student sitting at a table wearing headphones while looking at a laptop computer screen


Seven Online Tools to Keep Students Engaged at Home

Schools may be closed, but there are great digital resources for parents to help keep their kids learning at home

For many across the United States, the living room has suddenly become the classroom. With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, some for the rest of the school year, teachers have turned to services like Zoom, Google Classroom, and Blackboard to reach and continue teaching students. Since educators can’t stream to every student eight hours straight every day, parents and caregivers have suddenly found themselves in the positions of co-teacher. It’s a situation that has given some parents a new appreciation for how challenging a teacher’s work can be.

It’s completely understandable if a parent feels overwhelmed. But there’s help available. With a few select tools, parents can keep their children engaged in productive (and distracting) creative work. Here are some of the coolest options out there.

Flashcard Apps like Brainscape

Good, old-fashioned, paper flashcards are still a go-to aid for students who have quizzes or tests on the horizon. But if they’d rather use their laptops, tablets, or phones, set them up with a flashcard app like Brainscape. Kids, aided by an adult, can create their own cards based on the material assigned by their teachers, or they can flip through packs available on the app. A good flashcard app is going to require as much activity and attention as any mobile game, but it drives home facts in a way that playing Candy Crush wouldn’t.

a six-step chart demonstrating the pomodoro timekeeping method

A chart demonstrating the Pomodoro method

Pomodoro Timers

Quarantining at home will likely make many students feel more scattered than usual. Rather than demanding they keep their nose to the grindstone, adults can help manage their students’ efforts with a Pomodoro Chrome extension (or similar tool). The Pomodoro technique was created in the 1980s by a software engineer and splits up a person’s time to allow for small chunks of direct attention and productive work, interspersed with even smaller sprints of mental rest. The idea is that students (or anyone!) can’t stay mentally fresh by focusing on a single task for hours at a time.

To prevent burnout a Pomodoro app will prompt students to work on classwork for 25 minutes, then it will give them a chance to spend 35 minutes checking social media, reading emails, getting a snack, or whatever they want to do to cool down. Once the second, “fun” timer goes off, it’s back to the task at hand for 25 more minutes. After four rounds of working and resting the student gets a longer break for 1530 minutes (ideally spent not looking at a screen), then they begin a new task or assignment.

If you’d rather not use the Pomodoro extension, try an egg timer (or the timer on your mobile device). And remember, adults: you can use this method alongside your students if you’ve also got tasks to complete.

Adobe Photoshop and InDesign

In a response to the coronavirus shutting down most schools, Adobe made two of its most popular programs—Photoshop and InDesign—free for students. Both programs are fantastic hubs for creativity in graphic design, photo editing, and animation. For older students, they’re also a set of tools that, if they master them now, will help them immeasurably in college and the workforce.

To keep students’ art projects from feeling rote, encourage them to compete in Reddit’s Photoshop Battles, have them work on fan art inspired by their favorite books or characters, or create movie posters for films that don’t exist. The possibilities are endless and, once they learn the basics, it’s easy to point students in the direction of their own fascinations. Luckily for parents, both programs come with video tutorials, and there’s a bevy of free instructional content on YouTube.

Public Libraries and the National Archive

Many public libraries (which have also closed due to the pandemic) have made their entire catalogues easier to access, and some, like the New York Public Library’s regular Storytime sessions, are even streaming new programming. (The New York Public Library also offers free video sessions with tutors.) The National Archive, meanwhile, has made its digital collections free to the public. If you want students to explore these newly accessible resources but you’re worried about structure, try developing a scavenger-hunt-through-history scenario and have students sift through our country’s records looking for especially silly moments.

a screenshot of the radiolab for kids website showing a grid of six images promoting six current episodes of the podcast

A screenshot of the Radiolab for Kids website showing a selection of podcast episodes currently available

Audible and Podcasts

If students need to give their eyes a break after hours of Zoom conferences and social media, set them up with Audible’s new, free programming for students. The Amazon-owned platform offers audio versions of pretty much any book your student might need to read for school. For students who take in information more effectively by listening rather than reading, Audible is a great resource.

And if your student needs a break from listening to a bunch of audiobooks, they can always throw on a podcast. VPR’s But Why? Is a great listen for younger kids, and shows like Gimlet’s Reply All (focused on the internet and technology) and WNYC’s Radiolab (focused on science) will charm older students. (Bonus tip: Consider helping students create their own podcast as part of their daily schoolwork!)

Digital Museum Tours

Field trips are out of the question for a while, but students can still explore visual archives from their laptops. The Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, Florida, opened GCM at Home for students whose routines have been interrupted by the coronavirus, and some institutions, like the Boston Children’s Museum, have digitized their archives to the extent that they’ve almost recreated the sensation of actually being there. You can find more digital museum resources in this roundup of great virtual field trips.

Stream Documentaries or Historical Films with Watch-Along Guides

Don’t just turn your students loose on Netflix or Amazon Prime if they get antsy during the remote school day—urge them to pick from each streaming platform’s available documentaries or films based on historic events. (Just avoid true crime or empty calories like Tiger King until school’s over.) One way to get started: Netflix recently made a selection of documentaries available on its YouTube channel. Each title also comes with educational resources, and the streaming service will be conducting Q&As with select filmmakers “so that students can hear from them firsthand.”

If you select the right title, many have educational guides, like this one for the 2014 film Selma. Sources like the Southern Poverty Law Center also create similar guides. These resources will turn your family’s movie nights from mindless escapism to intellectually enriching. And once the film is over, use discussion questions and reflect on your own experiences with events adapted into films. And don’t be afraid to get into light debates with your kids.