Essential Tools for Online College | TheBestSchools

by Evan Thompson

Updated May 23, 2023 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Going to school with a pen and paper is tried and true for traditional students, but that doesn't scratch the surface of what online learners need.

Before class begins, online students have to consider things like internet connection, creating the right study space, and computer speed to help them take full advantage of their college experience. They also have to account for technical difficulties that could prevent them from logging on.

Besides wrangling with technology, online students also deal with other challenges, like noisy distractions at home, time management, and productivity. Being an online student requires some leg work, but making sure you have the right tools can make it easier to handle.

Whether you're trying online learning for the first time or looking for ways to make your experience better, here's a list of the essential tools that every online student should have.

1. A Reliable Computer

A computer for online college is a no-brainer and the most essential item on this list, but figuring out how to choose the best kind for your needs can get complicated.

Law students may want a slim, energy-efficient laptop for portable or compact use. Meanwhile, engineering students might need a powerhouse computer that can keep up with big data projects and hefty programs.

Each student needs a specific kind of laptop to fit their needs. To help narrow down your options while searching for a computer, keep your price range in mind and ask yourself these questions:

  • How will I use it?
  • Is screen size important?
  • Does it need a strong battery life?
  • Is high processing power necessary?
  • Does it meet my college's requirements?
  • Is there a webcam?

Depending on the answers, the cost of your computer may go up or down. You should also research the price-to-performance ratio, which means how well a product performs for its price, by reading reviews from trusted sources.

Generally, laptops use one of three operating systems: Windows, Chrome OS, or macOS. The differences between them can often boil down to personal preference, but each operating system does have its own bells and whistles, so choose the one that best suits your needs.

Some colleges also require students to use specific operating systems that align with their technical support. It's best to reach out to your school to determine what systems the faculty or IT service recommend before purchasing your computer.

2. External Monitor(s)

An external monitor is an extra screen connected to your laptop. Many professionals working from home rely on them to increase productivity, and they can benefit online students as well.

For starters, an external monitor gives you a much larger screen to work on, making text documents and other school work easier to look at for long periods. Using your laptop screen to display a lecture and your monitor for your notes, or vice versa, also makes a big difference.

A monitor with a proper viewing angle helps reduce neck, shoulder, and eye strain. Laptops generally sit in people's laps, below eye level, and require you to slump down and crane your neck forward to see the screen. Doing school work will be far more comfortable if you use a monitor.

Benefits of One or More External Monitors

  • Increases productivity
  • Makes note-taking easier
  • Reduces neck, shoulder, and eye strain

College students can potentially get even more work done with two screens instead of one. Research shows workers' productivity increased by 42% by having two monitors placed side by side.

Having one or more monitors doesn't have to be all about school work, either. An added bonus is that bigger-sized screens make taking breaks to stream a show or play video games all the more enjoyable.

3. Practical Accessories

Electronic accessories, such as noise-canceling headphones, vertical mouses, or USB drives, can go a long way in improving the online learning experience. Depending on what you get, they can make it easier to focus, organize research, or store data.

Noise-canceling headphones are particularly helpful. Not to be confused with noise-isolating headphones, which block out noise but are not electronic, noise-canceling headphones connect to your computer and are primarily meant to reduce outside noise. They're a great option for people easily distracted by sounds.

Noise-canceling headphones also help you tune in for lessons and hear people speak clearly during class. If you buy a wireless version of them, you can also get up and walk around during the day without having to worry about cords. This is especially helpful for students who learn better when they're moving.

The Most Useful Accessories for Online Learning

  • Wireless noise-canceling headphones

    Reduces distracting noise, amplifies group calls, and frees up mobility
  • Flash drives

    Portable storage for reading materials (without the hassle of papers and books), easier file sharing, and eco-friendly (saves paper and printer ink)
  • Vertical mouse

    Reduces wrist pain; helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome; and puts hand, wrist, and arm in a more natural and comfortable position
  • WiFi extender

    Boosts router signal, spot-fixes dead zones with a spotty internet connection, and can be set up and managed using mobile apps

WiFi extenders, ranging in price from $30-$140, expand your wireless network range. Extenders can act as a spot fix if there is a dead zone in your bedroom, workspace, or living room. Most can be set up and managed using mobile apps.

According to Consumer Reports, however, their effectiveness is limited by factors like the speed of the internet connection coming into your home, distance from your router, the areas in your home in need of WiFi, and the WiFi usage of your family or roommates.

4. Note-Taking Apps

A simple word processor such as TextEdit could probably cover all your note-taking needs, but you can step up your game using note-taking apps. These apps are often free or relatively cheap, and they have unique features geared toward making a tedious process more convenient.

Note-taking apps allow you to combine word processing with the ergonomics of a note-taking environment. With OneNote, for example, instead of interacting with one document at a time as you would do in Microsoft Word (or Works, or Wordperfect), it's more like you interact with a multi-file notebook.

Note-Taking Apps at a Glance

  • Store all notes and important information digitally, usually in a cloud-based storage system.
  • Type, write, and draw notes on your device of choice, just like you would with pen and paper.
  • Add files, multimedia, and live recordings to your notes to enrich the meaning and context.
  • Collaborate and share notes with others instantaneously and in real-time.

Source: University of Miami Academic Technologies

Most note-taking apps allow you to drag and drop pictures, videos, and charts into a document without ruining the formatting. Notes can also be organized by topic, sub-topic, subject area, or whatever else you can think of, making it far easier to find specific notes later.

5. Reusable Notebook

While technology is great, some online students still prefer to use pen and paper — but that doesn't mean you should settle for an ordinary notebook.

Reusable notebooks allow you to create handwritten notes, then scan and upload them to cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and iCloud. They're also eco-friendly and don't waste paper.

Pros and Cons of Reusable Notebooks


  • Written notes can be erased with a damp cloth
  • Eco-friendly
  • Versatile for different types of students


  • Requires specific type of pen
  • More expensive than paper notebooks
  • Limited number of pages

You can write in a reusable notebook, upload it to a cloud service using a mobile app, then wipe it clean with a damp cloth. Once the notes are uploaded, artificial intelligence technology reads the handwritten notes and makes them searchable online.

Instead of flipping through page after page of notes, you can use the app to easily search what you're looking for and find it. However, reusable notebooks have a limited number of pages that can be used at a time, and they require a specific type of pen, which can be costly to refill or replace.

Reusable notebooks can be relatively cheap, depending on which brand you choose. The price range for some of the best reusable notebooks is $27-$150.

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Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: fizkes | Shutterstock

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