I remember the excitement of walking the aisles of notebooks, pencils, pens, crayons, and calculators every September, school-supply list in hand. Preparing for the new school year by stocking up on fresh supplies was practical (last year’s notebooks were full and barely clinging to their wire spiral binding), a bit philosophical (every new Trapper Keeper represented a fresh start), and, at times, preposterous (two words: Lisa Frank; if you’re unfamiliar with her designs, imagine folders, erasers, lunchboxes, etc. plastered with Skittles-colored unicorns, dolphins, kittens, and puppies bounding over rainbows and riding shooting stars — as a middle schooler, I had to own it all).
Flash forward several years since I took my last college class to the fall I began working toward my master’s degree. A lot has changed in higher education in that time. For starters, I would be earning my graduate degree 100 percent online.
If you're starting a new online class or degree program this season, it's important to get together all of the tools you'll need to succeed before the class begins. Having the right equipment and tools will allow you to concentrate 100 percent on your classes and not be distracted by things like poor lighting or an uncomfortable chair. Here’s a list of the must-have school supplies for online students, backed by advice from industry experts in the field of online education.
1. A good computer with reliable access to the Internet
It might go without saying, but if your computer doesn’t hold a charge or takes forever to load a page, you will need to upgrade before starting class. At the bare minimum, your computer should meet the technical requirements set by your online program. (You can view the Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education recommendations here.) If you’re a first-time online learner like me, you may be anxious enough about how to navigate your class — why add technical difficulties to the mix?
- Ask if your school has any deals worked out with retailers. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to ask about student discounts wherever you shop.
- Keep in mind that you don’t have to necessarily buy the latest and greatest computer; a refurbished but newer model will likely suffice.
- Finally, yes, a computer does cost more than a package of number 2 pencils, but you could potentially write off the expense come tax time as an educational tax credit, especially if you’re learning online and need it to complete your work. Ask a tax professional for more details.
Don’t be surprised if you need a physical book for your online class. Even if your book is available in a digital version, ask yourself which way you’re more inclined to learn. For me, I want to hold the book, and I get giddy at the prospect of highlighting and penning marginalia. (I know I’m not the only one!) But don’t take my word for it: Faculty say that having your textbook in time for the first day of class is a key indicator of success.
Unlike students who attend traditional campuses, chances are that, as an online student, you are not within walking or driving distance to your university bookstore. As such, do not wait until class begins to buy your book to allow time for shipping. You will get behind and spend the rest of the term trying to catch up.
Speaking of ordering and shipping books, again ask for college rates. Major retailers like Amazon allow you to sign up for a Prime Student account — a discounted version of their Prime service — with your university email address.
3. A way to block out study time
Think of it as your velvet rope between the rest of your life and your online studies. Maybe it’s something you purchase, like an app (here are seven apps we suggest to keep you on track), a kitchen timer, or a planner. Or it could be something intangible, like a block of time on your Google calendar. Either way, it’s non-negotiable that you plan your study time and stick to it. If you’re like many online students, you are already juggling a full-time career and perhaps a family. Any “free time” you had will now need to be sliced and diced to include your coursework.
Here’s how one JWU Online student fits online learning into her busy life.
For me, I chose to swap my morning ritual of reading The New Yorker at breakfast with a case study or chapter from my book. Plan on dedicating eight to ten hours a week to each course.
4. Basic (and perhaps even advanced) software
At the very least, you’re going to need a word-processing application, but, based on your program, you may need specific software geared toward your field of study. Again, your institution may provide software at reduced rates or even at no cost — Johnson & Wales University students can install Microsoft Office 365 for free on up to five compatible PCs and Macs, plus five tablets, a potential savings of $400 or more.
I chose to type and save my discussion board posts on Google docs. That way I was able to access them and work on them from any computer at any time via my Google account.
5. Whatever it is that makes you focus and feel successful
So, this one is personal. For me, I knew I had to have a Five Star notebook (sorry, Lisa Frank). You might want a small mascot of your university to place on your desk — or, heck, even a new desk/study space altogether. As an online learner, your special something could even be new pajamas or a glass of wine. There are going to be times that you don’t want to study and even may think of giving up. A small token of motivation might be just what you need to keep going and stay the course.
6. A Designated Workplace
It's difficult to be successful if you're bouncing around between your couch, your dining room table and your bed. This may sound alluring if you've never tried it, but, trust me, it can be distracting to your studies. A better solution is to have a set location where you do your schoolwork and where you listen to classroom lectures. That tells your brain you're going to school when you enter that "zone." It also allows you a place where you can leave your study materials and supplies without having to pack everything up at the end of the school day.
7. Earphones or Earbuds
Most of us share our living spaces with other people, whether that's your parents or your spouse and kids. With earphones, you can keep them from listening to your lectures--and you don’t have to listen to Netflix blasting from the other room. In addition, earphones make it easier to hear speakers in virtual meetings and block out the inevitable noise from the outside world.
