Distance learning: 4 smart tech solutions for keeping kids on track

Get some badly needed school-from-home help from Alexa, Google Assistant, your smart lights, and more.

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Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: It’s five minutes until your third-grader’s distance learning class, but just as you’re about to make sure she’s dialed into her Zoom call, something comes up with your own work.

Thirty minutes later, you finally head over to your daughter’s room, only to find her sprawled on the floor watching her iPad. Meanwhile, her Chromebook—the one she uses for Zoom calls—is securely shut. Yes, she just missed another class, and you (bad parent!) let it happen.

Keeping your kids on track while juggling your own obligations has to be one of the biggest challenges of distance learning, remote learning, virtual learning or whatever you want to call it. We’ve rounded up a few smart home solutions that can help your grade-schoolers—or at least, help you help them—to manage their schedules during what’s likely to be many more months of learning at home.

Google’s Family Bell

There’s nothing like quite the piercing ring of a school bell to keep young students on track during the day, and unfortunately, a beeping alarm clock doesn’t quite cut it. Enter Google, which recently unveiled a new feature for Assistant that does the next best thing.

Family Bell lets you create bells—or at least, Google Assistant’s voiced version of bells—that sound on your various Google smart speakers and displays. You can use the Google Assistant app on your phone to set up daily or weekly announcements, and you can pick and choose which of your Google devices you want the announcement to play on.

To get started, open the Google Assistant app, tap your icon in the top-right corner, tap Assistant, then scroll down and tap Family Bell. Another option: Just say “Hey Google, create a Family Bell” to one of your Google speakers, and Google Assistant will send a Family Bell shortcut to your phone.

Alexa reminders

While Alexa doesn’t have a Family Bell feature per se, its Reminders feature essentially does the same thing. Just create a reminder to make Alexa read out a reminder to any or all of your Amazon Echo speakers or displays at a given time, repeatable on a daily or weekly basis. Even before the pandemic hit, I regularly used Alexa’s reminders to remind my daughter that it was time to get ready for school (yes, in-person school) or that iPad time (a sacred ritual in my eight-year-old’s life) was over for the afternoon.

To set an Alexa reminder, just fire up the Alexa app, tap More > Reminders & Alarms, tap the Reminders tab, then tap “+” to create the reminder.

Keep in mind that Alexa will say whatever is in the “title” field, so I usually had Alexa address my daughter directly, as in “Hey Claire, time to turn iPad off and put your shoes on.”

I would advise against setting too many Alexa reminders. I made that mistake myself, and pretty soon I found my daughter’s Echo Dot banished to a corner of her room, its power cable unplugged.

Smart light timers and schedules

A blaring alarm isn’t the only way to keep your kids on task. If you have smart lights in your home, you can (most likely, depending on the brand) make them turn on, off, change colors, or ramp up their brightness to signal a new class, lunchtime, or recess. You can (again, very likely) also trigger one-off timers that will make your lights flash when the time is up.

Daily and weekly schedules are staples when it comes to smart lighting, and most smart bulb brands will let you set up schedules within their respective apps, or (for those bulbs that support it) you can create Alexa and Google Assistant routines that control your lights automatically.

For example, you can set schedules on Philips Hue lights by tapping Routines > Other routines in the Hue app. You can then pick which lights to control (including individual bulbs, rooms, and lighting zones), choose start and end times, and decide what happens when the scheduled time arrives—say, for lunch, you can set the lights in your child’s room to change from a cool “concentrate” scene to a more playful green hue (assuming the smart bulbs in the room can change colors).

You can also use Alexa and Google Assistant to take charge of compatible smart bulbs. For Alexa, tap More > Routines to get started, or tap the Routines button on the Google Home app for Google Assistant. One of the advantages of using Alexa or Google Assistant to set up lighting routines is that you can have them trigger other events at the same time—for example, they could play music or even the sound of a school bell to coincide with the lights. Alexa users may also want to consider the Amazon Echo Glow, a $30 globe-shaped smart lamp designed specifically for kids.

Finally, one-off smart light timers can be effective if, say, you want to give your kid five more minutes of iPad time. With the Philips Hue app, just tap the Routines tab, then tap Timers > Create timer. You can then name your new timer, select which rooms or lighting zones you’d like the timer to control, set a time limit, then decide what happens when the timer ends. Among the choices: Make the selected lights blink, turn them off, or switch to a new lighting scene.

Broadcast messages

If your remotely learning kids need an announcement from the principal’s office to get their attention, both Alexa and Google Assistant can help.

You can use Alexa to make an immediate announcement to all your Echo speakers and displays—perfect for calling everyone to lunch or demanding the presence of any students who have gone rogue. Just open the Alexa app, tap Communicate > Announce, say or type your message, then tap the big blue arrow to broadcast.

For Google Assistant, open the Google Home app, tap the Broadcast button, then say whatever it is you’d like to announce. You can send your announcement to all your Google smart speakers or displays, or specific a single device or room.

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