Going back to college as a 20, 30, 40 or 50-something? If you’re about to re-enter school through an online degree program, you may fear you’re a bit less tech-savvy than many of the younger kids out there in the college population. Lots of adults trying to finish a degree online worry about whether or not they have the online skills required for distance learning, and if their home computers will be up the work required for an online degree.
The good news is that generally, colleges and universities have designed their online learning interfaces primarily with people like you in mind. There’s no doubt that some schools have done this more effectively than others, but in most cases you’ll find that the course outlines, forums, videos and other tools offered by online schools are quite user-friendly, and don’t require more than a minimal knowledge of computers.
At the same time, if your personal computer is a clunker from fifteen or twenty years ago, you may want to consider making an upgrade before you go back to college. Here’s an overview of some basics that most online schools require their students to have, and some additional tools you’ll probably want to make your learning experience as smooth as possible. Fortunately, laptops, desktops and many of the programs they use have gradually gotten less and less expensive in recent years.
This is obviously your main tool. Ideally, you should have a laptop or desktop no more than two or three years old. If your machine is older, check with your school’s technology department to see if it will suffice. Generally, online schools these days are asking that students have computers Windows XP or Windows Vista as an operating system. MAC’s are usually OK, though you may be required to run a special application at times called “Parallels Desktop” that allows you to view certain Windows-based functions on your MAC. That program currently costs about $80. Ideally, you’ll probably want a machine with a recent iteration Intel or AMD processor and 2 GB of Ram. A total of 3 GB of RAM isn’t a bad idea if your computer can handle it and you can afford it, as RAM affects how many programs your computer can run at the same time without slowing down.
You’ll need administrative rights to the computer you use – you’ll generally have that to any computer in your home. But if you want to do college coursework on a computer in your workplace you may run into firewall restrictions against downloading plug-ins that certain courses require. Talk to your IT department about it. Using a computer at your local library may present similar issues.
Most online courses cannot yet be viewed either on a Web TV or a mobile device like a smart phone or an iPad. If you have any kind of special needs due to a disability, you should contact the student services office of your school, as they’re likely to have a variety of tools available.
For best viewing, the screen settings on your computer should be 1024 x 768 or higher. Manage this by going to Start > Control Panel > Display > Settings.
Fast Internet Access
You may be able to get through a college course with a dialup connection, but it will be an incredibly frustrating experience. Online schools use video and other applications to make the coursework more accessible and enjoyable, but they require a fast pipeline. Virtually all online schools recommend a LAN, Cable or DSL connection. If you can’t afford to get that at home, you may be able to get around it by using a free Wi-Fi connection at your local coffee shop or library.
If your internet service provider is AOL, you’ll probably need to login to your account and then use Internet Explorer or Firefox to do the actual coursework. The default AOL browser is, like most other things about AOL, quite antiquated.
Where browsers are concerned, the best choices for Windows machines are generally Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. You can download the most recent versions of each free on the web. If you’re a MAC user, the Safari browser that came with your computer should do just fine.
You need to make sure your browser settings are correct so that your work will not be interfered with too much by popup blockers and other security apps, and to make sure your computer will run all your course presentations. Doing this requires a bit more tech “geekiness” than most of the other things in this article. Here are the most common settings to check, with some links that can help you through the process:
Learn to Allow Pop-Up Windows When You Need To – Help Available Here:
Enable Your Cookies (unless you’ve turned them off, they’re probably already on) – Help Available Here:
Enable your Java Scripts – Help Available Here:
Enable Java – Help Available Here:
An Email Address
You’ll need to communicate with your school on a regular basis. In addition to your basic email address (if you don’t have one you can get one free from Hotmail, Gmail or a host of other providers), your school may provide you with an email address that has a “.edu” ending. Some offers that will come to you through the school may only be open to those with this type of address, and this email box will not block any important communications from your school by dumping them into a spam box.
While it may sound obvious, it’s important to state that if you’re going back to college online but are not used to doing a great deal of online work, you need to get in the habit of checking your email very, very frequently. Failing to check your email can result in you missing important messages from professors about tests and report deadlines that can hurt your grades. “I never got that message” isn’t really accepted as a good excuse by most professors.
Microsoft Office, which includes Word and Excel, is a basic requirement for doing basic tasks of writing and organizing data in many courses. It’s probably on your computer already, even if you have a MAC. If it’s not, check with your school before you go out and buy it. Many schools actually offer a version of Office to students at a big discount.
Some Basic Software
In addition to the browsers mentioned above, some basic pieces of software are recommended. Most of these come pre-loaded on computers, so you’ll mainly need to just check and make sure that you’re already got them. Those that can be downloaded for free if you don’t have them include:
Adobe Flash Player (for viewing video)
Adobe Acrobat Reader (for reading PDFs)
RealPlayer Basic (for playing video and other types of media files)
Apple QuickTime Player (plays media files on MAC computers)
Café Scribe (for reading certain eBooks)
Java 1.5 (again, makes certain programs run more effectively on your computer)
Software you’ll have to pay for:
Citrix Presentation Server Client, now called “Xen Desktop” (plays certain applications, but is not required by all schools. A free trial is available.
Anti-Virus Software (you probably already have this on your computer. If not, or if your AV is out of date, McAfee and Windows Defender are two popular paid choices. There is a free option called AVG)
Some Extra Accessories
A headset can be a nice accessory, particularly if you don’t want everyone else in the house to hear your professor through your computer speaker. Likewise a flash drive can be a good thing if you’re working on a report and you would like to be able to carry it with you easily from one computer to another. You might want to check and see if your courses will involve live talks using student webcams. If so, you’ll want to get one. It will, however, mean that you’ll want to comb your hair before joining your class – something you don’t have to worry about during most of your back to college online experience!
If you’re studying graphic or website design, or taking technical courses in engineering or computer science, there are all sorts of higher end programs you may need. Here, it’s best to check with your school tech department or the department of your academic major to find out exactly what you need. Typical requirements in more tech-heavy lines of learning may include a 250 GB hard drive, 4 Gigs of RAM, and a high quality graphics card. Business majors are also required to have slightly higher-than-average quality computers in terms of memory and processing power.