Adult Education Gear Guide: Essential Supplies for Online Degrees

| Bobby Rich

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Thanks to online college, adult education has evolved dramatically over just the last few years. In the past, adult learners might have been limited to vocational opportunities and night schools. But with the proliferation of online schools, the definition of adult education is shifting. Now, more than ever before, adult learners have access to online degrees, as well as opportunities for career advancement and salary growth. Read on to find out how you can get started on this path!

Keep your backpack in your closet. No need to pack a snack. Actually, don’t even leave your home. If you’re thinking about going back to school and earning a degree, the Internet is now the place to go. Online colleges are becoming more and more popular across the board. With the flexibility and affordability offered by the best online colleges, busy, working adults can begin or continue their education without disrupting their lives.

However, online education comes with its own challenges too. As an online learner, you’ll need to create your own space and build a schedule that allows you to stay on top of your studies. As with any endeavor, having the right tools at hand can significantly improve both the quality of your experience and your chances of success. Of course, just as the landscape of education has changed, so too have the tools you need to get started.

Below, we highlight some of the basic supplies you’ll need to succeed in online adult education. We cover items ranging from essential to convenient; from free to (relatively) pricey. Everything here serves the unique needs of adult online learners seeking to advance their education on their own terms. If you’re getting equipped to earn an online degree, start your planning here.

Who are online adult learners?

When you picture the average college student, perhaps the image that comes to mind is a recent high school graduate, probably 18-22 years old, with little to no full-time work experience, and minimal obligations (such as raising a family or working a salaried job) outside of completing their undergraduate degree program. However, this population only makes up part of the picture. People 23 and older, often called adult learners or nontraditional learners, make up a significant portion of the enrolled population across the U.S. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, adult learners accounted for about 59% of the country’s total postsecondary enrollment. Of course, there are other factors beyond age that can identify a student as non-traditional (covered in detail elsewhere on The Quad), but these factors—including gaps in educational experience, career status, and family responsibilities—tend to intersect with age.

Adult learners have a lot going on in their lives, and attending a traditional, on-campus degree program, at any level, can be impossible for many people. Adult learners often don’t have the time or energy to go back to school in the traditional sense, which is why many turn to online degree programs. Many excellent online programs are designed with busy, non-traditional students in mind.

Perhaps you’re coming to your online degree program with a bachelor’s degree and years of professional experience under your belt, in search of an online master’s degree and a shot at climbing that corporate ladder. Perhaps you attended college for a while, but didn’t finish your studies. Now, you’re ready to earn your degree and enter the next stage of your life and career. Perhaps you hold a GED and work multiple hourly-wage jobs, but would like to do more in your career than simply make ends meet.

Regardless of your background, adult education now offers greater flexibility than ever before. Many online degree programs offer accelerated models, utilize asynchronous courses, and sometimes offer credit for life and work experience. And in most cases, you’ll never have to visit campus, unless you want to.

No matter what form your online education takes, you’re going to need supplies. Consult our list before you get your gear!

G Suite Account

What it is: A collection of fully-functional cloud-based productivity software

What it does: Allows you to perform key tasks at no cost, and does so easily on the go

Why you need it: If you have a Gmail account, you already have access! If you don’t have a Gmail account, signing up for one takes about two minutes. G Suite provides a full array of productivity software that can be readily accessed wherever you can get an internet connection. If you need word processing, synchronized calendars, slide presentations, spreadsheets, or a variety of other tools (including, email, of course), the G Suite provides these for you without cost. The Google Drive includes 15gb of data (more available for purchase), allowing you to backup information, and easily access it by logging into your account, without having to worry about transferring the data and losing it on an external drive. For students and professionals, it is an extremely useful and flexible resource.

What it costs: Totally free


What it is: A laptop/tablet device that operates with the Google Chrome OS operating system and stores data to the Google Drive

What it does: Chromebooks function as laptop/tablet hybrids, allowing for standard laptop-style use, with the advantage of a touchscreen. Because they don’t have internal storage and instead utilize the G Suite for productivity software and the Google Drive for storage, they are often quite light and compact devices. As a bonus, this design keeps them inexpensive, and because they are made by an array of different tech companies, you have plenty of options to find one with the specs (and price) to fit your needs. Anywhere you can get a Wi-Fi signal, the Chromebook works just like another laptop.

