4 Technology Must Haves for Online Students

Some encourage students to accessorize, while others say it’s best to keep things simple.

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Many online and distance-learning students cite a reliable Internet connection as the most important—if not the only—thing they need to succeed. With a dizzying array of new and pricey digital toys being produced regularly, many online students swear by their iPads and iPhones. Others say online education should be user friendly and low tech. 

"Any online program that imposes significant technological requirements upon its students is a program [that] is poorly conceived and ill designed," says Harlan Platt, a finance professor and faculty director of Northeastern University's online M.B.A. program. 

In fact, a handful of online students at University of Massachusetts—Amherst use dial-up connections to log onto their courses, according to Melanie DeSilva, marketing and recruitment manager for the school's University Without Walls. 

Most online students fall somewhere between the dial-up users and those who purchase every new gadget and device, so here are four technologies that can work for everyone:

1. A printer: Many online students may think they've liberated themselves from hard copies—but some online students still prefer to handle printed materials. Becky DoRan Radvilas, for example, studies at the online school Western Governors University and prints her research papers. When she can't convert some of the E-books that WGU provides into PDFs to view on her Kindle, she prints those out, too.

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Bill Horne, who runs William Warren Consulting, a telecommunications consultancy in Sharon, Mass., and works with online universities, recommends investing in a printer that's easy to transport to meetings and while traveling. "[H]aving your own machine will save you the transit time and frustration of waiting until [commercial printers] open and trying to get there before they close," he says.

2. Tools for easy bibliographies: Like their peers in traditional programs, online students have to write papers, which means they need to know the proper format for citing the works they reference. EasyBib.com is one product available to help with bibliography formatting. Students paste website addresses and book titles into EasyBib, which automatically formats citations. Students can access the Modern Language Association style for free, or pay a fee to use the American Psychological Association and Chicago styles, company spokesman Kerry Kitka says.

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Radvilas, the Western Governors student, pays $3.99 a month for EasyBib, while Amanda Hoerter, who teaches English at The Alternative High School in Wausau, Wis., used the free version to format the bibliography of her 140-page senior thesis at University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point. Hoerter, who has taught online courses, recommends EasyBib with the caveat that it only capitalizes the first word of book titles and can't interpret Web addresses for PDFs.

Other tools for making bibliographies include BibMe and NoodleTools.

3. Note-taking software: Some might assume that online students don't need to take notes, but many use programs to highlight and comment on lectures and readings. Programs such as Evernote and Microsoft's OneNote allow users to take, share, and archive notes.The services can act as "information dumps" in which students keep their work organized between classes and semesters, says Henry Imler, a course review specialist at Columbia College's online campus.

Stacey Acevero, the social media community manager for Vocus's PRWeb and a master's student at the University of Phoenix, says she uses both Evernote and OneNote to take notes while she reads her online textbooks.

"[T]hey are fantastic note taking programs that allow for a much more visual approach than just typing a couple of sentences that probably won't be understood later," she says.

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4. Web cams and headsets: Many online programs rely on Web cameras so students and faculty members can video chat. Tadd Rosenfeld, chief executive officer of Team Launcher, an international outsourcing company, says more than 50 of his employees earned their degrees online. He says USB-based headsets are a "must-have for distance learning if you want to participate effectively in spoken classroom conversation over the Internet."