Even better than earbuds is a headset that gives you better audio while also canceling the outside noise. Some higher-end models of headphones even have built-in microphones.
8. A Comfortable Chair
With in-person learning, students have an opportunity to get up and move around every few hours as they change classes or go to the library or student union between classes.
However, with virtual learning, you take all of the classes, assignments and meetings from one place--in front of your computer. That can lead to sore muscles and back pain if you're sitting in an uncomfortable chair all day, every day. Treating yourself to a comfortable ergonomic chair is a necessity, not a luxury, and is much less expensive than a trip to the doctor's office. I even found a high-end leather one on Facebook Marketplace--shop around and find a quality chair that works for you and your budget.
9. Healthy, Easy-To-Grab Snacks
The old adage, “You are what you eat” holds some truth. Science backs brain foods that can actually help you study, so don’t be tempted to hit the drive-through or stock up on junk food to munch while you learn. If you’re learning at your desk for multiple hours a day, a small refrigerator near where you sit can also be helpful, if you have room for it. You can store water and other drinks in there for easy access.
10. USB Flash Drive
Having a flash drive makes it easy to back up your assignments and papers without having to worry about a cloud storage account. Having your work downloaded on a flash drive gives you the peace of mind that comes from knowing your hard work is protected even if your computer crashes.
11. Traditional School Supplies
Just because you're learning via your computer doesn't mean that you still don't need a few things like a paper notebook, pens, and pencils. While you can take notes on your mobile phone or the notepad function of your computer, it's usually easier to simply jot down a few ideas or key points while you're listening to the lecture. A red pen can be useful for making hardcopy corrections.
12. A Planner
You can keep your class schedule online via Google calendar or other similar apps. However, sometimes it's nice to be able to carry around your schedule and to go “old school” by writing down important dates in your planner. Of course, this has the advantage of your being able to refer to it even when you're away from your "learning station."
13. A Printer
If you work in an office, many of us discovered that a printer was necessary for remote work. The same goes true for online learning: Even though you are taking your college courses via your computer, you'll still find a lot of things you'll want to print. I often have printed out papers so that I could read and edit them with a pen, and a printer/copier combo I picked up lets me make copies of my tuition and credit paperwork for corporate reimbursement and tax purposes.
14. Good Lighting
Good lighting is essential to make sure that you don't strain your eyes during those long days of classes. Unfortunately, most houses have terrible work lighting. The lighting in the majority of homes is designed to be relaxing, not provide ample lighting for work and study projects. In addition, many homes have overhead lighting, which can cause glare on your computer screen and make it tiresome and difficult to see what's on the screen.
The best lighting solution that I've found is to place a table or floor lamp with a shade near your work area with a 40- to 60-watt bulb. This provides enough illumination without causing unnecessary glare.
15. Post-It Notes
Post-it notes have never gone out of style. They are invaluable for making notes to yourself about ideas for papers, things you want or have to do later, or shortcuts or tips that you've just learned and want to be able to remember. Post-it notes come in a rainbow of colors. If you want to be really clever, you can color code the notes for certain subjects or to denote whether you need to take action on the notes.
If you’re reading a textbook, highlighters can be invaluable for making key passages stand out. Highlighting sections makes it easier to review the material when it comes time for your finals. In addition to the traditional yellow, pink, blue and green highlighters, you can also get markers with glitter in them.
Bonus item: It occurred to me as I was finishing up this list that there’s one very important item that you won’t find in a store, and that’s support. My husband called me at work on my first day of class just to say that he noticed me studying that morning and he was proud of me for beginning to work toward my master’s degree. (He was actually finishing up his MBA that spring, so he could relate.) Tell your friends and family about your journey — they will be your biggest cheerleaders along the way and you’ll need their encouragement. Even your coworkers will be a great source of motivation as you advance your professional knowledge.
A Little About Online Learning
Online learning is ideal for busy people who have full-time jobs, full-time parenting obligations, and active civic and social lives. It's also a great option for those students who live in remote areas away from metropolitan centers and college campuses. With online learning, you don't have to worry about commuting to class, what the weather is that day, what you're going to wear, or where you are going to park. All you have to do is walk over to your work area and sit down at your desk.
If you're worried that you aren't disciplined enough for online learning, I understand. That was a concern of mine. However, most colleges that offer online classes, including Johnson and Wales University, give you a great support network to keep you on track. You'll have a designated advisor who will check in with you periodically to make sure that you're meeting your deadlines and staying focused on your goal. In addition, you'll have access to student work groups and online tutors, so you can share ideas and get any help you may need in your classes. I've actually found online learning to be more of a personal experience than taking a class in a large lecture hall.
Learn about earning your undergraduate degree or graduate degree online from Johnson & Wales University College of Online Education. For more information, complete the Request Info form, call 855-JWU-1881 or email [email protected]