2019 And School here in Australia is back! Many parents may be in the unenviable position of having to buy their child their first or second laptop for school. With so much choice out there, what do parents need to consider when purchasing a laptop that suits their child and their family?
Some schools will give strict guidelines as to what they want students to purchase, with some schools preferring an Apple Laptop or iPad, or a Microsoft Windows device or even a Google Chrome Book. Restricting the type of laptop or device a student can bring to school, assists schools with software compatibility and helps teachers to troubleshoot any issues with the equipment if they come up.
But what if your school has no preference for any particular operating system or device? What type of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) should you be considering?
As a mum of 4 kids, who are now all through school, here’s what I’ve learned about school laptops, and what I have also picked up in 8 years of my work as a cyber safety educator in schools.
What Is Important?
Every school that I visit, I find out what digital devices the students are using, both in-school computers and what devices they bring to school (BYOD). This information has given me a good overview of what the different approaches are to BYOD in different schools, and what some of the issues are. I visited my first BYOD school in 2011. It was the first school in Australia to introduce a BYOD system.
The key requirements for school laptops are –
- Battery life
- Compatibility with both home operating systems and required school software.
Durability is essential. The laptop needs to be suitable for at least 3-4 years. If you have to buy a Laptop for a year seven student for example, then the power and internal data storage size of the laptop needs to see them through to year ten at least. The laptop also needs to be sturdy enough to withstand drops, stomps and rough handling. Lighter laptops with touch screens like Windows Surface Pros are popular with students, but I do hear about a lot of cracked screens. Remember durable. Kids drop bags, they get jumped on and can be thrown about.
If you need to buy a laptop for a year 11 or 12 student, you should buy one that will see them through the first and second year in University, if they intend to apply. Again durable and lightweight, but older students should be more careful with their devices and will require no parental controls other than an Adult Content filter (more about this down the page).
Battery Life tends to wane as laptops get older, and finding places to plug in and charge up can be tricky in a school. Starting with a laptop that has superior battery life is much better than choosing a cheaper laptop that needs to recharged every few hours. A students laptop needs to last all day at least 6 hours of intermittent use. In junior years students won’t use their laptop that much during the day, but in Forms 9-10 they may be using them for more extended periods, and by that time a 3 or 4-year-old laptop may have a battery that may not last as long. You can replace the batteries in most laptops, but some laptop batteries can be expensive and not worth repairing.
Weight/Size of the laptop is essential for usability as well as being not too heavy to carry around. Look at comparison reviews for student laptops that include battery life and weight. Students still have to bring a lot of books to school, so you don’t want to burden them with a heavy laptop on top. A smaller lighter laptop is preferable to a larger heavier one. Students don’t need a big laptop with a 15″ screen. 11″ – 13″ screen size should be adequate, while a tiny 9″ screen is probably too small.
You will find that light-weight laptops that are durable with good battery life may cost a bit more. It is why Apples MacBook Air is the top rating laptop for students. With care they can survive at least 4-5 years, they are very durable but light, and the battery can last up to 8 hours with intermittent use and charges up very quickly. A new MacBook Air may cost around $1,400.00, with a student discount, unless you can get a well looked after older model. But you may not need to replace it for 4 – 5 years.
Most of the programs that students will run on their computer don’t require a hugely powerful computer, they may need to run Adobe programs which can use quite a bit of power, but they don’t need a high powered Alienware Gaming laptop for school. An i5 processor with 16Gigabytes of Ram with a 128-256GB Solid State Drive will be fine for the next three years (fast enough for big programs with plenty of storage). Extra capacity, if needed down the track, can be obtained through an $80.00 external hard drive. Remember this laptop is for school NOT for gaming…
Compatibility is vital. Check School Requirements
First, be sure of the requirements from your child’s school. They usually will send out a Spec sheet to tell you what the minimum requirements will be as to the size and abilities of the laptop. They may specify the particular operating system as well.
If the school has no preference for the laptop operating system, but require all projects/homework to be saved as Microsoft Windows compatible documents, the built-in office (iWork) software from Apple can export and save documents, spreadsheets and slide shows, into compatible Windows versions easily. Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) also have an Apple version for Apple laptops. Find out from the school if your student can have an Apple laptop with Microsoft software or use the Apple office software with an export facility if you do want your child to have an Apple Laptop.
Check to see if your school has a deal on software for students such as Adobe or Microsoft Office programs. What software will the students be required to install?
