Essential Computer and Technology Skills of Online Learners

Many online students begin their programs with limited knowledge of computers, but quickly find themselves immersed in the use of technology for learning and communication. It can be overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to prepare for success. Start by reviewing the basic skills listed here, which you'll need to get started, and get ready for your first online course.

Hardware and Software

Most institutions provide a list of computer specifications students should have access to before enrolling. These guidelines will include technical requirements for your hardware devices (i.e., P.C. or Mac, desktop or laptop), such as memory and operating systems (e.g., Windows, OS, Linux), and a list of applications you will need to prepare your course assignments. Skills involved in using your computer and its programs include:

  • Installing software
  • Updating software
  • Running virus scans
  • Saving and retrieving files

You'll also need to learn how to use the software required for your courses. General programs for creating and editing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets are common and Microsoft Office programs (i.e., Word, PowerPoint, Excel) are widely used. Your field of study may require additional, more specialized software applications.

Once you've chosen an online school, be sure to check with your program for more specific guidance on the hardware and software you will need in your first classes. Educational discounts may be available through your school's online bookstore.

Learning Management Systems

Your school will provide you with a login and password to access your online course materials through a learning management system (LMS). The LMS serves as a central hub for all of your courses that organizes assignments, presentations, and discussions into a series of modules, often by week. The LMS is also a platform for communication with your instructor and classmates. Each system is different, but most will involve the following kinds of tasks:

  • Posting discussion responses and replying to other students' posts
  • Uploading your assignment submissions
  • Downloading course documents, such as a syllabus
  • Sending and receiving email with your school account
  • Viewing recorded presentations.

There may be additional activities in your online course's LMS depending on the type of course and the content provided by your instructor. Students may also encounter in-class wikis and blogs, as well as live video conferencing with their instructors and classmates. Look for new student orientation programs, course demonstrations, and sample classes that allow hands-on practice with the interface you will be using in your courses.

Web Literacies

You'll likely be studying and working with online materials from a variety of sources both in and outside of your course LMS. Here are a few basic skills that will help you better navigate the Internet to perform research for your online courses:

  • Conducting an effective search with a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing, Yahoo) using advanced search commands.
  • Evaluating Web resources for authority, currency, purpose, and content
  • Understanding copyrights, licenses, and plagiarism in a digital environment

Keep in mind that you may make mistakes and may need help along the way. It will take practice to develop all of the computer and technology skills you'll need to use in your online classes. Give yourself some time to get familiar with locating your course materials and ask questions. Your instructors will be able to help you troubleshoot some issues and can connect you with other school resources, such as a technical help desk and the online library.

Embrace the opportunity to develop new skills with technology as you move through your course work. The computer and technology skills you gain as an online student will also benefit you in your career. Employers in a range of industries value these skills and you may find them a requirement for your next job after graduation.