Top Tools for Success in the Online Classroom

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education-toolsBy Sarah Blais – Jan. 8, 2015: 

Online learning is a different beast than the traditional classroom. What worked when you were showing up for lessons every day may be different now – for the better. Online learning is flexible and can go anywhere you have an internet connection. However, you won’t find that notebooks and a brand-new pencil case will get you far.

Here’s a few great resources to help get you started:

Google Drive

Remember what would happen if your computer shut off randomly and you didn’t remember to save your work? Bye-bye, 30-page thesis. Long gone are those days; all you need is a Gmail account to create documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations using Google Drive. This is perfect for group projects when you can’t meet in person, as it allows mass collaboration, chat among the document editors, and tracked edits. Just send everyone an invite; they don’t need Gmail to access it.

If you’d still rather work with the Microsoft Office Suite, that’s great too. Drive uses cloud-based storage to keep all your work in one place without the need for a USB stick or external hard drive. You can even save music, photos, and program files from software like Final Cut Pro or Photoshop. Cloud storage is more reliable than a physical device because you can access it anywhere with an internet connection, and you don’t risk losing or breaking it.

Website blocking extensions

You tell yourself it’s time to crack down on homework. But right after you check your email, look at funny pictures on Reddit, read a few Buzzfeed articles… and suddenly, it’s twelve hours later.

There are browser add-ons you can download to stay focused while reading or listening to your course lecture. The aptly named Chrome extension Stayfocusd keeps you on track by blocking certain websites for a specified amount of time. There are two ways to set it: allowing yourself a specified amount of time on your favorite websites each day, or setting the “nuclear” option to block distracting websites while you work.

Firefox’s version of this is LeechBlock, where you can set up which sites to deny and at what time. You can create up to six blocks of schedules.

If you know you’d cheat by using another browser, Focal Filter works similar to Stay Focusd and works on all four major browsers.

Citation websites

Need 20 references for a paper, but don’t have time to write each one individually? Speed up the process by handing the task off to an automatic citation generator. The two most popular are EasyBib and Citation Machine. Both work the same way: after choosing the writing style, you can search for the book, website, magazine, or newspaper you’re referencing and it’ll give you a perfectly-formatted citation. If the system can’t find it, you can input the requested data manually, and it’ll still generate the citation for you.

Be warned: it’s easy to get attached to these types of websites, similar to how you won’t learn a math problem if you always use the calculator. If you’re going into a career where you’ll be using citations often, make sure you still know how to write them without help in case you can’t access the sites.

Wolfram Alpha

Have you ever been in a science or math class where the professor walked through a couple of exam problems – only to get stumped on the homework later when the example problems look nothing like what’s in front of you?

Wolfram Alpha is an informational website famous for its method of helping with math equations. All you do is input the equation, and it solves it for you. The best part is the “step-by-step” option that walks you through how the problem was solved. Wolfram Alpha is most people’s top choice because it can handle anything from elementary math to trigonometry and chemistry.

There are other sites available like Cymath that specialize in only lower mathematic subjects. But unlike Wolfram, it offers practice tests so you can learn the process like the back of your hand.

Textbook rental

Buying books for class isn’t what it used to be. You might cringe if you venture to your school’s bookstore website and look at the price tag for your semester’s required reading. Over the past ten years, textbook costs have increased 82 percent over the past 10 years. Of course with the internet, it’s possible to find a cheaper copy on Amazon or Craigslist. However, if you can’t re-sell the book when the class is over, you’re out of luck. Curriculums usually require the newest edition textbook every year, meaning your new book is suddenly old news.

Renting a book is significantly cheaper, plus you’re not left holding it after finals. Even bookstores are catching on to this trend, but it will still probably be on the expensive side. Shop around to find the best deals; places like Chegg, Barnes and Noble, and Bookrenter have competitive prices and rental terms. Prices also cover shipping when it’s time to give the books back.

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Sarah Blais is an education writer based in New York City. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and Mass Communication in from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State.

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