By David A. Tomar

Back in the day, all a student really needed was a pencil and paper. But now, it seems there are some pretty specific and essential tools for every level and type of education.

Elementary school kids need all sorts of things like Popsicle® sticks, crayons, edible glue, and plastic scissors that couldn’t cut warm butter. College students have different needs, like a forty-four ounce coffee mug and a great attention span.

But what about online education? Web-mediated distance learning is fast becoming the new norm. So, whether you’re currently taking courses online, or maybe taking one in the future, you should heed the wisdom of this list. These are the essential tools that every online student should have. Not all of these items are equally important, but if you want to make the most of your online experience, you should have each of these items in your toolkit.

1. A Good, Reliable Computer

This one is beyond obvious; clearly you need a computer. But it’s not so obvious what kind of computer you need. Picking a computer can be a very personal decision since you’ll likely use this computer for all sorts of tasks besides school, such as video games, streaming movies, video calling, or online dating (nothing wrong with that!). Likewise, your computer needs may change depending on what you are studying. Art majors may need to use Apple products for the nifty Macintosh gadgets and gizmos. Meanwhile, law students may want a slim, energy-efficient tablet that can work just as well unplugged in the courtroom as in the classroom. But all online students will need a computer that meets the following requirements:

It might be time for an upgrade…

  • 2GHz processor, or faster: This refers to the speed at which the internal processor/s can operate. Anything less than 2GHz and your computer just can’t compute fast enough to keep up.
  • 4GB RAM, or greater: Random Access Memory (RAM) refers to the working memory of your computer. Anything less than four gigabytes (GB) and your computer won’t be able to operate the programs needed for class.
  • High-speed Internet connection, 1.5 mbps: The online part of online college requires you to have a reliable Internet connection that’s fast enough to handle basic downloads, updates, and general needs — 1.5 megabits per second (mbps) isn’t very fast. Most Internet companies start at two mbps and go up from there.
  • Monitor and video card capable 1024×768 or greater resolution: These numbers refer to the number of pixels that your monitor can display. 1024×768 is low resolution. Most monitors and cards handle 1920×1080, and some go all the way past 4,000 pixels (4K technology). Even if you won’t be doing any fancy gaming or Netflix viewing for your online classes, you may be watching instructional videos, viewing science shows, or participating in virtual labs. And that will require decent video quality.

2. …Preferably a Laptop

Not one like this….

Yes, you need a computer, and you may be able to get by with a desktop computer only. But unless you have a laptop, you can’t access the full potential of your online degree. You’re missing out on the biggest benefit of online learning: flexibility. With a laptop in hand, your school campus expands in front of you. Having a laptop isn’t about improving your hipster ranking (unless you get a super-skinny MacBook product; that’s still pretty hipster). Otherwise, laptops aren’t merely fashionable anymore, they are a virtual necessity. A laptop makes your education portable so you can keep up with the demands of modern education.

Now if you already have a desktop computer then buying a laptop may seem (to some people) like a novelty. A desktop computer can compute just as well as, or better than, a laptop. But when it comes to online education, you need to have a backup plan if the Internet ever goes down at your house, or if the garage band next door is practicing during your study time, or if you need to keep an eye on a sleeping baby while you’re listening to class lectures. Of course, if you have both a desktop and a laptop, then you are set. And even if your desktop is doing just fine, and your study room is great, it’s still a helpful study tip to change your environment to spark creativity and break up the routine. School is hard (sometimes agonizing) work, so a little shift in scenery can help make it bearable.

3. Computer Peripherals

Now that we know your computer can handle the workload for online education, you need to add some peripherals so you can actually use it.

