Getting ready for the school year

Anthony Caruana
20 February, 2015
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Apple, education, macworld australiaAs summer draws to a close, the new school year arrives. And with that, the questions arise: what technology do the students need? Which apps will help them stay on top of their workload? Do they require accessories to aid their gadgets? And can you answer those questions while saving money?

It’s that time of the year – when the fatigue of keeping the kids entertained over the summer is almost overwhelming and you’ve got a to-do list that’s longer than your arm as you get everything together for the start of another school year.

There are books to buy, apps to download, school bags and lunch boxes to find from last year – hopefully without a leftover banana or sandwich from December buried inside – and a million other tasks to get through.

While we can’t help you with six-week-old mouldy food, we can offer some advice on getting ready for school in a few other ways.

 

SAVING SOME MONEY

One of the most difficult parts of the back to school period is dealing with the significant start-up cost of the school year. The worst case scenario is needing a new Mac or iPad, as well as the associated accessories and software.

If you’re buying from Apple’s App Stores for iOS or OS X you can use iTunes gift cards to load up your account. Shop around for gift cards, as many retailers offer them at significant discounts. The best we’ve managed to get our hands on was a short online sale through a reputable retailer that sold a limited quantity of $10 gift cards at $2.99 each. However, you’ll find many large retailers and department stores routinely offer discounts of between 25 percent and 30 percent.

Check out www.giftcardsonsale.com.au for current discounts on iTunes and other gift cards.

Shopping around for Apple hardware is also worthwhile. We’re fans of shopping around and then finding a retailer that has a policy of undercutting any advertised price. We’ve made some significant savings that way on many occasions.

Apple’s retail stores will often price match if you ask.

When buying new hardware, unless you absolutely must have the latest and greatest, there are some real bargains to be found if you consider refurbished equipment. Apple’s online store has a link to its refurbished products site where you can find some good deals.

All the products sold there include a one-year warranty that can be boosted with Apple Care as well as free shipping.

There are also other used computer dealers, such as mResell, that offer great service and prices. Just make sure you do your research before handing over your hard-earned cash.

 

WHAT NOTEBOOK SHOULD YOU BUY?

A few years ago, the government funded the purchase of computers for many schools. That arrangement funded the supply of many thousands of computers in schools, but now, a few years later, those computers are no longer in use. As a result, many schools are now moving to a BYOD model where students supply their own computers.

With the focus on students, there are probably only two screen sizes that will be on your radar for the computers they will be carrying between school and home. There’s the 11in MacBook Air, 13in MacBook Air or 13in MacBook Pro.

Although the 15in MacBook Pro is a great machine, the extra cost, size and weight don’t make it an ideal choice for students.

Once you choose between the larger and smaller displays, the decision comes to a balancing act between specifications and budget. Our advice is pretty simple. Don’t skimp on memory – if your budget can handle it, make sure you get a model with 8GB. Then, get the most storage capacity you can afford. In our view, the CPU is the third priority.

Modern processors can handle pretty much anything most apps can throw at them. We tend to run out of memory and space before the processor constrains our activities.

For the majority of students, a 13in MacBook Air with 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage will cost around $1500. While that sounds like a lot, it’s less than $10 per week if your student uses it for three full years.

A similarly equipped 11in MacBook Air will cost about $100 less.

 

WHAT ABOUT AN iPAD?

Many schools jumped onto the iPad bandwagon and fully embraced Apple’s market-defining tablet.

If you look at Apple’s market strategy with the iPad and iPad mini, it takes a three-tiered approach. Older models are kept in the market, proving a low-cost entry point. The most recent previous release is kept as a mid-level entry point with the latest model, equipped with the latest bells and whistles filling in the top end of the market. It’s a ‘good, better, best’ approach.

Once you decide whether a full-sized iPad or an iPad mini is the best fit for your student, we’d then suggest avoiding the less expensive entry-level devices. While they are good value, Apple has limited them to lower storage capacities and they are the most likely to be left behind when a new version of iOS is released.

Assuming you’re looking at the most recent or prior release models, it comes down to a balancing act between capacity and budget.

Students are likely to be creating lots of interesting content on their iPads. For this reason, we’d suggest 32GB as a minimum capacity, but if your budget can stretch to 64GB, then we’d suggest getting that.

 

SOFTWARE AND APPS

Having chosen the hardware that will support your child’s education, it’s time to consider the software.

Regardless of whether you’ve chosen a Mac, an iPad or both, Apple does give you a head-start. All new Macs and iPads come with free copies of Pages, Numbers and Keynote, so students can hit the ground running with their new gear.

If the students have access to an iCloud account, then they can easily share work between devices if they save their work to Apple’s cloud.