Why you need it: Let’s be honest, computers are expensive, and most of us ride them out for as long as we can until we are outright forced to upgrade. Unfortunately, this also means that software compatibility issues, as well as slow operating systems and dated, dying hardware are common obstacles, and you don’t need them getting in the way of earning your online degree. If you’re not ready to bite the bullet and buy a brand new desktop or traditional laptop computer, a Chromebook can provide an affordable option to upgrade your tech without having to go “all-in”. And because it is designed to work with the G Suite apps, there’s no need to purchase standard productivity software.

Note: Because they do not have internal storage, you cannot install software to Chromebooks. If you need more advanced software that must be installed to a system and cannot be accessed remotely, a Chromebook may not meet all of your needs.

What it costs: Most Chromebooks cost around $300-$400, though you can spend up to around $1,000 if you want to include all the bells and whistles. Keep in mind that some schools, as well third-party scholarship funds, may offer grants, stipends, or reimbursement options for qualifying students to purchase technology.

For help finding the right computer for your online education, check out The Savvy Student’s Guide to Computers for College and click here to find out which colleges are offering free laptops!

Mechanical Keyboard

What it is: Mechanical keyboards are an aftermarket upgrade to your standard computer keyboard. Produced by third-party companies, mechanical keyboards provide desktop computer users with increased comfort, accuracy, and reliability, not to mention a general sense of satisfaction in their typing experience.

What it does: All computer keyboards used to be mechanical keyboards. If you are a computer user of a certain age, you likely are aware that the standard keyboards nowadays are quite different from how they were made in the past, even up to the last decade. If you were to buy a new computer tomorrow, it would come with a default keyboard using a rubber membrane under the keys. This type of keyboard has a very faint feel when pressed, makes little noise, and is cheap to produce. A mechanical keyboard, by contrast, utilizes mechanical switches for each key that provide a distinctive tactile and audio experience, with a satisfying click, and a punchy response for the fingertips. The mechanical keyboard's design also makes it more durable than a standard keyboard, meaning each key will stay responsive for much longer (if you’ve ever worn out a keyboard, you know how important this is).

Why you need it: Many people (especially those who spend a lot of time typing at a desktop) find the weak response of current standard keyboards unsatisfying and uncomfortable to use for extended periods, not to mention their unreliability with issues such as worn out keys and failing to track keystrokes accurately. If you are planning on spending a good chunk of time at your computer, and doing what some people term "power typing" (which goes hand in hand with online education), a mechanical keyboard can make your experience much more enjoyable by requiring less force from your fingers to type. This allows you to really feel and hear your work without losing a keystroke to "keyboard ghosting". These qualities also makes mechanical keyboards a popular choice for computer gamers, as well as professionals who perform a significant amount of typing in their daily jobs…such as copywriters.

What it costs: Depending on the options that come with the keyboard, most cost between $100 and $200. If you want nifty upgrades, like rainbow backlit keys, or sleek ergonomic designs, expect to pay a bit more.


What it is: By this point, you’re surely familiar with what a smartphone is, even if you don’t have one. To recap: a smartphone is basically a cellphone blended with a computer, allowing users to call, text, email, send photos and videos, access all sorts of information in all sorts of ways, and utilize a galaxy of useful and (sometimes) distracting apps.

What it does: If you’ve ever heard that the world is shrinking, smartphones are a big reason why. They allow for connectivity unlike anything before, revolutionizing how we communicate with each other and traffic in information. They allow us to consolidate many aspects of our lives to a single, multi-function device, integrate our interests and needs, and streamline many of our experiences in both the real and digital worlds. It has been argued (in many arenas and by many voices) that smartphones have moved us one step closer to becoming a society of cyborgs, with the devices allowing for us to treat the internet, and all of its information, as an extension of our own minds.

Why you need it: As the tech has become more widespread and affordable, the odds are pretty good you already have a smartphone, but if for some reason you still have a traditional cellphone, it’s time to upgrade. More and more services and organizations rely on apps, texts, and emails to communicate vital information. If you’re attending an online college, this will almost certainly be true. You don’t need the fanciest, newest smartphone on the market, but you do need to keep up with the times.

