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Tech Sense: Back to School 2020 by John Bell

Updated: a day ago


Back to School

Back to school in 2020 is expected to be a lot different from in the past. Currently, Prince George’s County is planning on instructing students using computers at home at least through the end of the calendar year. Often, when I have done “back-to-school” columns, they have been focused on students starting in college or the basics of the software and hardware needed for high school and older students. This year, the age range is broader.


The New Basics

In addition to the typical computer, screen, keyboard, mouse, and speakers, students today will also need a webcam and a headset that includes a microphone. These new items allow students to see and be seen in the virtual classroom. The headset will help keep noises from home from intruding on the learning experience both from the learner and the class perspective. For headsets, I tend to use inexpensive ($15 or less) lightweight gamer sets that are easily purchased online.


Laptops versus Desktops

Most modern laptop computers have everything built in, except the headset. Most laptops include built-in webcam, microphone, and speakers, but a separate headset should be preferred for classes and meetings. Laptops are easily moved if your student doesn’t have a fixed place to study.

Desktops are great if you want to setup a fixed study area for your student. A new desktop will normally come with the computer, a keyboard, mouse, and speakers, but a screen, webcam, and microphone are separate purchases.

Windows and Chromebooks

Today, most computers used for schools are either Chromebooks or Windows-based PC’s. Macs are typically considered too expensive. Chromebooks run ChromeOS and are designed to run software from the web. This makes them easy to maintain and less expensive for schools to own and operate. Variants of Windows 10 can also be operated to use web software, but the best Windows experience normally requires a more capable (and more expensive) computer that allows software to be installed onto the device.

For a Windows PC, the minimum that I typically consider is an Intel Core I3 or AMD Ryzen 3 CPU and 4 gigabytes of RAM (8 is better) and 256 gigabytes or more of SSD or 512 gigabytes of hard disk storage. All computers should have Wi-Fi networking but I also look for an Ethernet port supporting gigabit network speeds. Bluetooth is also nice. The computers should have at least 1 high speed USB 3 port and 1 or more USB 2 ports.


Consider Refurbished

One way to save money on computer purchases is to buy computers that have been used by businesses and are then refurbished and resold. These computers are normally more capable than a new computer purchased at the same price and often come with warranties and technical support. All of the desktop computers I currently own were either home built or purchased as refurbished products. Business laptops are often more rugged than laptops designed for home use and may come with easily replaceable batteries.

I know it won’t really feel like “back to school” this year but embrace the experience. It should provide some exciting new learning opportunities. Remember what you learn at school isn’t just what the teacher sets out to teach—it is also everything that is going on around you. Have fun exploring.


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