What It Takes to Complete a College Degree Online: Technology

Participating in an extended online education program isn’t for everyone. It takes a special discipline and high degree of self-motivation. Neither is the tuition necessarily less expensive than traditional brick-and-mortar classroom education. The advantages are much greater flexibility with time and a far greater choice of educational providers. A potential learner can literally select degree programs from around the globe.

Online learners also need to essentially create their own classroom experience. This entails more than just physical space elements. In this post, I describe the technical components used to complete my Masters of Science in Online Teaching and Learning at CSU Global.

Hardware

There were several components which proved indispensable during the course of the program. The most important was a light weight and compact laptop. For this I chose Dell’s Mini 10 (1010) netbook.

Dell Mini 10 running Ubuntu Linux

Dell Mini 10 running Ubuntu Linux

I configured the netbook for dual booting into either the factory install Windows XP Home or Ubuntu Linux (10.04). I anticipated a great deal of sensitive information would accumulate on the box over the course of two years and in hindsight, this was accurate. Since things this small are easy to lose or steal, for peace of mind I installed Truecrypt and encrypted the Windows partition. The home partition on the Linux installation was also encrypted during the installation of Ubuntu.

The Dell’s keyboard was a nice fit, even for someone with large hands such as I. The battery life was excellent, easily lasting four hours under heavy use and frequently lasting over six hours away from the power cable. This worked well for extended sessions at the library. I also found the availability of plenty of USB ports on the device to be important. The Dell Mini 10 has three USB ports, along with an SD card slot, NIC and modem ports.

Sony PRS-600 eReader

Sony PRS-600 eReader

The next most important hardware component was my Sony PRS-600 eReader. At the time I started the program, the PRS-600 was the best eReader for displaying a wide variety of PDF files. These were the pre-iPad days. It also allows for notes, has expandable memory and a screen that’s as easy to read as the contemporary Kindle (which didn’t have expandable memory and or read PDF files very well. I don’t know if this is still the case.) Taking the digital reading assignments along with me on the road in such a small package with a very long battery life was more than convenient – it’s often made it possible to stay current with assignments and productive on long flights while traveling for business. (With my height and reach, it is near impossible to use a laptop/netbook on an airplane unless I’m in first class. And that has happened only once in my life. So it’s read or listen to the personal music player.)

ASUS Transformer TF101 with Docking Station

ASUS Transformer TF101 with Docking Station

A late comer to the suite of hardware was the ASUS Transformer tablet. By this time, the iPad had been introduced and the price point on competing tables was within range. The single greatest benefit for introducing the tablet into the mix is that it does a much better job at displaying PDF’s with detailed illustrations or drawings. Add to this the free Kindle application for Android and I essentially had a full color eReader and passable netbook rolled into one.

The Android platform was stable and reliable. I experienced a couple of crashes at first with the default 3.0 OS version. Currently on version 3.2, the tablet hasn’t crashed a single time.

There are, however, several drawbacks to using a tablet for an online degree program.

  • The docking station keyboard is a little sluggish, which results in an increased frequency of typos. Compounding this issue is the fact there is no delete key on the keyboard. This requires the use of the arrow keys and the backspace button if the typo to be corrected is downstream of where the cursor may be.
  • I’ve turned off the touchpad on the keyboard. It is slow and overly sensitive to hovering thumbs. The speed and sensitivity cannot be adjusted.
  • The use of the touch screen is very convenient. Unfortunately, I now have a tendency to want to touch every computer screen, particularly on my netbook.
  • Android applications can be a bit rough as most are in beta (eg. firefox) or are at version 1.x in their release cycles. Month by month, this situation continues to improve.

Overall, the tablet would be good for short blog posts. However I wouldn’t want to author a large post or one with images.

The tablet hasn’t replaced anything, except perhaps the Sony eReader. Mainly because the tablet does a better job at presenting ebooks (epub & PDF) with complex illustrations and technical diagrams. The Sony eReader still accompanied me on long trips or for situations where I knew there would only be opportunities to read.