What it costs: On the low end, around $350. If you’re looking for more functionality and features, you can spend into the low $1,000s. You can buy a smartphone outright, if you choose, though most phone companies offer affordable payment plans, and even trade-in options for outdated devices, with some limitations.

Note: if you’re looking for super luxury (like a real gold case, not just a gold-colored one), prices can easily get into the five-figure range. Obviously, super luxury smartphones are for a niche market and can’t simply be found at any regular phone store, but if you can afford one, the odds are good you already know where to find it.

Time Management Apps

What they are: Various phone and computer apps that help track and optimize how you spend your time

What they do: Each app has its own unique functions, but they all help you answer the question: "where does all of my time go?" The apps vary from extremely simple options that block distractions for specified periods of time (such as no texting for 30 minutes), to complex software that tracks what you do, breaks it down into a chart, and helps you better understand how you can stay on task and get more done in less time.

Why you need them: School can be very enriching, but it’s not always easy to stay focused. Sometimes it is very easy to get distracted, and if you don’t come to your study session with a plan, you could waste a lot of time spinning your wheels, stressing yourself out, and falling short of your goals. Time management apps are a simple option for accountability, to make sure you keep to the path and finish the job, instead of getting sucked into social media for hours at a time when you should be studying.

What they cost: While there are plenty of options designed for professionals that utilize subscription plans from $9.99 to $29.99 a month, there are also plenty of free options that, while simple, meet the basic needs of most students.

For a look at some of the best education apps on the market, check out our Savvy Student’s Guide to iPad & Tablet Apps and our look at The Best iPhone Apps for Students in 2018.

Music Streaming Service Subscription

What it is: A subscription (paid monthly) to a music streaming service such as Spotify or Apple music

What it does: Music streaming services allow you to access and listen to massive catalogs of music for a fraction of what it would cost to actually purchase the music yourself. You sign up for an account, just like you would with video streaming services, select whatever music or podcasts you like, and receive curated suggestions based on your listening habits and tastes.

Why you need it: Listening to music while studying or writing papers is a pretty popular activity. With a streaming subscription, you gain access to a virtually limitless selection of music. This allows for a more comfortable, streamlined listening experience as you work. Say there is some new music you want to check out. Maybe you don’t want to make selections, but don’t trust the radio, or maybe you want to discover music that is new to you, but don’t know where to start looking, or perhaps you want a playlist that is designed to fit a certain mood. All of it is already there for you; all that’s left to do is plug, play, and study, whether on the go, or at home.

What it costs: Depending on the subscription, these services go for between $5 and $20 monthly. Lower-tier subscriptions typically utilize ads, whereas premium subscriptions are ad-free; do yourself a favor and go for the latter. As a bonus, student discounts are typically available.

For a look at how music can help you study, and for one of our awesome Spotify playlists, check out Study Music Increases Your Brain Power.

Dictation Software

What it is: Software that reads text documents, translates your speech into text, and accepts voice commands for certain functions

What it does: It lets you use your computer (mostly) hands-free.

Why you need it: Typing documents and reading to yourself can become mundane, and sometimes downright exhausting, especially if you have a full-time job and have been doing it all day prior to coming home and studying in the evening. Dictation software allows you to make some computer functions easier by reading text to you, allowing you to make certain vocal commands, and to dictate text.

What it costs: Apple and Microsoft systems already come with their own forms of dictation software, as does Google’s G Suite. However, they vary in functionality and quality. Start there. If you need something more advanced, there are a variety of dictation programs you can purchase which can, in theory, allow you to operate your computer while wearing an eye pillow and massaging your screaming temples; these can cost upwards of $200.

Dictation software could also allow you to pursue an online degree while managing a physical disability or a vision or speech impairment. Take a look at our Disability Guides to learn more.

Comfortable Office Chair

What it is: A comfortable office chair

What it does: Makes your experience of studying at home more enjoyable, settled, and focused

Why you need it: While it can sometimes be appealing to study at the library, or a coffee shop, or even the local park, most of your studying will likely be done at home. If you have a full-time job and a family, your studies will most likely happen at the end of the day, when you’re especially unlikely to head back out. So after everything else you do all day long, why be uncomfortable while you study? Instead of using a kitchen chair, folding stool, or overturned laundry bin, get a dedicated, comfortable office chair, with good cushioning and back support. Find something that lets you settle in and forget your surroundings while you knock out your online degree.