  • Keyboard: This seems pretty self-explanatory, but only if you’re using a desktop computer. For laptop users, I recommend a quiet, full-size laptop-compatible keyboard so you can work in public places without annoying other people. Libraries don’t take kindly to loud keyboarding either.
  • Mouse: I also recommend a mouse. Personally, I’m a big fan of my wired vertical mouse, which is a lot easier on the wrists than a regular wireless mouse. Some keyboards have a track-pad, or trackball that can do everything a mouse can do. In that event, you may not need a mouse. I’d still suggest getting a mouse either way. They are a bit easier to use, faster, and more comfortable than comparable devices.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones and microphone: In classroom discussions with your teacher or classmates, you need to hear and be heard, literally. Noise-cancelling headphones with a built-in microphone are probably your best bet. But you should be aware that public computers (such as library computers, or office computers) may not allow you to access the speaker and microphone port (or even the USB port, if that’s the kind of headset you have). Otherwise, many headphones have a built-in microphone that should work fine for basic purposes.
  • Or, speakers and microphone in a quiet room: If you have a set-apart study area, or someplace where you can control the noise and distractions, then you may be able to bypass the headphones and use traditional speakers and microphone. Many computers monitors have a built-in camera, microphone, and speakers. Most laptops have all these features pre-installed. But sometimes the built-in versions are of poor quality. Fortunately, thrift stores and yard sales are brimming with old computer speakers. It’s a good idea to have a quiet room anyway, so you can retreat there any time the coffee shop is too boisterous, and your other study spots aren’t working. Plus, you may prefer the ambient feel that speakers provide; it feels more like a classroom than a phone call. But be aware that if you are in a video-conference call or a group chat of some sort, the microphone typically can pick up keyboard noise, chair squeaks, and of course, noisy pets and toddlers. You’ll need to mute the microphone whenever you aren’t talking.
  • Web-camera: Along with the speakers, and microphone, you’ll also need a webcam for any video conferencing. Many online programs require some sort of video-conferencing at some point whether you’re meeting with your academic advisor, engaging with group project members, or consulting with your teacher. Many computer monitors or laptops have a webcam built in. As long as you’re satisfied with the quality of your factor camera, you shouldn’t need to make any additional purchases. That said, if you will be doing any recording, you may want to consider a high-end camera. Otherwise, you should be able to find an adequate webcam for pretty cheap. There’s even a Lifehack where an old smart phone can be retasked as a webcam.
  • DVD/CD-ROM drive: Most of the newer laptops do not have a DVD or CD-ROM drive. That’s unfortunate since your school or professors may require some installation software, lectures on DVD, or old movies, that are not available as downloads. A DVD/CD-ROM drive makes your computer compatible with older programs that haven’t yet updated their material to a fully online format. Internal DVD/CD-ROM drives can be installed in some laptops and most desktops, and external DVD/CD-ROM drives can link into most computers through a USB port. (For ideal cross-compatibility, consider upgrading to a Blu-ray Disc device that can handle all three media formats.)
  • Flash Drive: The bigger the better — 128GB or even 256GB drives are nice but a 32GB drive may suit you well if you aren’t dealing with many videos or pictures. You’d be surprised at how useful a portable memory device can be. It’s handy if you need to relay information to a public printer, or if you’re using a public computer. And it can rescue you if need to transfer a document when the Internet is down, or you accidentally locked yourself out of your email or cloud storage account. But the most important reason to have a flash drive is so you can store a backup of all your schoolwork, without needing the Internet. As a general rule, you’ll want to save every school assignment in at least two places: one online (such as OneDrive, DropBox, Google Docs, or even email), and one offline such as a flash drive. That way, if your computer breaks down or your laptop gets stolen, you can still recover your schoolwork. I prefer to use three save locations: online, on the desktop, and on a flash drive.

4. Updated Operating System

With the hardware in place, you still need to have the right software. If you use Microsoft Windows (e.g., not a Mac) then it needs to be version seven or higher. Microsoft 10 is the latest version, but there have been some complaints about automatic updates and compatibility issues, so people sometimes favor Windows seven or eight instead. Mac/Apple products favor Mac OS X 10.10. Quite possibly, you already have met these requirements on your own computer, but you may need to do a system update so your version has the most recent fixes in place. In most cases, Windows or Mac OS X are built into your computer, so you shouldn’t have to pay anything extra.

