The Technology and Technological Skills You Need to Succeed
In This Chapter ▶ Making sure you have the right technological equipment ▶ Confirming your technological abilities ▶ Communicating safely online When it comes to technology and taking online courses, there are two essential components to being successful: technological inventory and technological competencies.
✓ Your technological inventory includes things like your actual computer and the programs that you use to surf the Internet, write documents, and perform other daily tasks. ✓ Technological competencies refer to the basic skills you need when taking an online course.
Don’t let these words scare you. Knowing what is expected up front will help you be more successful later. We explain what you need for online education success in this chapter.
Checking Your Technological Readiness The first thing you need to take an online course is a reliable computer that meets your course’s or program’s minimum standards. Most new computers meet many institutions’ minimum standards for hardware and software out of the box. More technical courses, such as those focusing on media development, may require you to purchase more specific hardware and software. And, of course, you need a dependable connection to the Internet.
In the following sections, we explain what you need to meet minimum hardware and software requirements for most online classes, and we describe the importance of a fast, reliable Internet connection.
Meeting minimum hardware requirements Each online course has minimum hardware requirements. These standards are determined by the technology used within the course. Courses using a lot of audio and video materials require better hardware than those relying solely on text-based materials.
Most institutions have a Web page where they display the minimum and recommended hardware requirements. If, after a few minutes of searching, you’re unable to find the computer requirements page on an institution’s Web site, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call your advisor. Once you start classes, your instructor will provide you with a list of any additional requirements that go above and beyond the institution’s advertised list.
Table 3-1 is an example of what you might see on an institution’s computer requirements page. The columns note different types of hardware and what’s required for both PCs and Macs.
As we introduce different hardware components in the following sections, keep in mind that this information is simply an overview. Each operating system uses its own navigation to find information, so as we talk about whether your computer meets certain requirements, you may need to reference your computer’s manual or an additional resource to help you determine how to locate needed information. We suggest looking into other For Dummies books specific to your computer — you can peruse available titles at http://www.dummies.com/store.html.
If you plan to purchase a new computer to take an online class, check with the institution to see whether you can purchase the computer at a discounted price. Many institutions have deals with computer manufacturers to provide their students with discounted hardware and software. If the institution doesn’t offer discounts, you should still find out what its minimum requirements are before making a purchase. It’s a good idea to print the minimum requirements and take the printout with you to the retail store of your choice. Doing so can help the salesperson guarantee that you purchase a computer to meet your educational needs.
Processor speed The processor speed refers to how fast your computer is able to process information and provide you, the user, with the output result; it’s measured in gigahertz (GHz). The more complicated the task, the longer it takes the computer to provide you with an output. Online courses that use more complicated materials, such as audio and video files, require a faster processor speed — in other words, more GHz.
Computers purchased within the last two years should have no problem meeting the processor speed requirements. If your computer is an older model, you should double-check to be sure its processor is fast enough.
Most computers have a screen that summarizes its physical makeup.
✓ If you’re using a computer with Windows Vista, you can click on the Start button at the bottom left of your screen and then right-click on Computer. If you have the Computer Icon on your desktop, you can also right-click directly on it (see the sidebar “A quickie on right-clicking,” later in this chapter) and choose Properties. This will take you to a screen that summarizes the computer’s operating system version, processor speed, and the amount of memory it has (see Figure 3-1). It should be noted that other versions of the Windows operating system may require different steps to find the same information. ✓ Mac users can click on the Apple (top left of the menu bar) and then click on the About This Mac option to see a similar summary (see Figure 3-2).
Memory The role of computer memory is to assist the processor by temporarily storing instructions and other information for faster processing. Computer programs, also known as applications — Microsoft Word, for example — require computers to have a specific amount of memory available for their use. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB).
Your computer’s current memory capacity can be found on the same page as the processor speed (see the preceding section and Figures 3-1 and 3-2). Most newer computers come with plenty of memory right off the shelf. However, if your computer is a few years older, it may not meet the minimum requirements for taking an online course. If this is the case, talk to either the institution’s technical support team or a computer retailer about increasing your computer’s memory. Depending on how old your computer is, increasing its memory may be all you need.
Hard drive Your computer’s hard drive is where all your files are stored. This includes the files required to run the computer’s operating system and your installed applications. Think of the hard drive as a digital filing cabinet. How much information can be stored on your computer’s hard drive depends on its size. Newer hard drives are measured in GB or terabytes (TB). Older hard drives were measured using megabytes (MB).
Institutions may require that you have a hard drive with enough space to install additional programs and store your documents such as homework assignments.
Monitor The monitor is what displays your computer’s output. A monitor’s display is based on two components: size and resolution. Monitors come in a variety of sizes based on their diagonal measurements in inches. For example, a 20-inch monitor measures 20 inches from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. However, a 20-inch monitor has only an 18.8-inch viewable display. This matters because the picture is developed using pixels, and the number of pixels that can fit in a given space is measured in terms of width by height. For example, a monitor with a 640 x 480 resolution means that there are 640 pixels across the screen and 480 pixels from top to bottom. The larger the monitor size, the bigger the pixels need to be to fill the space. Most institutions require you to have a monitor with a minimum resolution of 1024 x 768. A 17-inch monitor is best; however, monitors between 15 and 21 inches should also be suitable. Even the 13.3-inch monitors on our laptops display 1024 x 768 pixels just fine.