Chrome Books (Google laptops) have less compatibility with non-Google software and unless the school is a Google School, will not be practical.
Home/Parent Controls Compatible
Can You Help? If your child is younger and you have to help a little in the beginning with their new device, it helps if you understand the operating system they are using. For example, if you have to help your child with an Apple device, but you are mostly a Windows user, it may be difficult to assist in the early days.
Parental Controls On Student Laptops
Full Disclosure: I am a Cyber Safety Partner with Family Zone, but I like to promote all parental control options available to parents.
My manual has most of the FREE built-in parental controls that you can enable step by step. www.thecybersafetylady.com.au/keepingkidssafeonline
All state and private school internet WiFi have inappropriate website blocks, and adult content filters enabled. When your child is at school with their device they will be protected by the filters and protocols provided on the school WiFi when logged in. For example, your child may not be able to access social media sites or YouTube and will undoubtedly be protected from adult content and pornography through the school WiFi.
Your home WiFi should also have content filtering set up to protect your children. A Family Zone filtering system or Open DNS or one set by your internet provider is essential to provide extra protection if a device is not set up with filters correctly.
Setting filters and parental controls on your child’s Laptop for school
Parental controls or adult content filters are also essential to be set up on the BYOD Laptop for when your child is not on the School Wifi or filtered home network. Students can evade filters. If your child wants to use the internet on their laptop without using the school or home filtered WiFi, your child may manage to “Hot Spot” internet access from a 4G mobile device or phone. Or they may visit a friends place and join up to their WiFi that may or may not have an adult content filter on it. They may also connect to public WiFi at some point which may not have adult content filters on it. So ensuring that your Childs laptop is always filtered for explicit adult content no matter where they are, is vital. Setting the filters up on the laptop through the Safe Search Engine settings on the browser or Windows or Apples built-in parental controls or a parental control app like Open DNS Family Sheild, Norton Family, or Family Zone is more failsafe.
Side Note: Make sure your child’s mobile phone is also protected with parental controls and safe search filters — instructions in my manual.
Parental controls can be as simple as setting safe search options on the internet browser like Microsoft Edge’s Bing search engine or Safari/Google search or Google Chrome search https://www.google.com/preferences (more details in my manual). You may want a more complex parental control setup that includes monitoring and time limits or blocking particular sites or apps.
Parental Controls and School Software
Complex parental controls where a child needs a parental password or remote permission via an app can be a bit tricky on school Laptops and tablets. If the school needs a student to install software or make some changes to the device during school, obtaining your password or permission might be difficult. So keeping the parental controls flexible might be better. You may find that too many blocks and permissions will become unworkable when the laptop is at school. It depends on what the school use, and what they suggest.
Some schools may have a parental control app they recommend like Family Zone or other that is compatible with their system.
Certainly, you can block some apps or websites you don’t want them to have access to, like YouTube, and filter the browser search engine through the built-in parental control settings on the device or via parent control dashboard.
Some schools may ask parents to leave off parental controls, but it is essential that at the very least you make sure that restricted safe search is enabled on all browsers and YouTube. (instructions in my manual)
Compatible Parental Controls Essential!
If you want to set monitoring style parental controls using the built-in Free Parental controls that come with the Laptop software when children are younger, make sure you have access to a compatible system. Note: Windows and Apple Laptops cannot be monitored remotely from a phone, only from a P.C (edit: Nov 2019 Apples new Catalina Software now has “Screentime” which means you can monitor with parental controls from a iOS13+ iPhone to a laptop with the latest operating Catalina Apple Software, instructions in my manual)
If the student has a Windows laptop and you want to set the Free Windows Live Family Safety controls via your Windows Live account, then you need to be able to monitor the controls from a Windows parent PC or laptop, you cannot monitor Windows parental controls from a mobile phone.
For Apple Laptop parental controls enabled on a Student Apple laptop – A Parent can adjust settings and monitor from another Apple PC. You cannot monitor the built-in Apple parental controls from an Apple iOS mobile device or iPhone (edit: Nov 2019 Apples new Catalina Software now has “Screentime” which means you can monitor with parental controls from a iOS13+ iPhone to a laptop with the latest operating Catalina Apple Software, instructions in my manual)
If your family are all Android users, then a Google Chrome Book, with Googles Family Link might be the go, but keep in mind Chrome Books are limited with the type of software that can be installed.