5. Updated Web Browser

No single specific Web browser is required here, but whichever one (or more) you’re using, it needs to be fairly up-to-date so you aren’t wrestling through different bugs and security risks in the older versions. Any of the following browsers, should work for you, so long as they are no older than the *minimum version. (*For example, Google Chrome 48, is the 48th updated edition of Google Chrome.) Of course, the latest versions are preferred since they have the most up-to-date security measures.

Image chart listing various recommended Web browsers & Operating Systems

6. Other Basic Software

Now that you have the basic hardware and the operating software in place, you’ll need some programs on your computer that will suit your school work. Here are the basic programs you’ll need for most every online class you take:

  • Microsoft Office suite: This is a bundle of Microsoft programs, two or three of which you are likely to use in almost every class you’ll take. You’ll need the 2013 version of Office or later if you have a Microsoft brand computer (also known as PC/Personal Computer). If you have a Mac/Apple computer, you’ll need the 2011 version or later. Unlike Web browsers and operating systems, it’s not terribly important that you have the latest version of Microsoft Office. This is kind of like car models; the newer ones may have more bells and whistles but aren’t necessarily more secure, more reliable, or more endearing than older models. There can be compatibility issues, however, if your teacher sends out a document in the latest version but yours is out-of-date (from 2010 or earlier). If that happens, your computer might not open the document, or it might alter the formatting. The key programs you’ll need in the Office package are: WordExcelPowerPoint, and OutlookOneNote is also good, but less important than WordPublisher is probably the next most important, but most students can do without it. And Microsoft Access is a database program, which can be handy for making large data tables, and organizing lots of statistics, but most students can do this adequately with ExcelAccess can also be used for computer programming.
  • Adobe Reader — recently updated: This program allows you to open, download, and read PDFs (portable document format). Many of the documents you receive from your teachers, classmates, or your school will be PDFs. So, the free version of Adobe Reader is well worth your investment. Don’t go in for the paid Adobe programs (i.e., Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere Pro) unless you already know what you’re doing or your instructor says you need to.
  • Adobe Flash plug-in — recently updated: This program allows you to open and watch videos. From YouTube and Vimeo videos, to streaming video such as Netflix or Hulu, you will likely have to watch at least some online videos at some point. Online classes may have video lectures. Or the teacher may require you to watch a movie version of a book, such as Pride and Prejudice, Frankenstein, Lord of the Rings, Hamlet, Brave New World, Roots, and etc.
  • A current security suite application — updated regularly: You can skimp on a lot of things, but you shouldn’t skimp on this. Good security software will protect you from malware (viruses, trojans, worms, spyware, etc.), offer spam filtering, and have a firewall to protect you from hackers. Many of them also offer a system backup (insurance in case your computer crashes), tune-up options to improve speed and conserve storage space, and parental controls including protecting you from suspicious websites. Here are some reliable security software options, reviewed by PC Mag.

In addition to these programs, your specific school or teacher may require you to purchase other programs such as: Microsoft ProjectMicrosoft VisioAdobe PhotoshopAdobe Illustrator, or Adobe Premiere Pro. We wouldn’t, however, recommend paying money for any of these additional programs unless your professor or school requires it.

7. Email Routing

This feature isn’t necessarily required, but it sure can make your life a lot easier. Online colleges typically assign a new email address to each new student such as, [email protected] And if you are like me, you are not interested in having yet another account to monitor. You can save yourself some trouble by going into the settings of your preferred email account and instructing it to receive emails from your other account/s. This feature will direct all your email traffic to one email account, meanwhile the sender will see only your … address.

8. Access to All-In-One Printer, or Equivalent

Technically, a printer would count as a peripheral and could be listed above. But this one takes some explaining, so I’m listing it separately.

Online college can reduce your need for print materials, but it doesn’t eliminate the need entirely. That means you’ll probably still need a printer, or at least, you’ll need access to a printer at your job, local school, community center, or library. Look for an all-in-one wireless printer that can print, scan, and copy, and may even faxing. The scanning and copying are useful whenever you are searching through library books, magazines, or newspapers, and you want a print copy for yourself. Any college or graduate level researcher must have access to copy and scan functions.

