for it already. A Coax splitter can be used to convert a current TV outlet to accommodate both the TV and the cable modem.
Since moving our router we have noticed a few areas with significantly decreased speed. It seems to have trouble crossing the I-Beams and ventilation in the middle of my house. I have friends who have been successful with a mesh router system, but those are expensive (~$300). We are looking at buying a WiFi extender. We are considering the Xfinity xFi pods, but you have to buy 3 or 6. However, with our current setup, we think one extender would be enough.
My husband and I both use second monitors with our laptops. We love having the larger monitor and the second screen. With the school Chromebooks being 12″, and my daughter used to a 15″ laptop, a monitor was the first thing we decided to invest in. We purchased a 23.8″ HP monitor that has built in speakers and also rotates to portrait or landscape. I decided to splurge on one for myself to replace the 19″TV I was using as a second monitor. A TV set can also be used as a monitor, although I found the resolution was not great for the small font size I prefer.)
My daughter’s school Chromebook does not have an HDMI or VGA connector for a laptop. However, it has both USB & USB-C slots and you can purchase converters or hubs that will allow you to connect the monitor. We purchased the first hub below to also extend the number of USB slots available to her. Although, I am somewhat regretting not getting a hub like the second one that also has an ethernet port.
For younger grades using iPads, an iPad stand can be a good option for their desk.
If you will have multiple children working in the same space, they will likely need headphones so they are not distracting their siblings. My daughter has had Lil Gadgets headphones for a few years and they work well. While hers are bluetooth she prefers to use them with a wire so she doesn’t have to remember to charge them.
Older tweens and teens may prefer another style of headphones. Many gaming headsets will work with the Chromebooks as will ear bud styles like the Apple AirPods. We have not tried any of these, but I selected models that had many positive reviews.
Keyboard and Mouse
You can also improve your child’s experience by adding a keyboard and mouse to their setup. My daughter is planning to use an external mouse that we already had and the Chromebook keyboard. There isn’t room on her desk for an extra keyboard and she does not have a tray.
If you have multiple children, you may need a way to identify their devices. For my daughter’s birthday this year, we gave her Harry Potter device decals. Make sure the decals you get are removable before placing them on district devices.
Other Must Haves for the Best Virtual Learning Environment
After the first week of school did you find any must-haves?
Food & Drink
This morning, my daughter got a water bottle to keep in her room at her first break. I am definitely going to encourage a water bottle or travel mug of herbal tea. Just be sure to keep the beverages well away from the electronics (I know that was something we signed in the 1:1 agreement) While she doesn’t need a lunch box or ice pack, we are planning to pre-make lunch on some days because of the short lunch break. We’ll be using various lunch containers for that.
With all the rain on the first day of school, it was definitely putting the lighting in workspaces to the test.
Our Virtual Learning Environment
As a high schooler, our daughter is set for virtual learning in her bedroom. She’s finally using the desk we bought several years ago for something other than a pile of storage! We added a monitor and external mouse, but opted against an external keyboard – her desk didn’t seem large enough. She already had cups for pencils and other school supplies and a magnetic white board.
She said the setup worked well for her this first week. We will see how it works going forward.
I’ve asked readers to share their virtual learning setup on Facebook. Hopefully you can also get good ideas from there.