Cowon J3 Personal Music Player

Cowon J3 Personal Music Player

The final, and indispensable, hardware component was a Cowon J3 personal music player with high quality noise canceling ear buds. It is essential the ear buds be noise canceling. Even in the library, there can be all manner of distracting noises. Many parents considered the library an extended playground for their kids and other patrons talking on cell phones was not an uncommon occurrence.

I updated the J3’s UI with Kizune’s outstanding Aero Music replacement. This greatly enhanced the J3’s usability by adding the ability to create playlists – something the native J3 UI was incapable of doing. With the J3’s expanded memory capability, I was able to pack along my entire music library. Given most of my library is in OGG format, the fact the J3 can play OGG files was an essential feature. Happily, Cowon’s legendary sound quality was in place with the J3.

The netbook, tablet, and eReader are all quite capable as music players. However, the J3’s features combined with it’s small size and very long battery life proved important. The netbook in particular consumed more energy to play music than the J3, no doubt due to the constantly spinning hard drive.

Maxpedition Mongo Versipack

Maxpedition Mongo Versipack

All this equipment, and any needed hard copy books, fit nicely in my Maxpedition Mongo Versipack. Biking to favorite coffee shops, driving to the library, or simply hauling school stuff from place to place in the house, the Mongo was a my go-bag. If coffee shops and the library were my online classroom, the Mongo was my school desk. There’s plenty of space to securely store extra batteries, water, smartphone, netbook, or whatever else the virtual learner may need to hunker down and focus.

A piece of hardware that was functionally useless was the “smartphone.” In my case, an iPhone 3G. I doubt any smartphone of any generation would have been useful. For starters, CSU Global’s web site and student portal are decidedly NOT mobile friendly. For example, when students browse to the student portal with Safari, the first thing they encounter is a warning message stating the web site doesn’t like the smartphone.

Ack!

Truth is, you see this warning if you attempt to log on to the site with anything other than Windows, but that’s a different post. Students can cancel past this message, which appears several times while logging on. Once logged on, the screen is unusably small and near impossible to navigate, even with “unpinching” the screen and scrolling.

CSU Global's idea of "mobile"

CSU Global's idea of "mobile"

Once logged on, students have to navigate to the official course hosted by Blackboard. At that point, it’s game over unless one is willing to wait, literally, 20 minutes for screen refreshes. CSU Global’s use of Blackboard for the course is also a topic for another post.

 Software

Since CSU Global allowed for the use of OpenOffice/LibreOffice (open source) rather than chain students to that other office product (frankly, one of the main reasons I chose CSU Global’s program), most of my work was done on Linux. I would occasionally boot into Windows when I needed to create a diagram with Visio or sign a PDF with the full version of Acrobat.

FocusWriter (open source) – “FocusWriter is a fullscreen, distraction-free word processor designed to immerse you as much as possible in your work. The program autosaves your progress, and reloads the last files you had open to make it easy to jump back in during your next writing session, and has many other features that make it such that only one thing matters: your writing.”

FreeMind (open source) – Mind mapping software. This tool is great for organizing ideas for everything from discussion forum posts to extensive papers and involved projects.

PDFCreator (open source) – A printer driver capable of creating PDF files from any application (which can then be loaded on an eReader like the Sony PRS-600.)

The Guide (open source) – The Guide is perfect for developing outlines for papers and projects. In many respects, it’s similar to FreeMind, except that thoughts and ideas are structured hierarchically. “The Guide evolved from the need to have an application that could organize information and ideas in a hierarchical, tree-like structure. Tree-based structures are frequently employed to manage information through a “divide-and-conquer” approach, wherein each level of the tree represents a further level of specialization of the parent-level topic — the best example of this being a book.”

VLC media player (open source) – VLC is a free cross-platform multimedia player that plays most multimedia files and streaming protocols. VLC can speed up and slow down video/audio presentations – very useful for several long and extremely slow paced video and/or audio interviews I’ve had to watch/listen to for class. In such cases, even watching/listening to a video at 2X speed was entirely understandable. Occasionally, slowing down complex material has helped, too.

Word Flash Reader (open source) – A free Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) program that makes on-screen reading easy and improves reading speed.

There were other tools I used for short durations during the course of completing my Masters. Those described in this post were used throughout the program or made a significant difference when introduced.