But even with print functions, it’s helpful to print out your own writing assignments so you can proofread and revise your papers in a different medium, without having to stare at the same screen you’ve been staring out for two hours. You may also find it handy to gather research for a paper by printing out articles and compiling them in a folder or binder. Also, using print copies can spare you some eye-strain. Staring at a computer screen for hours on end basically sunburns your eyes with low-grade UV rays. That effectively dries out your eyes, weakens your ability to focus on distant objects, causes headaches, and can trigger the clinical condition called computer eye-strain. For tips on reducing computer eye-strain, see Ten Steps for Relief at

Faxing is not usually necessary. Your all-in-one can probably do without it. However, you may find that you need to fax a transcript or tax form to your admissions counselor at some point. The admissions, financial aid, or registrar’s offices may not accept email or Xeroxed versions. However, you can often do any faxing you need at an office service store like Kinkos, UPS, FedEx, etc. for a small fee. And there are other fax options as well. Faxing isn’t as important as it used to be, so I would not consider that a necessary tool for online students.

9. An Old-Fashioned Wall Calendar or Personal Organizer

Yes, I know there are calendar apps you can use on your phone, laptop, or tablet. Those have their purpose. They are a great supplement, especially if you make skillful use of your phone alarms. But those probably aren’t going to cut it, unless you’re already super organized by nature and have a great memory. I’m only moderately organized and have a terrible memory, and I can testify that a wall calendar is a life-saver.

You can make your life a lot easier by having an eye-catching wall calendar posted somewhere you’ll see every day, with all the month’s assignments right there in front of you. Some good locations are right by your bedroom door or by the bathroom mirror, or on the refrigerator. Cell phone screens tend to show only one week or one day at a time. And it’s too easy to get distracted from checking your schedule if you rely on a computer or tablet calendar. And since wall calendars are fairly inexpensive, you can get your money’s worth.

There is one alternative that can replace a wall calendar, and that’s a personal organizer. Theoretically, a smart phone would do everything you’d want a personal organizer to do. The problem with smart phones, however, is they do too much. If you take out your phone to check your schedule, you may end up spending three hours on Facebook, emails, YouTube, and video games before returning your phone to your pocket without ever actually looking at your schedule. Smart phones can do everything a personal organizer can do, but it’s not a dedicated device. That’s not a problem with a personal organizer. Full-size Franklin Planners from FranklinCovey are usually pretty affordable, but you can get pocket day books and academic calendar versions for even less. The trick with using one these pocket planners, personal organizers, or day planners is that you have to get into the habit of checking and updating it daily. These may suit some people better than a cell phone or a wall-calendar because it isolates the school functions for you, without the distracting video games, popups, alerts, and email notifications, all while traveling in your pocket or bookbag.

10. Paper and a Pen or Pencil

Even online school requires low tech tools. Old-fashioned pencils, pens, and paper are still incredibly important for online learning. Keyboarding can be quicker sometimes, but if you are watching a video or your monitor is already occupied with something else, you may still need to handwrite your notes. You may also need to handwrite notes during phone conversations, video calls, video-conferencing, or live class lectures. Some video-conferencing software doesn’t allow you to use your screen for anything else during the call.

And it’s well worth mentioning that handwriting, as a general rule, aids memory and understanding better than keyboarding does. Scientific American explains this counter-intuitive conclusion:

[W]hen students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor…. [H]owever, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those wh…. took notes with their laptops…. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy mental lifting, and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.

It is also suspected that handwriting engages both hemispheres of the brain better than keyboarding alone. But even if that’s not the case, some kinds of writing are still more efficient, less expensive, and easier to manipulate on paper than on screen. For example, math or graphic design students may prefer a handwriting medium over a keyboard, particularly when it comes to in-class activities. Realistically, handwriting and keyboarding are both necessary for online college, even if keyboarding will tend to be your primary medium.

