Setting Up a Chromebook for Home and School

“Hey Bear, make it look like you’re doing something smart.”

July 21, 2020

As both a Dad and a Google Partner, I know that setting up Google for Families can be just as tough as managing gSuite and Chrome for hundreds of employees — without help that is! This note is far from perfect, but I hope that it helps you and I hope that I can learn something from your comments.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, working and learning from home saves lives. It also saves you time and money from commuting on any day. We’re all learning, but even our preschooler is getting self-sufficient.

Problem

School provided Google accounts in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) – and likely your school — currently give students unrestricted, 24x7 access to distracting websites, like PBS Kids TV and Games. They also do not let caretakers set screen time limits, install apps, set app limits, login for caretaker use, etc.

We love the Wild Kratts guys, but sometimes we need to be doing math homework and not playing PBS Kids games. We also love Kahn Academy kids, YouTube Kids, Messenger Kids, and apps that were not built for kids, but are great for them (e.g. Brokenage, Thimbleweed Park, and almost everything from Amanita Design). School provided accounts do not let us install android apps, whitelist websites, or set time limits.

“Solution” A: Take away the Chromebook when you cannot monitor it

This “solution” fails at allowing us to install non-school-approved apps. It also does not prevent children from hiding devices in unsafe places and getting up in the middle of the night to find them. It has caused more stress and distractions than education. Physically locking-up the device could improve this solution. Disabling the internet via your router on a schedule also helps, but is not failsafe (see HTML offline storage) nor is it always convenient. Restrictions on a router level (i.e. Deep Packet Inspection) in our days of encryption are also only half-working cat-and-mouse games. Time to be a good caretaker and…

Solution B: Set restrictions with Family Link

This is easier said than done. I hope this working guide helps you!

  1. Get a Chromebook
    Get a Chromebook that is not managed by the school. Unfortunately, this means you may need to purchase one. (iPad doesn’t cut it. We picked a Pixelbook Go. I may write more on this topic later.)
  2. Get Gmail
    Make sure you (the caretaker) have a Google Account that is not a gSuite account. The email for this account should end in gmail.com. If you don’t have one, create a Google account. (You will need this for Family Link. Family Link — and Google Home – do not work well, if at all, with gSuite accounts.)
  3. Reset the Chromebook — Do Not Login Yet
    If you (the caretaker) do not already have the Chromebook owner account on the Chromebook — or you don’t know what I’m talking about, reset your Chromebook. Google Calls this Powerwashing. You can skip this step if you are setting up a brand new Chromebook from the factory without any special management services attached to it.
  4. Login first with your account
    If you (the caretaker) do not already have the Chromebook owner account on the Chromebook — or you don’t know what I’m talking about, please make sure that you are first person that logs into the Chromebook with your own account. Do it now. Why? The first person that logs into a new or reset Chromebook becomes the owner of the Chromebook. If you login first with your child account or an education account, then go back to the previous step and reset the Chromebook.
  5. Set up Family Link
    If you do not have Family Link, or you don’t know what it is, then set up Family Link. Only use Google accounts that have emails that end in gmail.com for this step (non-gSuite accounts; other non-gSuite Google accounts may work, but I have not tested this). Do not give your child the new child account password at this time. Warning 1/2: Do not use your school-managed education account in doing this. Warning 2/2: If your child already has a Google account, and they are under 13, you can still set Family Link up for them. However, if you change their birthday from an incorrect Birthday to a correct Birthday that indicates that they are under 13, Google will delete their account. In this case you can restore the account with a credit card. If you are setting up the child account for the first time, you will not have this problem because you will create a special child with Family Link.
  6. Login second with the Family Link child account
    If you have not already logged into the Chromebook with the child account as part of the Family Link set up process above, do it now. (Remember, do not give your child the password at this point in time. If you have, you can always change it.)
  7. Set up a login pin for the child account
    While logged into the child account on the Chromebook, set a pin. This will allow your child to login without giving them the password to make account changes. When they get older, you may give them the password. If they are over 13 (in the U.S.), or they do not have a child account, Google allows your child to turn off Family Link with their password.
  8. Set Family Link limits
    Set up (a) screen time limits, (b) Android app limits (yes, new Chromebooks run Android Apps), and (c) only allow certain websites in Chrome. This last step (c) is important. Google Safe Search may block some mature content, but it does not block distracting content or content that they have outgrown. It’s better to give permission on request. As your student requires access to various resources, they will be able to request it and you will be able to grant access. Family Link works on iPhone and Android. We have, for example, Clever, Dreambox, Canvas, and a bunch of other apps whitelisted. When a teacher links to an external resource, like a specific YouTube video, you will be able to allow access to that video.
  9. Limit Chromebook logins
    Limit Chromebook logins to caretakers (e.g. you, another caretaker) and family link users (your child). This may sound counter-intuitive, but you actually do not want your child to login to their Chromebook with their school account at the Chromebook initial sign in screen. Why? Because schools like MCPS don’t allow caretakers to control screen time, whitelist websites, etc. You will login to the school account in a minute, but not this way!
  10. Add a school account for a Family Link user
    Finally! After adding a school account for a Family Link user, your child will be able to login to their Family Link account — with all the restrictions that you set up, including bed time hours, app limits, etc. and still be able to access school resources — with your on-demand permission. When they access a school resource, they will be prompted to ask their caretaker for access.
  11. Bookmark and Grant Access to School Resources
    If you had logged into your Chromebook with your school account directly, you would have seen convenient bookmarks, shortcuts, Chrome extensions, and Chrome Apps set up. However, because you your child is logging into their family link account first, you will have to create them as needed. Start with your school’s learning management system (LMS) and any custom homepage used by the school. (If you have the time, you can go back to your Chromebook owner account and temporarily allow yourself to login to the school account to see what is there. Just remember to turn this off when you are done.)

