The Technological Side of Online Degrees

The key behind the success of online learning is flexibility. Gone are the days of commuting long distances to sit in a classroom just to learn. Computers have eliminated the need for fixed schedules and made formal education available for busy professionals and parents. Now, mobile technologies like smartphones, tablets, and wireless internet are taking us even further. You are no longer restricted to where and when you do your studying. For many, the breakneck technological developments that make online education possible are dizzying. In this article we'll try to sort it all out for you, so you can realize the true benefits of a flexible online education.

The Shift Toward Mobile Learning

Distance learning institutions began to appear during the early 19th Century, as correspondence schools used the postal service to send course materials and textbooks to students in the United States and Europe. Paper materials were used all the way up until the digital era, when computers hit the market during the 1980's and 1990's. Many reputable schools then began to shift their curricula online. The New York Institute of Technology was one of the first schools to offer a "virtual campus” in 1984. Digital environments now allow students to take classes all while maintaining hectic work schedules and home duties.

Now that smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous, online schools are developing proprietary mobile apps and tools so you can take classes virtually anywhere. It's a big step forward from a decade ago, when online students were limited to studying in front of their desktops at home. Today, these apps give you access to reading materials, discussion boards, and relevant media – all in one place.

Traditional, on-campus schools are also using mobile education apps in the classroom. You no longer have to suffer through chalkboards and dry erase boards. Professors can plug their tablet into a projector or flat screen television, and then share information through digital drawing boards, collaborative apps, and online media.

Technology Requirements for Online Programs

Computer Hardware

  • A PC with Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows 8, or an Apple computer with OS 10.6
  • 2GB RAM or higher
  • Intel Core2Duo processor or better
  • 50 GB or more available hard drive space. This amount will depend on the software and file formats your college uses.
  • 1024 by 768 monitor
  • Optical disc drive
  • Internal / external speakers
  • An internal or external microphone

NOTE: For online discussions through Skype, Google Hangouts, or GoToMeeting, headphones are better than speakers for avoiding audio feedback and echo.


  • Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari
  • Adobe Flash Player
  • Microsoft Office Suite
  • Java
  • QuickTime


  • A broadband Internet connection from a service provider like Google Fiber, Comcast, or Centurylink
  • An email address
  • Ethernet cord for faster video streaming


  • Consumer- level printers by HP, Lexmark, Canon, and many other companies. If you have Apple technology, look for a model with the AirPrint feature, so you can print wirelessly from your iOS device or computer.

Mobile Devices

  • iPhone 3GS or newer
  • iPad
  • Android Phone
  • Android Tablet

Mobile Devices as Learning Tools

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 56% of American adults own a smartphone and 22% of U.S. adults own tablets. Mobile devices are permeating our culture, as technology giants like Apple, Google, and Amazon provide user-friendly technologies at affordable prices. Academic institutions are jumping on the mobile bandwagon, because they recognize that these technologies make education far more accessible than larger desktop and laptops. Colleges like the University of Phoenix are now creating their own apps for popular mobile devices, so that students can enroll in classes, participate in discussion boards, read course materials, and check their grades.

Mobile devices are great for news and information consumption, as the University of Missouri learned during a survey on mobile media exposure. Researchers found 55% of survey respondents consumed mobile news during the first quarter of 2013, and 12% had canceled print subscriptions. Smartphones and tablets make it very easy for people to view content, whether it is a streaming lecture video, required eBook, digital study sheets, or flashcard apps. Interactive eBooks will even allow readers to zoom in on three-dimensional models, view embedded animations, and play audio accompaniments.

However, there are some downsides to mobile education. Creating presentations, writing essays, and even researching can be far more difficult on mobile devices, especially if you are new to mobile platforms. There will be a learning curve as you adjust to touchscreen gestures and on screen typing. It is important to become somewhat familiar with a mobile device before relying on it for school. The booming app industry presents another challenge for mobile users in that there is now an overabundance of choices.

If you are trying to write an essay for a class, you may download several word processors for a tablet, only to be faced with proprietary file formats that aren't compatible with other devices. This can make it a pain to transfer a file to another device or submit an assignment to your professor. Use your school's recommended apps, or find software that uses industry standard file formats, such as Word or PDF. For example, even mainstream solutions, such as Microsoft Office for Mobile, come with limitations. Subscribers are unable to create new PowerPoint presentations or create sophisticated animations on their devices; they can only edit and view some basic transitions.

Examine your course load and responsibilities and see if mobile learning techniques are applicable. A smartphone or tablet wouldn't be practical if your degree program requires lab courses, experiential learning, or internships in person. But some learning experiences simply cannot be replicated on the screen of a mobile device.

Smartphone and Tablet Recommendations

Android and Apple create most of the leading tablet and smartphone software. Many manufacturers create hardware for Android operating systems, including Acer, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba. This means consumers have more options to choose from, but also less product standardization. Many Android tablets, such as the Ainol Nova 9 Spark are well known for their MicroSD card slots, which allow you to expand the storage capacity of your device. This can be great as you accumulate more reading materials, assignment files, and library materials.

Apple's iOS devices, such as the iPad Mini, Retina Display iPad, and iPhone are a closed market, meaning Apple makes the hardware and the software. This means software and hardware behavior is similar across product lines, which makes the devices more appealing for students new to mobile. The iTunes University provides vast libraries of supplementary learning materials, including free Ivy League lectures, homework assignments, and textbooks. However, iOS devices do not support Flash content, so check your course websites before purchasing an Apple device. If your college relies on Flash content, you may wish to consider a different tablet.

Some App Suggestions

  • Evernote: Do you have snippets of notes, diagrams, quotes, web addresses, and audio files scattered across your computer and mobile devices? The free Evernote desktop and mobile apps can organize these items for you in neat folders and save portions of websites for offline viewing. Tags allow you to quickly search and locate files, text, and bookmarks stored in your collection.
  • StudyBlue: Students in any field can use digital flashcards to memorize important quiz information and prepare for finals. Simply enter text and photos onto both sides of your study cards, test yourself, and view statistics about your study scores.
  • QuickOffice: Before Microsoft began offering a mobile Office app for subscribers, QuickOffice released a powerful suite for the creation of Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel spreadsheets. This app syncs backups with multiple cloud services, so that your important course assignments are safe and sound.
  • Notability: Annotate your PDF documents, sketch diagrams, and write on screen using this great document viewer and editor. If you are having a difficult time dropping pen and paper from your study habits, try writing on documents with Notability.
  • Wolfram Alpha: This app is like your pocket assistant, finding scientific formulas, making calculations, and graphing results on your screen. Just type in a query, like "What are the tide levels like in Pa'ia, Maui?” and Wolfram Alpha will graph the data out for you.

Mobile devices aren't always necessary for online degree programs, so read over your school's technology requirements before purchasing a smartphone or tablet. Your current technology may be sufficient for your academic needs. While mobile devices have many great uses, they can also become a distraction during study times if you're not careful.

Most online colleges will only require a computer, listing mobile devices as optional tools. However, smartphone and tablet use can provide you with greater technological experience, knowledge, and, most importantly, flexibility. Because they are cordless and lightweight, mobile devices give you opportunities to study away from a desk and use time you didn't even realize you had.