Online learning is quickly becoming the norm; however, if you’re new to this format, you may be wondering if you have access to the right technology and possess the skills necessary to be successful. The good news: you do not need to invest in the most sophisticated computer on the market, become an IT pro, or upgrade to the most expensive internet package. While specifications will vary from school to school, here’s an overview of the essential skills and technology you’ll need to reach success.
Instead of arriving in person at a traditional classroom, online students sign in to their school’s Learning Management System (LMS) portal; popular LMS providers include Moodle, Canvas, and Blackboard. While different schools use different systems, the underlying function remains the same: giving students a convenient online classroom experience!
You can access your online courses from almost any device with an internet connection: desktop, laptop, Chromebook, smartphone, or tablet. However, when it comes to writing papers, working on projects, and completing your assignments, your device will require access to certain software programs, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—these programs are not accessible from any device. This makes using a smartphone or tablet nearly impossible and makes using a Chromebook somewhat limiting, as Chromebooks do not support any software programs other than those that are cloud-based and supported by Chromebooks. If you decide to use a Chromebook, you’ll need to develop skills to help you convert your work into the proper file format.
A computer (desktop or laptop) that’s less than five years old is the most sensible option. To help optimize your work, you may want to select a device with a larger screen to make it easier to have multiple programs or browser windows open.
Once your computer is identified, it’s important to have an updated internet browser for the best experience in your online classes. It doesn’t matter which one you use—Chrome, Firefox, Safari—rather, what matters most is that you keep it updated with the latest version. Antivirus software is also a must! Free options are available—ask the IT department at your college or university which one is preferred.
A computer with a web camera is also recommended, as many online courses are incorporating web conferencing via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx and other similar programs. Some students opt to purchase a headset for better quality video conferencing and online presentations. Options that can plug into your computer’s USB port, rather than a headphone and microphone jack, will provide the best audio quality.
Most colleges have a computer purchasing program that offers discounts to students and educators. Explore this option to secure extra savings!
Software & Programs
Microsoft Office is the go-to for students and working professionals alike! You’ll use Microsoft Word frequently to write assignments and research papers. Microsoft Excel is often used in financial, business, mathematics, economics, and any course that analyzes data. Microsoft PowerPoint is commonly used across many subjects to deliver presentations. Most colleges and universities offer free access to Microsoft Office 365.
Other computer programs will vary from program to program and course to course. For examples, aspiring graphic designers will use Adobe products, such as Photoshop, InDesign, and Premier. Master’s degree seeking students often use a subscription-based ePortfolio tool to build and collect examples of their work over the duration of their program. Common ePortfolio tools include Chalk &Wire, Digication, and Epsilen. Whatever your school requires, be sure to explore institutional discounts and student discounts (see our Computer Purchasing Program).
You’ll need a stable broadband internet connection—the basic/starter packages offered by internet service providers such as Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox, CenturyLink, and others will meet this requirement.
As an internet user, you likely have experienced times when your internet speed seems slower than normal. As an online student, this can be especially frustrating, so be sure to be well versed in the various techniques you can use to get the most out of your internet connection.
If your internet speed seems slow, try to turn off unused or extra internet-connected devices. Remember: cell phones, tablets, smart TVs, computers, video game consoles, and smart home devices are all using the same internet connection. All of this usage can reduce bandwidth and disconnecting unnecessary devices will help. You should also learn how to restart your router. This is a step that’s often recommended by customer support at internet service providers when you’re experiencing a weak signal, and if you can conduct this independently, you may be able to resolve your issues by yourself and avoid a support call.
Basic Computer Skills
If you primarily work in a hands-on role without much computer usage, having to use a computer daily as an online student could be an adjustment. However, most of the essential skills will be familiar, and for those who have limited technology experience, these skills are all fairly easy to pick up. Examples include:
- Opening, editing, and saving a Microsoft Word document
- Using a web browser to access your online courses
- Attaching and uploading documents and assignments
- Sending and receiving email
- Taking a screenshot
- Saving your work in multiple formats
- Familiarizing yourself with web conferencing programs such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx
Here are a few additional tips that can help make your computer experience easier or better organized.
- Learn Various Cut, Copy, and Paste Techniques
Some find it easier (and quicker!) to use keyboard shortcuts to cut, copy, and paste text, so explore the various methods and see what works best for you.
- Create Various Folders
Make designated folders on your computer to save important files and assignments for each of your classes. You may even want to create “subfolders” that correspond to each week or module within your course to better organize your assignments.
- Bookmark Important Pages
Since you’ll be accessing your courses frequently, you’ll want to bookmark the login page for easy access. Other important pages may include your college’s academic calendar, tuition payment system, college email, and more.
- Review Your College’s Learning Management System (LMS) Orientation
These orientations typically provide key information on how to navigate the LMS successfully throughout all of your courses.
If you feel like some of these skills are over your head, there are dozens of free tutorials available online that can be helpful. You may want to ask an advisor for suggestions.
Flexibility & Support
As an online student, the most important thing to remember is that there is a whole team ready to support your success! You’re never alone and there’s no such thing as “stupid questions.” Access resources, like new student orientations and online learning tutorials, and reach out to your advisor if you need support—they’re here to help!