Setting Up Your Virtual Classroom

Considering taking an online course? You're not alone - these days, more than one in four students is taking at least one class on the Internet. But just like you need school supplies for on-campus courses, there are a few tools you're going to need before you can start learning at home. Read on to discover how you can set up your virtual classroom.

Personal Computing

Personal Computer

The first thing you'll need to start learning online is a personal computer. Although many public libraries offer free computer access, most colleges recommend that you have a machine at home. You'll need to be able to use it frequently and for as long as necessary without interruption. Furthermore, you may need to be able to listen to video lectures or speak over a headset with your professor, all of which is forbidden in many library environments.

Laptop or Desktop? Windows or Mac?

So what type of computer should you get? As long as it meets the minimum power and speed requirements (see below), your choice of computer is really a matter of personal preference. Laptops are great for portability and convenience, especially if you hope to be able to get work done outside the home. But a top of the line laptop can be more expensive than a desktop with the same processing power.

Similarly, the Windows vs. Mac question is really up to you. If you're more comfortable with one operating system, then it's probably best to stick with what you know so that you are not struggling with a technological learning curve during your class. Other things to consider include cost - Apple computers are almost always more expensive - and compatibility. Find out what software you're going to need for the class and make sure that it exists for the platform you're considering. Finally, you'll want to think about your long term needs for the computer. If you're going into a field like graphic design or video editing, you'll find that Mac computers are more prevalent in creative industries and have more software options.

Peripherals

Peripherals

For most classes, your computer is the only hardware you'll need. But there are some peripherals that can make your life easier. For example, a headset will allow you to listen and speak over the Internet if you're having a live conference with your professor. If you're taking a course that requires drawing - such as graphic design or a graph-focused math class - you should consider a pen or stylus tablet like the Wacom. If you're unsure what extras you might need, check with your school or instructors to find out what they recommend.

Connected

Power and Speed

When you're trying to use bulky education applications like the Blackboard suite, computing speed is essential to avoid frustration and unnecessary technological errors. There are two key components to meeting this requirement: Processing power on your computer and sufficient speed in your Internet connection.

Processing Power

You'll need three things to keep your computer running at top efficiency: Lots of RAM, a fair amount of clear hard drive space and a fast processor. RAM, or random access memory, is what your computer uses to launch and run applications. At a minimum, you'll want 1 gigabyte (GB) of RAM, but your best bet is to get at least 2GB. If you don't have enough, you can upgrade to more RAM when you purchase a computer, or take your existing computer in to your local hardware shop to purchase some.

The computer will also jump to its regular memory, or hard drive space, as a back up when running processor-intensive applications. You'll want to start with a lot of space - at least 100GB - and in order to ensure that you don't experience any delays, make certain to keep about one-quarter of your total available hard drive space clear. If you find your computer filling up, consider purchasing an external hard drive for extra storage.

Finally, you'll want to make sure that your processor is up to managing many tasks at once. The average processor speed is about 1 gigahertz (GHz), but most techies recommend going up to at least 2.4 GHz.

Internet Speed

Because you're taking a class online, it is, of course, a given that you'll need Internet access. But how fast should it be? These days, a 56K dial-up modem probably won't be sufficient, but you should be able to get by with the less expensive cable or DSL packages. Contact your school to find out if it recommends a minimum speed, then get in touch with a local Internet service provider (ISP) to find out what your options are.

Wireless

One final opton to consider when it comes to connectivity is wireless. Do you need it? The short answer is no, but it's a lot more convenient. Wireless routers aren't very expensive anymore, and if you buy your own (rather than rent one from your ISP) you can take it with you when you move and hook it up to any wired Internet connection.

Online Student

Software and Applications

The last piece of the puzzle is software. The only features you'll definitely need are email, an up-to-date operating system and a word processing program like Microsoft Word - or its free alternative, Open Office. Most of the other applications you'll encounter, such as forums or virtual classrooms, will be hosted by the school so you can access them online. However, there are a couple of other free applications and websites that you may find useful:

  • Acrobat Reader: This free Adobe application allows you to read PDFs, a common document format for online courses.
  • PDF Online: Need to turn in an assignment as a PDF? Mac OS X comes with a native PDF creator, but it can be a little more complicated if you're using Windows. This free website allows you to upload any document and convert it to PDF.
  • Google Docs: This free web application from Google allows you to write, store and share word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations and forms online. It doesn't have all the functionality you'll need for writing long papers, but it's great for short projects and collaboration.

Finally, as with Internet speed and peripherals, it's a good idea to check with your school or instructor before the class begins to find out what software is recommended.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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