"The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers." — Sydney J. Harris
Many people experience doubt or even fear about their ability to successfully complete a course online because of the perception that you need to be a technology expert to meet all the requirements. This is not true. This article aims to help prepare you for success in online university education by outlining the key components of technological literacy that you will need for most programs. Your tech literacy will grow with you as you use these skills in your coursework. Overcoming this fear is the first step in becoming a successful online learner.
Essential Online Learning Knowledge and Skills
There are two main categories of technology knowledge/skills that you should have in order to be a successful participant in virtual learning: computer skills and Internet skills.
- Office Suite
- Digital Media
- Information Literacy
- Virtual Learning Systems
Computers & Technological Literacy
1. Office Suite Skills
Unless you are taking an online course within a specific discipline, such as medical record keeping or computer assisted drafting, a sound knowledge of basic office software will enable you to accomplish almost all of the tasks and assignments you will encounter in an online classroom. The most common office software tools that you will want to become familiar with are:
- word processing
- presentation tools
Word processors are the cornerstone of any office suite. Like the typewriters of days gone by, word processing programs are versatile tools that allow you to create a variety of different types of text-based document such as:
- bills and statements
- direct mailings
Unlike typewriters, integrated word processing software allows you to take advantage of the power of a computer to incorporate tables, charts, graphs, images and other design elements into your documents to make them more engaging and interesting. Find out more about word processing, including basic training and advanced tips, at Microsoft.com.
One of the most common uses of office software is in creating presentations of information for meetings, lectures, or other venues where you need to show a group of people the same materials simultaneously. This is most often accomplished with the use of a digital projector and some sort of presentation software. There are two main strengths of presentation software that distinguish it from word processing software: it functions as a slideshow and can contain multimedia elements, particularly audio and video, which make the presentation more engaging for the audience. This blog post from Lifehacker.com contains some great tips for giving an effective presentation. For specific information about PowerPoint check out the Microsoft Training site or the Boston University Multimedia Language Lab tips for academic PowerPoint use.
Spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft’s Excel are powerful and useful. At the most basic level, a spreadsheet is an electronic version of an accounting worksheet. A spreadsheet program functions like having a calculator built in to the paper on which you are keeping your records. It also gives you the ability to generate and display charts and graphs based on the data you have inputted. Visit the Microsoft training site for specific information about using Excel.
Choosing an Office Suite
There are many different ways to gain the benefits of these powerful tools and a variety of commercial and free software options available for use on your computer or via the cloud.
- Microsoft Office
- Google Docs — Cloud
- Lotus Symphony
- Microsoft Office 365 — Cloud
- Microsoft Works
Microsoft Office is the business standard and will likely be what you are required to use for many online programs. However, suites such as Google Docs and OpenOffice are compatible with MS Office documents and can perform almost all of the same functions. You will want to consider several factors before settling on one, including cost, compatibility, and integration.
An office suite such as Microsoft Office can cost between $100 and $500, depending on the version and features. Compared to OpenOffice or Google Docs, which are both free, the choice seems easy until you consider compatibility. If you are working with a group of people who all have MS Office, you will save them and yourself some time and headaches by using the same product. Working across multiple suites will require file conversion or saving documents as non-default file types. While this is not a complicated process, it can affect formatting of documents from one person to another so that a document you think is perfectly laid out may not appear quite so polished on someone else’s computer.
2. Digital Media
There is a very real expectation in many distance learning programs (and in higher education in general) that students will be able to utilize advanced media production tools to convey their ideas not only through text, but also using audio/visual media. Some of the most common ways in which multimedia is being incorporated into online classrooms are:
- creating e-portfolios
- watching and producing online videos
- listening to and producing audio Podcasts
- creating interactive websites
- watching or creating computer animation
- playing multiplayer simulations and games
- reading and producing online texts
- conducting research utilizing augmented reality
- attending a lecture in a virtual world
You may be expected to participate in a virtual lecture in SecondLife, conduct field research on marketing strategies using augmented reality, or team up with your classmates in World of Warcraft to study virtual economies. The changing model of education relies on rich media to engage students in creating knowledge for themselves rather than simply reading and absorbing information, so you should be prepared to embrace this new paradigm for learning.