What it costs: You can spend as much as you want, but most will land in the $100-$300 range.

Weekly Planner

What it is: An actual, old-school, honest-to-goodness, IRL, paper weekly planner

What it does: It allows you to track your schedule the way people have done for years and years before the digital revolution: with pen and paper, and without software malfunctions, weak Wi-Fi connections, dead batteries, or technological backsass.

Why you need it: Technology is fantastic, and yes, a number of the items suggested on this list are hi-tech, if not entirely digital in nature. But just because you have access to all of this technology, and just because you are earning an online degree, that doesn’t mean you should totally eschew more traditional methods of organization. A physical weekly planner, the kind that doesn’t automatically sync to your digital calendar or notify you with a helpful alarm for all upcoming appointments, can still be majorly useful in this evermore digitally integrated world.

Consider that the internet is, by default, amorphous, and that, try as you might, you can never quite see the whole thing at once, never wrap your hands around it, nor physically alter it to your needs. Even your handy smartphone, for all it can do, is really just a portal to a larger technological world, one that you can visit and interact with, but never really control. An old-school weekly planner, on the other hand, can be held and viewed in full. It is your own little world that you can control and alter to your own demands. It lets you keep your schedule right where you can see it with little more effort than turning a page, writing down an appointment, or crossing out a date, and it won’t suddenly and (in)conveniently fail after the newest software update. No matter how digital your life may get, having an analogue backup is always a good idea.

What it costs: $20 for an 18-month planner is pretty standard fare; you might pay a little more for unique designs and extras. If you really want to drop some cash, you can spend upwards of $200 on a planner, though at some point suspicious eyebrows will be raised in your direction. Honestly, who needs a planner that expensive?

Bulletin Board/White Board

What it is: A board on which to keep notes, calendars, pictures, etc.

What it does: Provides easily-modified visual organization

Why you need it: As with weekly planners, sometimes you just need an old-school, physical solution. While it’s great to keep synced calendars in the cloud and across your devices, and it’s great to have files and documents accessible anywhere you can find a WiFi signal, it’s also extremely useful, sometimes, to just have it laid out where you can see it. Despite all of our technology, sometimes it’s easy to get lost or confused with all we have to keep track of. If you have course calendars, syllabi, rough drafts, notes to pore over, or even just big ideas to hash out, bulletin boards and white boards offer a straightforward and cheap solution that you can keep right next to your study desk.

What it costs: Depending on the size, $20-$40


What it is: It’s a printer.

What it does: What else can we say? It prints.

Why you need it: If you’re attending an online college, all of your important documents will be available online, usually in PDF form. While this is convenient in the sense that you can access all you need in one place, and that it’s easily portable, it doesn’t always make for the most satisfying experience. Not to mention, it can be easy to lose track of things in the digital ether. Sometimes, you just need it on paper. A simple, cheap printer can significantly help your productivity by allowing you to print out syllabi, calendars, and important study documents (which, if you’re following along, can all be posted to your bulletin board).

What it costs: $50-$150.

Public Library Membership

What it is: A public library membership.

What it does: Gives you access to your public library and all of its services.

Why you need it: There is so much to love about public libraries. Essentially they provide connection to information, to the local community, and to the global community. If you need to get out of the house and want a quiet place to study, the library is there for you. If you need to copy or scan or print, the library has the tech you need. If you need help finding information, librarians can aid in your hunt. If you need to access a book from a library on the other side of the country, your library can get it for you on loan. The library traffics in information, and as a student, it’s one of your strongest allies. Though you have a student membership to your school’s library, if you’re earning a degree online, that school and library may be far beyond driving distance for you, and while you can access school library services online, the public library can offer valuable in-person assistance.

What it costs: Not a cent

Every student’s needs are unique. Maybe you’re not a sitting person. Maybe you need a standing desk. Maybe you don’t care for smartphones and you’d just rather have one of those flip-phones from the ’90s. That’s up to you. But if you aren’t sure how to get set up for online college, let this list be your starting place.

If you’ve picked out the gear that is right for you, but still need some help picking out the right online college, jump to The Best Online Colleges and get started on your search!.

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