Trying to monitor and set any parental controls or filters on a laptop from a parents laptop with a different operating system is not possible unless you use another independent program like Family Zone, Net Nanny or K9. These programs will charge a monthly fee but will give you very comprehensive settings and control until your teen needs less monitoring.
What Parental Control System To Use?
It is up to you to decide what if any parental controls settings or filters you choose to use. Look at all the types of settings that suit your family and your abilities, and decide from there. The free built-in Windows or Apple parental control settings may be all you need, but if you need a bit more help with moderation and technology, a subscription service may be a better option. Family Zone, being an Australian company have excellent customer service help for Australians and are sometimes compatible with what the school may have installed for filters. The other apps like Net Nanny, K9, Norton and McAfee Safe Family also offer good parental control options, you can find reviews online of all.
Note: Some of the “Child-Friendly” Internet Browsers are just a branded browser with Google Safe Search enabled, you can set Google or Bing safe search easily yourself for free on the browser installed on the laptop. If you do install a child-friendly browser make sure it will work for school projects.
Important: Apple Screentime for iOS12 works only on mobile devices like iPhones and iPads NOT laptops and can be monitored remotely from the parents iPhone or iPad.
Cheaper Hardware May End Up Costing You
If you are cash strapped, buying the cheapest laptop you can find, might result in you having to buy a new one within two years. Some cheaper laptops may not have enough power or storage for some of the more extensive programs your student may need down the track. A more affordable Laptop may also not be very durable, and the battery may not last. If you can, either buy a good quality lightweight laptop new or get one, second-hand or refurbished (repaired, with updated parts). Apple has a refurbished store on their site also. Second-hand laptops can be perfect if the battery can be replaced down the track, and it is a reliable brand like Apple or Dell.
If you are going to buy a laptop second hand, be careful and make sure you buy it from a reputable dealer or owner that has good reviews. Make sure it has been reset it back to factory settings before sale.
Many retailers have “Back To School” sales on laptops and software so shop around.
Many software providers and hardware suppliers offer student discounts to parents, and later to tertiary students at College and University.
Apple has an education website, where students and parents of students at school and university can pay a little less for devices and software. Here: https://www.apple.com/au-hed/shop/back-to-school Always look for student versions of any software you need to buy. Adobe software (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects) which is extremely expensive have a student version which is quite a bit cheaper than the full version and works just the same. https://www.adobe.com/au/education.html?marketSegment=EDU
Apple Vs Windows
An Apple Laptop can cost more upfront, but you don’t pay for the basic office software. Windows laptops can be cheaper for similar specs, but you might have to pay more for software or pay for an ongoing subscription if it is not included in the price – check before purchase. Microsoft allows six downloads on a Family subscription.
Apple Laptops are one of the most popular devices in schools especially for younger students as you don’t have to pay extra for software, and the parental controls are adequate and very easy to follow. (step by step instructions in my manual)
MacBook Air is one of the most popular Apple laptops, it is lightweight, fast and has unbeatable battery life. I’ve had my MacBook Air for nearly five years now, and it runs the same as it did five years ago. So although that Windows ACER looks really cheap, factor in the extra software you may have to buy on top of the base price, and how long the laptop will last.
Microsoft Windows Laptops
A good solid Windows laptop like a Lenovo which is a very popular laptop for school is a good reliable workhorse with again an excellent battery life and a stable computer that should last three years if looked after reasonably well. Some students prefer a Windows laptop due to the programs they want to use with it. There may be some creative software that they need that only works on Windows devices.
Note: computer games typically run better on Windows devices, so if you have a keen gamer they might push for Windows for that reason, which is why I got my gamer son an Apple! No good for gaming, although Fortnite runs well on anything.
Paying for an extended warranty is a good idea for student laptops. But Laptops that are water damaged or damaged from a being dropped may not be covered with the warranty so check the conditions. Apple care is essential for student apple laptops it may extend the lifetime of the device, and they do allow for some damage.
Protect That Device!
A Lost Laptop….it’s going to happen. Left on the bus, at a friends place, or a cafe. Laptops and tablets and phones all have settings to help you find a lost device or erase it if stolen. However, you must enable location services and the “Find My Lost Device” setting BEFORE you lose your mobile device. Keep in mind though to find a lost laptop/phone/tablet can be tricky if the laptop is switched off, or out of battery or not connected to WiFi. So finding a “left on the bus” laptop top via the built-in tracking software isn’t something on which you can rely. Make sure your child’s laptop bag and the actual laptop have a name and contact phone number, include parents phone number in case the students’ phone and laptop are lost together!!!
