Is Your Computer Ready for Online Learning?

computer ready for online learningDo you need to upgrade your laptop? What about new software? Can you complete your course work from a tablet or smartphone? Staying up to date with the latest technology is a daunting, and potentially expensive, process. If you are like most college students, you are operating within a tight budget and need to purchase wisely.

My general advice about technology purchases is to go for the latest, most capable systems and versions available. Technology evolves and becomes obsolete quickly, so starting with the top-of-the-line can be an advantage. But this advice isn’t always realistic in terms of price. And it isn’t always necessary for online learning. You don’t need the latest and greatest tech to succeed and fortunately, there are a lot of low- and no-cost options available, as well as educational discounts for students.

Whether you are preparing for your first online class or already enrolled, knowing when and what to buy is a separate skill set that comes with practice. These tips are designed to make sure you don’t blow your budget, but are prepared to fully participate online.

Hardware and Software

Individual schools and programs usually offer a short list of basic technology requirements. These lists often include computer or laptop specifications (e.g., memory, operating systems, camera, speakers, microphone), the software needed to complete class requirements (e.g., create documents, presentations, and spreadsheets), and the best Internet browsers for accessing the school’s learning management system.

Kaplan University’s technology requirements page provides an example list, which includes a link to additional requirements in specific courses. Some classes and academic fields are more technical than others, and so have different requirements beyond the basics.

Many schools now offer access to many or most class functions via mobile devices. It’s not likely that you’ll be able to complete all course requirements this way, but as the technology improves, more and more is possible. National University’s tech requirements include guidance for iPad users along with information about what cannot be accessed through tablets or smartphones, such as some exam and chat room systems.

Internet Connection

While it may seem obvious to add “the Internet” to the list of technology you’ll need as an online learner, it’s a critical piece. You need access that is reliable during the hours you plan to be online and working on your courses. Ideally this is at home, but you may also rely on connections at work (after hours, of course, unless your supervisor is on board), as well as public Wi-Fi at a local library, coffee shop, or hotel when you are traveling. You will probably use a combination of all of the above as you participate in your online program.

For some students enrolling in an online program is the catalyst to get Internet service at home, and there are a lot of confusing (and expensive) options out there. Check with your school’s student tech support office for advice. The University of the Southwest, for example, recommends a DSL connection with download speed of 756kpbs as a minimum.

Some schools, such as Syracuse University, coordinate discounted Internet service rates for online students with local providers. If you are already have an account with a specific company ask about student deals, like the ones offered by AT&T and Comcast.

Mobile Apps, Web 2.0, and More

So far we’ve covered the basic requirements, but my students usually end up augmenting these at some point with a range of apps and software. Categories in which additional, non-required technologies might be useful in an online course include:

  • Communication: Web-based tools like Skype and Google Hangouts allow students to connect with each other in real-time to coordinate projects and form study groups.
  • Collaboration: Working together at a distance often requires a way to store common documents and track edits. Dropbox, Google Drive, and PBWorks offer a lot of options for student projects.
  • Multimedia: While many class assignments require you to submit traditional papers and projects, some courses encourage the use of alternative formats. You may want to record a presentation, for example, and post it to YouTube or upload the file to your class site.
  • Supplementary Resources: From online tutorials and study guides to mobile apps that help you take notes and study for exams, you’ll find a lot of helpful materials provided through your textbook publishers, your school’s student support center, and open access databases.

Most of the tools I’ve listed above require some sort of account registration and download, but the basic versions are free. There are, however, “premium” versions available for a fee, as well as additional services and tools that have one-time or subscription-based charges.

Before You Buy

Before committing to a paid subscription or expensive hardware upgrade it’s important to separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves in the context of your online program. Prices vary so take some time to compare all of your options with the following questions in mind:

  • How and when will you use the new technology? Write down a few primary goals for that new purchase you are thinking about. Will you use it in all of your courses or just for one assignment? Will it also be helpful outside of school with work and personal projects?
  • Is there a less expensive option? Do some preliminary information gathering. Chances are that you’ll find more than one tool that provides what you need. Carefully compare capabilities and costs to find the best deal, which may be a free or open resource.
  • What are other people saying? You can find user reviews and feedback on just about anything these days. CNet and Engadget are two sites that collect and publish reviews specifically related to technology. You can also look for samples and trial versions (usually between two weeks and 60 days) that allow you to try before you buy.
  • What kind of support is available? What if you experience a problem after you purchase a product? Research the options for learning how to use the new device or system (e.g., tutorials, user guides), as well as troubleshooting and requesting assistance (e.g., customer service information, user forums).
  • Can you afford it? We’ve all got a bottom line each month related to personal finances. For those who want to stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest, TechRepublic recommends incorporating technology needs and purchases into our budgets. This is a good way to plan for technology upgrades, with a focus on minimizing our spending.

Help is Available!

If shopping around for technology seems confusing, start with your school. The bookstore and tech support office can narrow your search, and ensure you have the basics covered. These offices are also usually aware of educational discounts offered by tech vendors (e.g., Apple, Dell, Microsoft), which are often available to students and faculty members, but not widely advertised.

Your school’s technology coordinators can also give you access to other resources you may need to both maintain your computer and participate in your classes. Ask about antivirus software, blog and wiki space, portfolio applications, and online labs and study materials, just to name a few.

Time spent researching and making careful selections will pay off, in terms of meeting both your budget and study needs. Start with the basics so you don’t get behind early on, and know that you can add on, update, and upgrade as you go.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog