The most important piece of technology that you will need for distance learning is , of course, a computer. Each university lists what the minimum hardware and software configurations it requires. Florida Gulf Coast University also offers advice on how to compare computer specifications.
Once you’ve set up your computer, you’ll need a high-speed internet connection and a browser. Some plug-ins are also necessary, including Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and Java. You’ll also need to enable cookies, and disable your popup blocker. If those last sentences were gobbledy-gook, you might want to become familiar with those terms before proceeding any further. Okay, ready for more?
You’ll also want at least one video player on your computer. Windows Media Player and QuickTime are the most popular. Microsoft Office or Open Office are absolute necessities for word processing and more, although you can also use Google Docs for some assignments.
Hang in there. You’re almost done. Just add a webcam and a microphone, and you’re ready to go.
So, what will you be doing with all of this technology? The University of Wisconsin lays out the different types of interaction that you may be involved in, but they are fairly standard for distance learning:
- An audioconference connects instructors and students using standard telephone lines for real-time discussion. Course times are scheduled and can include the entire class or small groups.
- Course material is available on CD, DVD, videocassette, audiocassette, or other types of stored media. Multimedia courses may combine text, graphics, audio, video and other elements. Material is designed to be flexible, self-paced, and modular. In some cases, access to the Internet is required. The students learning choices influence how material is presented and reviewed.
- Online courses are delivered over the Internet and are usually web-based. Courseware management systems (D2L, WebCT, Blackboard, and others) are often used to organize content, activities, communication, and assessment. Some courses may have specific computer hardware and/or software requirements.
- Course packets, textbooks and other materials are sent to students through the mail. Students submit lessons by mail, fax, or in some cases, e-mail. Assignments, exams and completions are self-paced within an agreed timeframe.
- Telecourses are highly produced videotaped course segments broadcast at scheduled times by television stations (public TV and others) or local cable access channels. Textbooks and study guides provide students with assignments and direction. Some courses require additional independent work through the mail. Datacasting is the transmission of text, graphics, video, audio and other media over the airwaves along with the digital television signal. Datacast course materials can be downloaded to a computer or viewed on a television.
- A videoconference connects instructors and students in simultaneous two-way communication. Everyone may see and speak with each other for real-time discussions. Videoconference sites are located worldwide in public and private locations, including schools, government agencies and businesses. Some types of videoconferences can be delivered directly to the desktop.
- A webcast captures and records audio, video, slides and other types of digital data, then synchronizes it as a single streamed media presentation. The course is either viewed live over the Internet or linked to later. Instructors can interact with students by various means: email, chat, scheduled audioconferences, or other methods.
- A webconference combines the use of a Web browser for visuals and an audioconference for discussion. Students and instructors communicate and collaborate in real-time. Students can show and receive graphics, draw, add text, demonstrate Web sites, share documents and use Web chat. Students can interact with each other to create new collaborative content during the course.