For MCPS students, start by allowing access to, creating shortcuts and “pins”, and installing Chrome and Android apps for the following:

  • Clever
    https://clever.com/
    Clever is currently the default MCPS Chromebook start page. It has special MCPS links to other webapps, which you may also bookmark, including Dreambox, Benchmark Universe, and others. First login “as student” and then bookmark the MCPS homepage. When logging in, you should be presented with the option to login with google. At this point, choose the Google school account when prompted to choose which Google account to use. You may also need to install the Clever Chrome Extension to easily access some apps linked to Clever.
  • Canvas Learning Management System
    https://www.instructure.com/canvas/
    Canvas is the current MCPS learning management system. The MCPS urls to allow are https://mcpsmd.instructure.com/ and https://classroom.mcpsmd.org/
  • Zoom
    https://zoom.us
    Zoom is the current, main MCPS video service. Install the Zoom Chrome App. If you are having trouble logging in, you can also install the Zoom Android App via the Play Store. We had to install the Android App to get the Chrome App to work because the Chrome App did not prompt us to allow resources it needs via Family Link, but the Android App did. If your Chromebook does not come with the Play Store, you may be able to install the play store onto your chromebook.
  • Google Meet
    https://meet.google.com/
    Some MCPS classes use Google Meet. It’s like Zoom but comes with Google services. It lacks some features of Zoom, but i have no idea why MCPS isn’t using it as the main app.

Before class starts, it’s a good idea to review your child’s lesson plan for the day and pre-approve any websites and resources that your child’s teacher may point them to. You can approve requests that your child makes from their Chromebook from your own device. You can also do this during class, as needed. After you approve the main sites that your school uses, you shouldn’t have to approve them again and life will get easier.

Please let me know if you have suggestions to improve this guide, or what works best for you! I’m always learning. (And software is always changing.) I may write more about our favorite apps for kids (on lots of platforms), best screen time practices, router controls, Google assistant and Google translate for kids, Pixelbook protection and accessories, phones for kids, and more in the future.

If you’ve read this far, if you’ve set something up (working or not), if you have made a comment — now it’s time to take a screen break. Get outside. Play in the sprinkler. Yoga time with kids. Homework can wait. Be safe and wear a mask.

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