Here’s your challenge: you have a single space that needs to function as an office, classroom, gym, recreation area, kitchen, and dining area all at the same time. What do you do?
If that sounds like an impossible proposition to pull-off successfully, that’s because it is – there’s almost no way to make a single space work effectively for all of those functions at the same time. And yet, that’s precisely the predicament so many of us have found ourselves in since the start of this pandemic. Self-isolating in our homes has meant that the spaces we occupy in our lives have all collapsed onto the same square-footage, and navigating the pitfalls of making it work for our families has been challenging to say the least.
For those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely, improvising a home office has been an achievable (if not ideal) task. The laptop, couch, and headphones combo has served pretty well in the absence of complete office equipment and furniture. Folks with homes large enough to carve out space for home offices have fared even better, with the transition proving relatively painless.
For our kids, however, the switch to learning at home has not been nearly as easy to weather. A proper learning environment is critical to a student’s educational success; the abrupt shift from the classroom to a virtual platform accessed from whatever space is available is by no means optimal.
But a space for learning is just one of the issues parents need to address – there’s also internet access, proper technology to access learning platforms, and the problem of encouraging children to study without dedicated supervision.
In short, it’s a difficult situation and no one’s fault – we’re all managing as best as we can. With schools right on the verge of re-opening, hopefully these matters won’t prove as pressing anymore. However, should we have to revert to a previous phase, or have a second wave of outbreaks, it may be worth your while to tackle these concerns while you’re able.
If you don’t have the resources to solve every single problem involved with home education, don’t despair: there are a few areas to focus on that will go a long way to alleviate the strain you and your kids may be feeling.
Upgrade your internet connection
The importance of strong, stable internet at home during this time cannot be overstated. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth emphasizing: uninterrupted, high-speed access is absolutely vital now that so much of our work, learning, and (virtual) socializing relies on having high speeds and no bandwidth caps to worry about.
The speeds and setups that made sense for Netflix and casual web browsing over wi-fi may no longer fit the new demands of a family at home.
If you find your service isn’t keeping up with the increased usage, here are some measures you can take:
- Upgrade your internet service. If you can afford it (and have access to it), switching to a fibre connection with unlimited bandwidth will eliminate all your speed issues. That being said, upgrading your internet access doesn’t have to mean getting a more expensive connection. Cable internet, for example, is theoretically faster and can reach higher speeds than DSL. But its available bandwidth is shared with neighbours using the same cable line – likely a common scenario now, given that everyone’s stuck at home. Since you’re paying for it, you should make sure you’re getting your money’s worth!
- Check if your wi-fi router is still up to the task. If it’s been a while since you’ve upgraded your hardware, odds are you’re not making use of the dual channels and higher speeds you’re paying for. Investing in a newer router can make a significant difference in your speeds.
- Ensure your wi-fi coverage isn’t lacking. Part of creating a suitable space for your kids to study and attend class is ensuring that they can adequately access all the things they need to – otherwise, it’ll be right back to square one with everyone sharing the same space. Look into things like range extenders or routers which create a wi-fi mesh to ensure your coverage is up to snuff.
The right device for the job
Now that you have the internet piece solved, it’s also worth looking at how your children will be interacting with their learning platforms in the first place.
The amount of access your child will have to their school and the work they’ll need to do all vary drastically from teacher to teacher and institution to institution. Zoom call frequency may vary from one call a week to check in on work completion status, to a zoom call for every period they have.
Once again, the old family laptop (if there even is one) might not be sufficient to meet the needs of your child. At the very least, they’d need something with easy access to a web browser and webcam support, as well as the ability to run basic video conferencing apps such as Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet, etc.
It’s worth noting that older iPads and tablets may not be compatible with these new apps, so there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get by with whatever tablet or device you happen to have at home.
It’s worth investing in something like a Chromebook or an iPad – both are reasonably cheap alternatives to buying brand new laptops or desktops (especially if space is already at a premium), and actually have comparable or better performance at the sub-$500 price range. Moreover, these are devices that your children will already have experience using in classrooms (many schools utilize Chromebooks already), so it shouldn’t take them much time at all to get used to using them.
Location, Location, Location
Now that you’ve addressed internet speed and digital access, it’s time to tackle the tangible, physical space that your kids will need to use. It goes without saying that establishing a concrete space dedicated to learning is important – especially if you don’t want to trip over each other. It’s already enough of a struggle to juggle calls and video conferences with multiple people in the same home, let alone the same room.
Setting aside a room is the ideal solution, but if that’s not feasible it’s still a good idea to designate an area expressly for that purpose. It’s now more important than ever to create delineations between home and school life, in whatever way we can. Whether that means reserving a kitchen counter, dining table, or corner of a bedroom – there are a few things to bear in mind:
- Make sure there’s enough desk/counter space. Even with digital classrooms, plenty of work still requires old-school pens and paper. Now’s as good a time as any to invest in some affordable desks if you can.
- Good lighting is key. A well-placed lamp, or setting up a space with plenty of natural light can have very real benefits for your children and you as well.
- Consider the backdrop. While Zoom calls can fake a tropical background behind you, your kids may be limited to the capabilities of the platforms they’re required to use. It’s worth taking the time to ensure they have a suitably neutral (and not-backlit) backdrop to use for video calls.
While it’s important to create as welcoming and stimulating a space as possible for your kids to learn in, it’s also vital to clearly demarcate other areas for recreation and “switching-off” from devices. We used to take things like the trip home from school, or the office (i.e. the brief instants where we weren’t forced to interact with a digital device) for granted, but now those moments only exist if we make time for them. For the sake of your kids and your own mental health, don’t forget to set aside time and space to just unwind and relax. In a way, that might be the most important thing you can do to help them successfully navigate the months to come.
How have you met the challenge of working or attending school remotely? Let us know in the comments.
Freelance writer and communications professional at the University of Toronto. He’s an avid cinephile, voracious reader, and a terror at karaoke bars.