What do I need for my first day of class?
Like any first day of school, you have to make sure you are prepared before you can start learning online. But what used to mean getting a backpack, stack of college-lined notebooks, and No. 2 pencils has evolved into something else when it comes to preparing for your first day of a virtual class. Here's a quick rundown so you can make sure you have everything you need.
- New or up-to-date computer. Sure, this may seem like a no-brainer, but to get the most out of your online courses, make sure your computer or laptop is fit for the job. Anything that's older than a few years might not be compatible with the current online software. But before you run out and buy a new computer, check with your school to find out what its recommendations are for hard-drive space, monitor size, media format preference, and extra accessories like webcams.
- Right operating system. Up there with having a new computer, you'll also have to check with your school to see what operating system they recommend, in case the one you have is out of date. Generally, Microsoft Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 is safe, while for Macs, Mac OS X 10.4 or higher is standard.
- Up-to-date software. Like your operating system, your software also should be up-to-date so that it's compatible with your school's online system, allowing you to view lectures, participate in live discussions, and download materials. That means updating Web browsers, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari; and other programs and scripts, like Java, Adobe Reader, Adobe Flash, and Skype. Also, you'll need to have a recent office suite, such as Microsoft Office 2003 or higher.
- Stable Internet connection. Stable is the key word here. You don't want to miss half the lecture because your Internet's going in and out, or be unable to download necessary video files or lectures because the connection is too slow. In fact, in most cases, anything like dial-up Internet simply won't work with online learning. And have a backup plan, such as a friend's place or nearby cafÈ with free Wi-Fi, just in case your Internet goes out.
- Email account. Everyone has an email these days, right? Well, if you don't, make sure you get one, as much communication with your professors and classmates will take place via email during, and after, the course. And if your email account is old, you may consider updating it so it sounds professional and can easily be associated with your name because this will often be used as a secondary address in case there is an urgent message or the school's system goes down.
- Research. It might have been a while since you've last written a paper. Before you delve into a class, then, it couldn't hurt to brush up on some research skills, such as a course through your local library or online tutorial.
- Knowledge of forum usage and tutorials. You're going to be using a lot of new interfaces through your online courses. Generally, they're made to be user-friendly, but before class starts, make sure you're comfortable getting around them by taking any available tutorials offered through the school, and logging on and playing around with the features. Many schools provide students with free orientation tutorials to help them take advantage of the online learning platform and any software they'll be using. Some schools even provide students with a certificate of completion once they're done with the tutorial, which can be a handy thing to show to employers to demonstrate that the students have acquired some useful tech and software skills.
- Reading. Learning online is especially text-heavy ñ you're going to be reading emails, lectures, discussions boards, and, of course, reading materials. This may be a difficult task for the more visual learners, so make sure to prepare yourself for all tasks, and leave enough time to do them.
- Ask questions. The key to learning is asking questions about what you don't know. So whether it's via email or during a discussion, don't be afraid to ask questions about materials you don't understand. Even if it's 3 a.m., you can send an email to your instructor with a question.
- Time. When you don't have a physical classroom to run off to, and face-to-face contact with teachers and classmates, it could be tempting to not log on and catch up after class. But you'll have to make the time in your life and set a schedule for class, as well as studying, and class discussions. Plan your classes and assignments out ahead so you'll have that time designated for your school work.
- Motivation. Related to that, online learning takes discipline and self-motivation. The initiative to sign up for online courses in the first place is a good sign, but be prepared to work independently and motivate yourself during the process. That may also mean looping your family and friends in on your progress, too, so they can act as your cheerleaders to keep you on task.