At some point in your online learning experience, you will encounter technical difficulties. This is the nature of technology. It is useful to understand some basic facts about how computers work and what makes them run so you will be able to troubleshoot your own problems or seek expert help when they arise. There are two distinct parts to understand here: the hardware, or the physical technology itself, and the operating system, or the software that manages what the machine does.
In terms of hardware, you don’t need to be an engineer to understand the basics. You just need to know the parts and how they work together. This way, if you do encounter a problem, you will have some idea what part of the machine might be affected and be able to talk to a repair technician in a way that will best help them solve your problem (or better yet, be able to search for solutions online yourself!) A great place to start is with this article from HowStuffWorks.com, which explains how PCs work.
Operating systems (OS) are a bit more complex because there are many options available. The most common are Windows XP, Vista, or 7, and the Macintosh OS X series which run on PCs and Apple computers, respectively. Beyond these, there are several less common operating systems such as Linux, Google Chrome, and Android. It is important to understand the basic functions of an OS for the same reasons it is important to understand how a computer works — to be able to begin troubleshooting any problems you may encounter and effectively find a solution. Check out HowStuffWorks.com for more detail about how an OS functions and manages the computer.
Information & Web Literacy
There is currently more information available on the Internet than there was in print 50 years ago. There are literally millions upon millions of Web pages, and not all of them are accurate or useful. As a student in an online class, you will need to know how to search for information on the Web and how to evaluate the information you find.
1. Web Navigation/Searching for Information
Web navigation is relatively straightforward given the incredible number of pages to choose from — enter the URL in the address bar or search terms in a search engine and choose from the pages listed. This simple task becomes more complex when you begin looking for specific information within an academic context.
You may already be familiar with the most common search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. In addition to these, however, there are hundreds of others available for more specialized searches such as:
- Google Scholar — academic resources
- Lexis Nexis — business information
- WebMD — health information
- LawCrawler — legal information
Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of search engines designed to locate specific types of information. When you are using any of these search engines, be as specific and accurate as you can when typing your search terms since you will get the optimal results if you are accurate and specific in your inquiry.
2. Evaluating Online Information
After conducting a search query, the most relevant results should be the first ones you see. To be sure you are looking at results which are relevant, read the brief description of each of the top 5-10 results before you select one. Once you have navigated to a page, you will want to evaluate the information on that page in more detail. The University of Pennsylvania library site contains an excellent tutorial for evaluating Web-based information. This site will help you understand how to evaluate the information for authority, accuracy, bias, currency, and coverage.
Learning Management Systems
The cornerstone of any online course that you take will be a virtual learning environment (LMS) or course management system. A LMS is a collection of tools and resources that support online learning. The most common ones are Blackboard and Moodle. LMSs allow an online instructor to manage all or almost all aspects of an e-learning course using a single interface in a password protected, secure site. The most common tools and uses of LMSs are:
- course content delivery (syllabus, readings, videos, etc.)
- communication (email and discussions)
- digital drop box (turning in and receiving feedback on assignments)
- facilitating group work
- evaluation (quizzes and grade books)
- collaborative learning (wikis, blogs, etc.)
If you do not know exactly which LMS you will use in an online course, you can familiarize yourself with the two most common ones. Blackboard maintains an On Demand Learning Center for Students, which provides videos explaining the features of the system and how to use them. Moodle.org has a page of text-based tutorial information for students, and there are many video tutorials available online such as these created by Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
If you are concerned about a particular tool, there are countless resources available on the Web to help. What often works best is to try to do something personally meaningful with the software and find an online written or video tutorial that teaches you how. YouTube or Vimeo are great places to start looking for video tutorials for almost any software you could want to learn about. In this way you will accomplish something you want to do and learn the basics of the program at the same time.
Take some time to learn the basics outlined above and new worlds of possibility will be opened to you through the content of the classes you take, the technology that you will encounter and the skills you will cultivate along the way. Most importantly, embrace the fun and excitement of learning something new.