Windows lost laptop instructions here; https://support.microsoft.com/en-my/help/11579/microsoft-account-find-and-lock-lost-windows-device
Apple lost laptop instructions here: https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT204756
Google Chrome Lost Laptop Here: https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/7177579?hl=en
Purchasing a tracking tag like a “Tile” or Orbit tracker might be a good idea to attach to the computer bag, it connects via Bluetooth to the student’s phone, and can at the very least tell you where the computer bag was when it was separated from the connected phone.
Drop-proof – Knockproof
Purchase a laptop cover/protective plastic case. It will protect the device from drops and knocks, and make sure you buy a good laptop bag with a strap to carry it in. It is better to have a plastic laptop protector and a lightweight laptop bag that can fit in a large school bag, than no protective cover and a reliable laptop bag. Kids tend to drop laptops when out of the bag.
Password, Anti Virus Protect, and BACKUP!
Make sure your student has an anti-virus program on their laptop: Norton, McAfee or the free anti-virus protections called “Sophos” for Apple. Antivirus software is vital to protect their device. You will have to renew the subscription every year or two.
Make sure your student’s laptop/tablet is password protected so that if their laptop is lost their personal data cannot be accessed. They should set a password to access their login. When younger it’s preferable that a parent/carer also knows the password in case of emergencies.
Back Up Back Up Back UP!
Invest in an external backup drive and ensure your student backs up their files to this device regularly so that if the laptop is destroyed or stolen, they can quickly restore their programs and data. A wireless backup system can work well also so that they don’t have to plug into the backup disc each time physically, and it can be programmed to happen automatically. It may also help if the laptop gets a virus and needs to be rolled back to a previous backup to regain access.
Cloud-Based Storage and Backup
Better still, sign your student up to a cloud-based backup file system like iCloud or Microsoft Onedrive, Google Drive or DropBox. Many schools insist on students using an online cloud-based file sharing and storage system anyway. Make sure the laptop is set up so that their files/contacts/calendar and email is automatically synced to the online cloud-based storage system when they connect to the internet. So that if the laptop is damaged or stolen, that they can still access their files and information and restore it to a new device if needed.
Note This is a good idea for phones and tablets as well.
Ultimately a Students first Laptop is a big responsibility. They will need help to learn how to look after it. It is advisable to set some guidelines around use and care with your child.
It’s a good idea to indicate to the child that you actually own the laptop, so that you can monitor it, and make sure it is being looked after and used wisely. Make sure your child understands that they are not allowed to hide it from you and that you do have to approve new software and can do a spot check from time to time to monitor what is on the laptop when they are in junior years.
Do the spot checks WITH your child so that the process is transparent and not seen as spying. Spying on your child (where you don’t tell them that you are looking at their messaging and history and programs) is really only reasonable if you suspect your child is in some real physical danger and is hiding something dangerous from you. Otherwise, always try to do your monitoring with open transparency so that you can discuss what is being seen. If a child finds out you have been spying on them, it can erode the trust and honesty you are trying to build with your child.
Indicate to your child, when you might stop spot checking or monitoring their use. For example, in year 9 or when they are 15 or when they have proved their maturity. Every child is different, and your relationship with them will determine when that might be.
You Cannot Outwit Your Child Online
Filters and blocks are really only safeguards they are not infallible and can be circumvented. You cannot hope to outwit a child on digital devices, and they will find ways around your blocks and filters if they want to. If they do break the rules or disable filters, then deal with the breach as you would for any broken rule or agreement, with appropriate consequences. Incentives are better than warnings. Reward your child for mature, responsible behaviour.
Monitoring and Parental Controls
It is essential that if you do set parent controls on the laptop that you explain to your child what they are, and what they are used for. Lock the parental controls on with a passcode, if you can. If you are monitoring your child’s Laptop use via an app or remote style dashboard make sure your child knows what you can see, and what behaviour you expect.
Older Teens 15years and up.
Monitoring of older teens devices can be a hindrance to developing trust and online maturity. As teens get older, they may feel their privacy is being invaded and may feel they are not being given the opportunity to be trusted if you are still reading their messages and spot checking their device. Out of frustration, they may also find other ways around your monitoring to have privacy.
Adult content filtering (pornography and violence filters) should always be enabled on a school laptop no matter what the age of the child. You may have to change the filtering settings to allow for more adult sites as they get older. But blocking pornography and explicit violence is a MUST for all school students. Students that access explicit adult content and bring it to school can face expulsion or severe consequences.
