What you Need, and what you need to know (Online Requirements)

If you're reading this on the Web, then you probably have everything you need to participate in an online course for college credit at Santa Rosa Junior College, and there's no reason why you can't take advantage of this extremely convenient method of online learning. No more parking hassles. No more rushing across campus to a classroom. No more inconvenient class schedules.

Online learning is as simple as sitting in a comfortable chair in your own home with a cup of coffee beside the computer. That doesn't mean our online classes are any less challenging or less rigorous than the same courses taught in a more traditional classroom setting. It does, however, mean that you will usually be free to study the course material and proceed with assignments and tests at a more flexible pace. You will also usually have the chance to incorporate into your learning experience some of the Internet's awesome and unique array of educational tools and resources.

There are really only a few basic requirements for taking an online course. You need a computer (or access to one), a connection to the Internet, a few (mostly free) software applications, some basic computer skills, a modicum of familiarity with a web browser and email, and the desire to make a success of your online learning experience.

What follows is a basic outline of the minimum hardware, software, and skills you should have before you tackle an online course. Some classes might have more stringent requirements, so be sure to visit the section homepage—or contact the instructor—for more details on what's needed for each specific course. And remember that there are also classes (online and in the classroom) to teach what you need to know to take an online course.

Hardware, OS, and Connectivity

Machines: You'll need your own computer or reliable access to a computer. It's usually possible to use machines in the campus computer labs or libraries, if your schedule permits.

OS: On that machine there must be an OS (operating system). Most commonly you'll be using the Windows or Mac OS, but you can use any modern OS that supports the kinds of software required to function on the Web.

Connectivity: The computer must be able to connect to the Internet, whether via an old-fashioned modem, DSL, cable, Wi-Fi, or whatever.

Tablets and smart phones: You should be able to utilize a tablet computer for most classes. On the other hand, taking an online class via phone will almost certainly be problematic.

Software and Helper Applications

Web browser: The fundamental piece of software required to take an online course is a web browser. Generally speaking, you can probably use a recent version of any modern browser, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, etc. 

Email: You can use dedicated email client software, or a browser interface, but you need to ensure you can send and receive messages.

Audio/video software: Some instructors in some classes will require you to listen to audio files, watch video files, or even participate in online video conferencing. If that's the case, they should also be specifying the software you'll need.

Chat/Instant messaging: A few classes might require this kind of communications. If so, the instructor should specify the software you'll need.

Basic Computer Skills

General procedures: You ought to recognize all the components of your computer system (monitor, CPU, keyboard, mouse, modem, etc.), know how to turn on your system and turn it off correctly, and know how to use your OS to locate and launch the applications you'll need.

File management: You should understand the fundamentals of creating directories ("folders") on your hard drive, and storing files ("documents") in those directories, as well as creating, finding, and moving files and directories. Beyond those basic skills, you should have some concept of how to structure and manage the storage of materials on your hard drive for easy retrieval.

Typing: Working on the Internet does not require super-fast keyboarding skills, but working at the "hunt and peck" level might prove to be very frustrating in an online course.

Mouse: The Internet is very much a GUI (Graphical User Interface) environment, so you'll need to know how to point, click, double-click, and drag with your mouse or trackpad. For those of you on tablets and some computers, you'll need to know about touch screens.

Copy and paste: You should be familiar with copying text from one document or application and pasting it into another document or application, such as moving material from a word processor into an email message.

Passwords: You will need to know the importance of remembering your username and password and of saving them in a safe and secure place. You will also need to understand the distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters and how the "caps lock" key can interfere with password entry.

Email address: Most classes will require you to use your email address frequently. You'll want to have one reliable email address to use throughout the class, you'll want to have it perfectly memorized, and you'll want to always have it at your fingertips so you can type it whenever necessary.

Connecting: Whether you're using a wired or wireless connection, you'll be responsible for having your system properly configured and knowing how to connect your system to the Internet.