11. A Bibliography App

ibliographies are the lists of books an author uses to write an article or book. When it comes to research papers, many students have wrestled long hours over the boring work of compiling and formatting bibliographies, footnotes, and endnotes in their papers. When I wrote my 300+ page dissertation, I did not have a bibliography tool that worked reliably for me. I had to format roughly 300 footnotes and bibliography entries manually. That was not fun.

But with inexpensive or free apps, you can simplify the process and spare yourself from the torture I endured. Free Apps like EasyBib and BibMe, or paid apps like NoodleTools, will help you properly cite and organize the sources for research papers and classnotes. Many of these kinds of apps will also let you organize your sources into a growing master list of sources. That way you can drag-and-drop a source listing into a new document without retyping it. This is a major time-saver.

12. A Note-Taking App

Strictly speaking, you can probably cover all your notetaking needs with Microsoft Word. But practically speaking, you can radically improve your game by utilizing a note-taking app like OneNote or Evernote. These applications allow you to combine word processing with the ergonomics of a note-taking environment. With OneNote, for example, instead of interacting with one document at a time as you would do in Microsoft Word (or Works, or Wordperfect), it’s more like you are interacting with a multi-file notebook (or Trapper Keeper).

And the pages never run out of space. You can also drag and drop pictures, videos, and charts directly into a page in your notebook. These add-ins won’t ruin the formatting or spontaneously skip down to the next page. Using this digital notebook, you can keep all your information for one class on one page (they’re called notebooks in OneNote). The content of that notebook is organized, by tabs, into whatever topics and sub-topics you desire (i.e., by date, by subject area, by project, by theme, etc.). You can navigate through all your tabs without having to leave the front page of that notebook. Evernote works a little differently, but it’s also very user-friendly, and it functions more like a notebook than a document.

13. Energy/Caffeine

Now we come to a passion of mine: Coffee! Coffee (and sometimes tea) is the drink of choice for academics everywhere who need to clear the fog for early morning classes, or to keep the candle burning for some late-night learning. Technically, you can get artificial energy from any number of food sources like Ginseng, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, sugars, and Guarana, etc. So caffeinated drinks aren’t your only option. But they are the most popular option. For some people, it’s Mountain Dew™ or 5-Hour Energy™. For other’s it’s Diet Coke™ or Monster™ energy drinks. For others, it’s southern-style sweet ice tea. For me, it’s hard to beat a nice big cup of coffee.

Excuse m…. I think there’s been a mistake. I ordered the large?

Whatever your drink of choice may be, drink responsibly. You can’t get drunk from caffeine but you can get addicted, developing a tolerance, and dependence if you lean too heavily on artificial energy sources. If you find that you are needing more than two cups a day (of coffee, tea, or equivalent), then you may not be getting enough sleep or exercise.

14. Pajamas

Okay, technically you don’t need pajamas. But, if you want to maximize the benefits of online learning then you need to do at least one of your class sessions in your pajamas, preferably with your hair messed up, while eating a bowl of cereal. Online college is convenient like that, so it only makes sense to get comfortable. You can make yourself at home because, well, you are home. Online education does have some drawbacks, but this isn’t one of them. Most schools have a dress code, but online ones do not. So, go ahead and wear your homemade, knitted, hoodie, pajama onesie like it’s Christmas eve and make the most of your online liberty.

15. A Study Space

You can have every tool above, but if you don’t have a personal space suited to your study preferences, then you still aren’t prepared for online college. Fortunately, you probably have a wide array of places to choose from. Around your house or apartment there are probably some hideaway places like a bedroom, porch, patio, basement, laundry room, or even the bathroom. If you need a little social energy to inspire you, there are coffee shops, diners, and bookstores in your nearest big city. There are also libraries, park benches, or public buildings where you can do some reading. Perhaps the most obvious place, outside of your home, is to study at a nearby college or university. Most every college campus in the country has a library, a café, or some usable study space for you to share. There’s a good chance you can get a library card at a local college, even if you aren’t a student there. However you go about creating a study space, make sure you can rely on at least one spot for regular (weekly or daily) study.


Member: American Council on Education