Contract Of Care
You can create a type of contract of use, which is something many schools implement as well. Be clear on what the consequences may be if the contract is broken.
The contract can contain terms of responsibility like:
- Make sure you handle the laptop with care, use two hands to carry it, don’t throw it or smash the keyboard.
- Do not pick the laptop up via the screen this is often how screens disconnect and loosen.
- Keep the laptop charged overnight in a safe place on a hard surface (outside of bedrooms is a good idea)
- Don’t re-charge the laptop under covers or on soft furnishing they can burn up
- Alert a parent if strange popups or messages come up on the laptop
- Alert a parent if there is any damage to the laptop or is not working properly
- Backup your files regularly and work either offline to a hard disc or online on a cloud-based backup system
- Ask permission before installing new software that is not School software
- Don’t eat or drink over the top of the laptop. Make sure beverages are always at a lower level to the laptop and kept well away
- Don’t clean the laptop with water or spray. Use only a damp cloth or a soft keyboard brush on the keys
- Make sure the anti-virus software is up to date and approve all operating system updates for security
- Make sure your laptop is always in its protective cover and carried to and from school in the laptop bag zipped up
- Make sure you know where your laptop is at all times
- Do not “loan” your laptop to other students
- Keep “Find My Laptop” or use Tile or Orbit operating to locate your laptop if you cannot find it
- Only use the laptop in the “Family Room” (Decide where it can be used, keeping mobile devices out of bedrooms until your child is a senior student is safer).
- Ensure that your name and phone number is on the bag and on the laptop and is clearly visible (use a sticker or put under the laptop cover if it is see thru)
- Don’t use your school laptop for gaming (this is up to you to decide, but it is a good idea to restrict gaming use to help with focus)
- Use your school laptop only for school work and approved platforms only
- If the parental controls are tampered with, there may be a consequence for doing so (think about a fair consequence for this, limit gaming time for example)
- Be patient with your parent/carer when they want to know what you are doing on your laptop, it may be because they are excited with the amazingly creative things you are doing on your device!
Screen Time Use:
There can be a trap for parents where the student informs the parent that they need their laptop in their bedrooms for a quiet location to “study”, and that they are always on their laptop because they are doing important school work, the entire time. This can sometimes make parents very wary of challenging screen time and restricting where the laptop is used. Find out from your child’s school how much actual homework will need to be done on the laptop. If it is 40 mins a night try to stick with that as much as practical, given that some students may need more or less time.
Laptops Out Of Bedrooms
Keep the laptop out of the bedroom until your child is mature enough to handle anything that might be happening on the laptop, and is mature enough to be responsible online. A quiet location for studying is more important when students get to more senior years, but in younger grades remember students are very used to working in classrooms where there is usually constant noise, so they should be able to work in a quiet corner of the lounge or family room also. Set a time and place for homework and do be mindful of the extraneous noise in the family areas. If they are sensitive to any noise, earplugs might do the trick. But allowing laptops in unsupervised bedrooms when students are below year nine can be risky. Some children appear to be more mature and trustworthy than others, but certainly, primary school children should never have an internet connected device alone in their bedrooms, this includes gaming consoles. By having the device out in the open, you can at least keep a casual eye on what they are doing, and if they are upset by something you will probably notice and be able to help on the spot.
Balance the Positivity:
Ultimately your child’s laptop will be both a window to the world, an educational tool and a benchmark of maturity. Trying to keep positive about the technology and the benefits it can bring is very important. If there is a disproportionate negative attitude by you towards the BYOD Laptop, it won’t help down the track if your child needs to talk to you about the laptop and what happens on it.
Offer positive incentives for mature and careful use. Try to notice the good that the laptop is being used for. Ask your child’s teacher about the programs they are using on the laptop, and gently find out what sort of projects they are using the Laptop for without appearing too “nosy”. By walking by and noticing your child doing something interesting like designing something or coding or developing something you can use the laptop as a way of opening a digital doorway between you and your child.
Our children are our greatest teachers on technology; they will be doing amazing things on digital technology in the future that we haven’t even conceived of yet. If you don’t know what they are doing on their device, pick your moment and ask. Be genuinely curious rather than suspicious. The technology might even bring you closer together.
More details for parental controls and screen time advice in my Parent Manual https://www.thecybersafetylady.com.au/keepingkidssafeonline