The reality is that Microsoft Office is the de facto standard when it comes to document sharing. The good news is that Microsoft Office for iOS devices is free, so students can use those applications to create content for school.

Our other must-have app for students is Evernote.

Evernote makes it easy to collect research, take pictures, create simple presentations, make notes, clip entire web pages and share what you’ve discovered.

As it’s multi-platform, a student can collect information using their iPad or iPhone while on a field trip and then use that research on their Mac or PC when they’re back at school or home.

As far as other apps go, there are hundreds of apps in the education sections of the iOS and OS X App Stores. Many are extremely well-presented and deliver information to students and teachers in very stimulating ways. However, don’t get tempted to buy every well-presented app. In many cases, the same content can be found online at no cost.

Perhaps the most underemphasised app category for students is organisation. Students have a lot to balance between classes, assignments, regular homework and extracurricular activities like part-time jobs, sports and social lives. Finding a tool that works well for students can take some trial and error. While we’re able to manage our work using Apple’s Reminders and Calendar apps with iOS and OS X, the one thing we really miss is a single view where tasks and appointments are all displayed in one simple screen.

iOS covers this to some degree with the Notification screen that can be accessed by swiping down from the top edge of the display. OS X has a similar function, which is accessed by clicking on the icon in the top right corner of the OS X menu bar.

However, getting all that information into a single app – so you can look ahead and see what homework tasks, assignments and classes can be viewed from a single place – can be useful. BusyCal is one app that we’ve tried and think will fit the bill. The monthly and weekly views combine the Calendar and Reminders information so that you can, at a glance, see what the coming days and weeks are going to look like.

At $65 from the App Store, this isn’t a cheap app, but it’s just US$50 through the BusyMac website.

 

RESOURCES TO SUPPORT LEARNING

No two students learn in the same way. One model for learning suggests that students have three learning modes – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. For this reason, it’s important to find interesting ways to engage students that appeal to their different learning styles.

Over recent years, the trend towards gamification (the use of gaming paradigms to enhance engagement in applications) has taken hold and it can be a very effective tool to make learning more engaging and interesting. Great learning games are fun for students and reinforce positive learning outcomes.

For example, there are lots of educational games where students have to react quickly by responding to visual and auditory cues in order to achieve certain bonus levels or other incentives.

These cover maths, languages, spelling, design, problem solving – almost every learning area covered in schools from kindergarten all the way to Year 12 and beyond.

If more formal learning tools are a better match for you or the students you’re responsible for, there’s the iTunes U.

iTunes U is a collection of lectures and learning materials published by hundreds of the most respected teachers and universities across the world. You can freely download and watch classes in subjects ranging from software development to ancient history, languages and physics – if you can think of a subject, there are probably a few different classes you can download and follow.

iTunes U content is accessed via iTunes on a Mac or by using the free apps available for the iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, so you can work through a subject while offline – a handy idea if you’re easily distracted.

When looking for apps to support learning, don’t limit your search to the education section of the different app stores. You’ll find great apps in the games, medical and entertainment areas as well, although it may take a little more effort to find suitable apps.

It’s also worth doing some online sleuthing to find what apps are recommended by different education departments and schools. Many schools have blogs where they list the apps they use and even blog about their suitability for different students or whether they’re effective tools.

 

CHARGING AND MANAGEMENT

Many schools choose to deploy iPads as a shared classroom resource – much like a tub of books in the old days. The challenge is keeping those iPads charged, up-to-date with the latest apps and ready for the next class.

The Bretford PowerSync Tray for iPad with Lightning Connector ($1500 from Apple Store) can hold up to 10 iPads. If your school is using Apple’s free iPad Configurator, you can use the PowerSync Tray for iPad to update and deploy apps to all of the iPads housed on the tray simultaneously.

Bretford also offers carts that can hold as many as 40 iPads. In addition, it has an app, PowerSync+, which allows you to manage each of the iPads in some of its tray systems so you can check on the charging status of each iPad, as well as the status of any Configurator workflows that are in progress.

Local manufacturer PC Locs has been making notebook and tablet storage trolleys for several years. It has a series of different carts, such as the Aero and Carrier ranges. These securely store and charge as many as 60 iPads at one time – ideal for school libraries and labs.

It also offers the iQ Sync Charge Boxes. These are devices that provide 16 2.1amp USB ports for charging and syncing iPads.

 

iPAD CASES

A walk through any shopping centre will reveal a multitude of different iPad cases appealing to almost every taste and preference. For student use, we highly recommend looking at cases for their protective capability rather than aesthetic value.

Look for cases that offer solid protection at the corners – if an iPad hits the ground on a corner, this can shatter a screen.