Trouble-shooting: Most of all, you should feel comfortable enough not to panic when something goes wrong, but to calmly assess what has happened, what might have caused it, and how it might be remedied.

If you aren't comfortable with these basic computer skills, then you will probably want to consider taking an introductory course (such as "How to Take an Online Class") before attempting an online course.

Specific Software Skills

Web browser: You should have some experience with your preferred web browser, probably Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari. You should know how to recognize and use text links, graphical links (icons), and image maps to zoom around the Web. You should also know how to type in a URL and have an idea of how to read, verify, and correct a partial or inaccurate URL. You should realize that many webservers are case-sensitive when reading URLs, so capital letters can prevent an otherwise accurate URL from functioning. You will certainly want to know how to bookmark pages and understand the rudiments of performing a web search through Google or other popular search engines. You should be familiar with buttons like "forward" and "back" and know the importance of the "reload" (or "refresh") button, and know how to print webpages. You should have some idea of how to personalize your browser with various options and preferences like choosing the "home" webpage which automatically loads at the start of your session, choosing fonts and font sizes, etc. More advanced users may find it useful to know how to view the source code for a webpage and how to save online images.

You should have some practice at filling out and submitting online forms and knowing, for example, that if you shut down your system before the form is submitted you will not be able to retrieve your partially completed answers.

Email: You should be comfortable using an email. It will be helpful to know how to send a single message to multiple recipients, how to forward mail, how to save copies of your outgoing mail, and how to organize and preserve class-related mail for future reference. In some cases you might want to know how to attach a document to your outgoing email message and also how to find and open files (such as word processing documents, spreadsheets, etc) which have arrived as attachments to incoming email messages.

Mailing lists: In addition to one-on-one email skills, you will want to comprehend a little about automated mailing lists (known generically as "list servers"). For example, it's important to remember that a message sent to a List will be automatically broadcast to everyone who is subscribed to the List, but won't be received by people who subscribe at a later time. It's also a good idea to understand the basics of interpersonal behavior and etiquette in the context of the mailing List of an online course.

Viruses: You should be aware that it's not possible to get a computer virus from an email message. However, it is all too likely that your computer can become infected with a virus carried by an email attachment. As long as you don't open such an attachment, you're safe; so never open an email attachment until you have checked it carefully with an up-to-date virus protection package. Don't be afraid of viruses, but be cautious.

File downloads: In some cases you might need to be able to download a file, such as an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document. This can require knowledge of directing the download to a specific directory on your hard drive, finding it when it has arrived, "unstuffing" or "unzipping" it if it has been stored in a compressed format, and opening it with a suitable application (such as Excel or Word).

If you aren't already familiar with these kinds of online skills, then you will probably want to consider taking introductory courses to become more familiar with your computer, your software, and the Net before tackling a full-fledged online course.

Personal Skills and Tips

Thanks to Barbara Heiman for providing the original version of this material.

Be realistic about how much time an online class will take. Expect to spend at least as much time in an online section of a course as you would in a classroom section of the same course. Schedule your "class" time weekly, just as if you were physically coming into class. Get your weekly assignments in on time, so you don't lose points.

Participate actively in our online community. Some people find email and the Internet very intimidating. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Take advantage of course resources such as the class mailing List or Forum, message archives, and so on.

Stay in touch. Most instructors will require certain minimum online participation each week and may drop you from the class if you don't participate regularly.

Log on to the class Internet materials at least once a week. Materials, assignments, and expectations can change rapidly in an online course. You'll want to keep current with the class.

Don't fall behind. It's so easy to procrastinate when you don't have to physically arrive in a classroom on time or turn in your work in person. Meet the deadlines for your assignments.

Don't be shy-- ask for help! Although you may not be able to see your instructor and your classmates, they are all available online.

After you've read through this information, spend a minute with our Self-Assessment Quiz to see if you're ready to take an online course.