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Online School Tech: A Resource for Students & Parents

From Google Meet and GoTo Meeting to Blackboard and Canvas, the tech behind online school can be tough to tackle. Discover the virtual tools and technological hardware that are common in the online classroom, and what you (or your child) will need to know when class begins.

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Dr. Dan Keast

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Dr. Dan Keast is a pioneer of online teaching and presents his research and innovations to a variety of disciplines in secondary and higher education. The link between Dan’s research and teaching is obvious as he continually adapts his courses and constructivist teaching methods to new media, student needs, and innovative pedagogy. Keast won the University of Texas Permian Basin’s nomination for the Regents’ Teaching Award in 2014 and the 2015 nomination for the Piper Professor due to his teaching accomplishments, reputation as an online educator, and caring mentor to his students, faculty, and alumni.

A student takes notes while watching a college professor explain a lesson plan on a whiteboard through a live video lecture on a laptop.

Online learning continues to be a major part of both K-12 and higher education. In Fall 2021, 60 percent of all college students took at least one online course and 30 percent were enrolled exclusively in online classes according to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). Meanwhile, 375,000 students were enrolled in full-time K-12 online schools during the pre-pandemic 2018-19 academic year.

Whether you’re a college student earning your entire degree online or a parent who’s helping their grade school child acclimate to hybrid learning, online classes can be challenging at first. There’s getting the right hardware, finding the software and apps you need, and navigating one or more learning management systems. But acclimating to online school doesn’t have to be a chore, especially with good resources at your fingertips. The following guide is for new online students and parents of online students. It breaks down the technology and platforms involved in online school, from basic descriptions and pros and cons to the key tips to keep in mind. Get your (or your student’s) online learning experience started on the right foot.

Online Learning Glossary

To fully understand how online learning works, it’s important to learn basic terminology. The following section looks at some technology and logistics-related words and phrases you’ll likely see as you prepare for online class.

  • App Flow
    This term refers to the work done by teachers on the front end of a school year or week to ensure the apps and tools employed in the classroom contribute to active learning. Teachers often map out lesson plans based on apps that can help students understand learning objectives.
  • Assistive Technology Service
    Students with disabilities can take advantage of this service, which helps learners and their families find necessary assistive technologies that aid in their pursuit of education via online learning.
  • Asynchronous/Synchronous
    Asynchronous learning can be done at any time that suits the student’s schedule through prerecorded lectures and forums that allow for communication with peers and teachers. Synchronous learning takes place in real-time, with each student and pupil logging in simultaneously.
  • Children’s Online Privacy Act
    Passed by Congress in 2000, this law addresses issues surrounding access to potentially harmful materials and protects their privacy until the age of 13. It works in tandem with the Children’s Internet Protection Act to keep children studying online safe.
  • Collaborative Workspaces
    Collaborative workspaces are digital realms where classes can work together on shared projects or access shared materials. Examples include Google Classroom, Google Docs, and Dropbox, among others.
  • Course Management System
    Referred to commonly as a CMS, these systems serve as the backbone for digital education. They allow all students and teachers to log-in to a central place and access shared resources, engage in class discussions, retrieve and submit assignments, turn in projects, and ask questions about materials.
  • Data Security
    Data security policies are often set by individual schools in accordance with existing state and federal laws around privacy. These policies lay out the steps and measures taken by the school to ensure privacy of school data and individual student information.
  • Digital Citizenship
    Given that people tend to say things online that they wouldn’t say in person, learning good digital citizenship is more important than ever. This concept emphasizes teaching children – and adults – how to behave responsibly and appropriately when engaging with technology.
  • Digital Literacy
    Digital literacy focuses on ensuring that students know how to get the most out of digital learning tools and apps. By becoming technologically literate, they can take full advantage of their virtual education and learn how to engage with new technologies throughout their time in school and beyond.
  • Digital Learning Environment
    This concept refers to the environment created by teachers to help facilitate learning. It comprises course content, available resources, systems designed to aid in educational advancement, and the tools used to manage the whole process.
  • Learning Management System
    Often known simply as an LMS, these systems function similarly to a course management system. They provide the cornerstone of digital learning and house content management tools, communication systems, instructional resources, and methods for submitting assignments and projects.
  • Open Education Resources (OER)
    OERs are teaching materials, books, courses, digital media, and examinations that can be used and repurposed freely by educators and students. This means no permission must be sought and the resources can be accessed free of charge.
  • State/Charter Virtual Schools
    State virtual schools are public schools operated by the state that provide digital learning. Charter virtual schools are those that receive public funding but do not have to adhere to many of the same rules as state schools.
  • Virtual Classroom
    A virtual classroom functions in the same was as a classroom at a brick-and-mortar school except all learning takes place via a computer or other digital tool. Students and teachers interact throughout the day via video conferencing apps, forums, and collaborative workspaces.
  • Virtual Resources
    Virtual resources are those which exist online rather than in physical forms. Examples can include textbooks, electronic databases, collaborative workspace programs, cloud-based storage devices, and a variety of software used to conduct digital learning.

Core Online Learning Technology

When it comes to online learning, the amount of tools and tech available may seem endless. In addition to dozens of laptops and tablets, you have hundreds of apps and ways to connect, organize, and share information with others. But which tech devices lie at the core of online school and how do students at each grade level use them to learn?