The Griffin Survivor All-Terrain Case ($80) is a good example, albeit possibly a little extreme for most students. The Survivor is built to the US military’s MIL-STD- 810F ruggedness standard. It’s made of shatter-resistant polycarbonate with shock-resistant silicone cladding and there’s a built-in screen protector that seals the iPad’s display from the environment. There’s also a kickstand on the back, so that students can easily prop their iPad up while watching video or reading.

We’ve got an OtterBox case for our iPhone that we use when bike riding or at the beach, and can vouch for its protective capability.

OtterBox’s iPad Defender Case ($90) is made of high-impact polycarbonate and includes a foam interior that delivers added shock absorption and protects the back of your iPad from scratches. Despite not being waterproof – there are other cases in OtterBox’s range if you need that capability – it should fit the bill for most students.

If your needs are a little less extreme, there are many other options to consider. For example, the Belkin Stripe Cover for iPad ($50) is
an elegant case with solid corners and protection for the screen and back when the iPad is stuffed into a school bag.

Similarly, the STM Studio ($60; above) is popular with schools as the cases come in several colours and offer solid protection. Like Apple’s Smart Case, the STM Studio’s front cover can fold and act as a stand, so that the iPad can be used for viewing content or to provide a more comfortable typing angle.

 

iPAD KEYBOARDS

Keyboards are very personal things. Finding one that works well and is comfortable can take some trial and error. We’d suggest trying a few out in a store before committing to a purchase. We’ve tried some inexpensive units in the past and found the keys to be very spongy, with small keys that meant we spent a lot of time fixing errors.

For our money, Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover ($99) is simply excellent. It clips onto the iPad’s magnetic edge and acts as a protective cover for the iPad’s display. There’s a channel about two-thirds of the way back, just beyond the row of shortcut keys that your iPads sits in, so you can type with the screen propped up at a confortable angle.

The Zagg Backlit Key Folio ($139; above) is also a great option, as it allows you to adjust the iPad’s viewing angle over a 135-degree range. As the iPad sits right at the back of the Key Folio it also provides a larger typing area than many other keyboards. In fact, when being used, the Key Folio makes your iPad look like a smaller MacBook Air.

 

MAC CASES

Carrying a computer back and forth between home and school requires a decent bag that won’t leave your student with a sore back and protects the computer. It’s tempting to just put the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air in a sleeve and shove it in the bag among the books. But, having seen students and how they treat their school bags, we suggest a more rigorous approach.

It’s also worth noting that a decent backpack is likely to set you back a little more than you may expect. But a well-made unit will see your student through most of their school life and possibly the years beyond. So, think of it as a long-term investment.

Look for a bag that has a well-padded base. Students often drop their bags. This can result in percussive forces hitting the computer, causing damage. Many satchels and backpacks have specific compartments, with extra padding, for safely housing portable computers.

For example, the Thule 15in Stravan Backpack ($130) can safely house a MacBook Pro in a well-padded pocket that zips separately from the backpack’s main compartment. As it’s made for larger devices, there’s plenty of room for books and the other bits and pieces students carry between home and school. It also boasts a storm cover, so that it can be waterproofed for walks home in the rain.

If a school insists that students use a standard issue bag as it’s part of the school uniform, then we’d suggest looking at shell cases and slip cases. Speck makes shell cases in a variety of different colours and sizes to match all of Apple’s different notebooks. They retail for around $60.

While there are hundreds of different slip cases and shells available, we really like the Twelve South 13in BookBook for MacBook Air ($90). It offers solid protection for the notebook computer without looking like a regular case. Twelve South has fashioned an accessory that looks like an old book, camouflaging the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air can be used while in the BookBook, making it both protective and functional.

 

GADGETS

One of the great things about modern computers is the ability to connect all sorts of different devices over USB.

While some can be a lot of fun (USB Nerf Missile Launcher, anyone?), there are also some serious educational tools that can be connected to your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

USB microscopes can be great tools for inquisitive minds. When purchasing a USB microscope, what you’re really getting is a USB camera with some fancy lenses. However, one of the hidden challenges is that many of these devices require extra software to work with your Mac. We suggest reading the fine print and doing some research before buying.

For the aspiring artist, there’s the Instant Transmitting Paper to iPad Pen ($170; above). This special pen and transmitter lets you draw on regular paper. You attach a small transmitter to the top of the page you’re working on and the output from the pen is sent to your iOS device. The transmitter can hold up to 100 pages of text.

Many teachers and parents will lament how students can lose concentration or come up with a thousand excuses for cutting a study session short. The Study Ball ($115) may just be the cure. This 9kg ball is ‘chained’ to a student’s ankle with a timer. The parent sets the timer for a defined period of time. Once that time elapses, the chain is released. If you’ve been looking for a way to tether a student to their desk, this may be the answer.

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