Elementary School (K-5)

Laptops, Chromebooks, and Desktop Computers:

These tools help K-5 students begin to build digital literacy while also accessing the learning management system (LMS). Students use them to watch video lessons and tutorials, communicate with their class, and work on assignments. Elementary students are likely to use these tools regardless of digital learning setting. In the early years (K-2), there may be less typing and more interacting with the screen.

Smart Devices:

Items such as iPads and smartphones can be used to engage younger students in the world outside their digital classroom. Students can be given assignments such as photographing local plants for their science class, watching an interactive story on their phone, or using apps such as AudioBoom to practice reading skills. While helpful for augmenting learning, smartphones are not required at this stage.

Tech for Students with Disabilities:

Tools such as talking calculators, YouTube videos demonstrating common social behaviors, and software designed to help students hear the phonetics of words they want to type all help elementary students with disabilities hone their skills. Students with motor skill challenges may begin to use speech-to-text software at this stage.

Middle/Junior High School (6-8)

Laptops, Chromebooks, and Desktop Computers:

These tools become more important at the middle school stage as students begin to write essays, engage technology such as Evernote and OneNote to take notes, EasyBib for bibliographies, and Google Calendar to manage class schedules. Many online middle schoolers will use these tools as part of their daily learning routine.

Smart Devices:

While a smartphone or iPad is not required for online learning, middle schoolers use them regularly to interact with their classroom, take course notes, review flash cards via Brainscape, create art projects via Adobe Ideas, and study foreign languages on BidBox Vocabulary Trainer.

Tech for Students with Disabilities:

Depending on the student’s disability, tools such as Kurzweil 3000, a speech-to-text and text-to-speech browser add-on, or bubble.us, a graphic organizer can help students engage with content in ways that support their individual style of learning. Parents should speak with teachers to learn which technologies assist specific disabilities.

High School (9-12)

Laptops, Chromebooks, and Desktop Computers:

Laptops and computers become even more important at the high school level as students begin writing longer papers, conducting more extensive research, and preparing for next steps after graduating. Due to the increased dependence on this hardware, parents should ensure students have access to a reliable internet connection.

Smart Devices:

As high school students’ schedules become fuller and more independent, smart devices can help them learn on the go while managing new priorities. Apps such as ACT Online Prep help them get ready for college entrance exams while Mendeley serves as a great tool for researching and writing essays.

Tech for Students with Disabilities:

Assistive technology at the high school level needs to engage learners at required content levels and make it possible for them to complete high-quality work. For example, Co:Writer can help learners who need typing support.

College & Beyond

Laptops, Chromebooks, and Desktop Computers:

These tools become almost indispensable at the college level as students research topics, write long-form papers, and communicate with their peers and professors about ongoing projects. They are also important when looking for jobs as graduation nears.

Smart Devices:

Because college students have busy schedules, on-the-go devices can help them stay connected to their classes. Plenty of popular apps exist for both tablets and smartphones. iStudiez is a great tool for managing schedules, inputting assignments, and tracking grades. Todoist can help ensure you don’t forget any tasks throughout your day.

Tech for Students with Disabilities:

College students can take advantage of many different types of assistive technologies. Cold Turkey helps students with ADD/ADHD remove distractions, Read & Write supports learners who need help with communication, and AccessNote provides notetaking resources for visually impaired degree seekers.

Online School Communication

Many different tools for communicating in an online school exist, but it’s important to know which ones work best for specific needs. It’s also critical to understand how each functions so you can use them to their full advantage.

Online Learning Communication Tools

ToolHow Is It Used for Online Learning SpecificallyTutorialsAge-Specific Tips or Tricks
Email Email helps students and teachers share information and have record of their communications. Teachers can also use chat functions on servers such as Gmail to hold virtual office hours.8 Tips to Use Gmail as an eLearning ToolEmail offers a great early opportunity for teaching digital literacy and how to communicate appropriately with others online.
ZoomZoom helps classrooms meet in real-time through videoconferencing. Teachers can also share their screens as an alternative whiteboard or PowerPoint, message individual students privately, and divide into smaller discussion groups.Tips & Tricks: Teachers Educating on Zoom Parents’ Ultimate Guide to Zoom Zoom Tutorial for StudentsStudents can show their personalities with approved backgrounds. Teachers can automatically mute students upon entering to help reduce distractions and background noises.
Google MeetMeet serves as a great plug-in for classes that already use Google Classroom as it can be used within the learning management system. Teachers can also moderate and record training sessions. Setting up Meet for Distance Learning Enabling Distance Learning Using Google Meet Google Meet for Students TutorialBecause Meet can be used within Classrooms, teachers can keep learners focused and on track through the Ask a Question feature to test their knowledge in real-time.
GoToMeetingThis tool connects teachers and students in innovative ways, including cloud recording, transcripts of lessons, options for group projects and tutoring, file sharing, screensharing, and videoconferencing.Using GoToMeeting in the Classroom GoToMeeting Online Learning ToolsWhile some programs require teachers to host videoconferencing meetings, GoToMeeting allows students to create their own learning spaces to work with each other on projects.
YouTubeIn addition to accessing existing YouTube videos that fit within curriculum requirements, students and teachers can also use this technology to upload and share their own videos.Harnessing the Power of YouTube in the ClassroomStudents can easily get distracted by the endless amount of entertainment present on YouTube, but parents can set controls and boundaries to help learners stay focused during class or homework.
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