Speakers and microphones Many online courses use audio and video files to support the curriculum. In order to hear the speech portion of each of these files, you need a good pair of speakers or a headset. Most computers come with speakers upon purchase. These should work fine. However, your family and other housemates may prefer that you use a headset to reduce distractions. Don’t rush out and buy anything expensive. The headset you use to listen to your music player
will work just fine. Your computer should have a built-in sound card and a round headphone jack for plugging into. The headphone jack may be located on the front or the back of your computer. Or, if you use a laptop, the jack may be on one of the sides. Most headphone jacks have a small icon of a headset either above the jack or directly next to it.
Some instructors also may ask you to participate in a Web-based conference using Internet applications. These applications allow instructors and students to communicate in a variety of ways, including via voice over the Internet. To do this, you need to have a microphone. Many computers, especially laptops, have built-in microphones. These can work, but we recommend that you purchase an inexpensive headset that incorporates a microphone. Look to spend about $25 for the basic set.
Webcam Some programs or courses may require you to have a Webcam, which is a camera for your computer. When you turn it on, the members of your audience see you sitting in front of the computer, as if they were looking through your screen. Webcams may be required for a couple of reasons. First, you may be required to give synchronous presentations, and you may be asked to share an image of yourself during the presentation. Usually, in this situation a Webcam is optional. However, an institution may require a Webcam if a proctoring service is used for testing. Some proctoring services have you log in to a Web site and share your Webcam so they can confirm your identity and monitor your environment during a test.
Some newer computers have Webcams built directly into the monitor. If your computer doesn’t have a built-in Webcam, you can purchase one for $50, maybe less. When purchasing a Webcam, the most important thing is to make sure it’s compatible with your computer’s operating system. Webcams that work with Mac computers don’t necessarily work with Windows Vista machines. If a Webcam is required by your institution and you’re not sure which one to buy, contact the institution’s technical support team. They can probably recommend one or two.
Meeting software requirements Once you have your hardware equipment, you need to install the right software (if you don’t already have it on your computer). Software applications are the programs used to complete specific tasks. The two most important applications you need to have installed on your computer to take an online course are an Internet browser and a word-processing program. However, other applications may also be required by either the institution or an individual instructor, depending on the course content.
To check software requirements for a course, check the course description. Most institutions advertise software requirements here if they go beyond the standard requirements to give you plenty of time to purchase the software before class begins. Don’t forget to check the online bookstore for possible discounted purchasing.
Internet browser The application that allows you to connect and interact via the Internet is called an Internet browser. Every computer purchased at a standard retail store these days comes with an Internet browser. Windows-based machines come with Windows Internet Explorer (IE) and Macs come with Safari preinstalled. These browsers, in most cases, work just fine. (We explain how to obtain a reliable Internet connection later in this chapter.)
For those who enjoy other browsers, such as Firefox, they should work as well. If there are browser limitations, the institution should note those in the required software section of their Web site. For example, some older programming technology only works with Internet Explorer.
Unfortunately for Mac users, many Web-based tools — including those used in online courses — require Internet Explorer in order to function appropriately. This is becoming less and less of an issue and hopefully won’t affect your ability to register for an online course. However, be sure to check the institution’s software requirements before registering.
E-mail access Before you even start courses, you’ll communicate with registration and advising staff via e-mail. Once your application is accepted, some institutions will provide you with an e-mail account and instructions on how to access that account. These institutions often require that this account be used for all school business. On the other hand, allowing students to use an external e-mail account of their choice is becoming increasingly popular. We recommend setting up a free account with Google (http://gmail.com) strictly for school communication. This helps separate your personal materials from your school communications. We also recommend that you choose an e-mail address that’s more professional in nature than some personal addresses — for example, KevinJohnson@gmail.com rather than TheGoofster@gmail.com.
Using a free Gmail account has two advantages: Namely, it’s free, and secondly, it can be accessed via the Web or other e-mail applications, such as Microsoft Outlook or Mac’s iMail. Google provides step-by-step instructions on how to set up your account depending on your e-mail client of choice. The
other advantage to using Gmail is that Google accounts come with a suite of complimentary resources, such as an online calendar and photo gallery.
Word processing The assignments that you don’t complete directly online will most likely be completed using a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word. For example, you may be asked to write an essay and turn it in directly to your instructor. To do this, you would use a word-processing program to write your paper, save the file, and then upload it to your instructor.
If you don’t have a word-processing program installed on your machine and your institution doesn’t require a specific program, you may want to consider installing the free, open-source program titled Open Office (www.open office.org). This program requires a little more work to install, but it’s compatible with most commercial products on the market today.
If you would feel more comfortable with a commercial product, we recommend Microsoft Word. See whether you can get a student discount on commercial software through your institution, or try JourneyEd.com (www. journeyed.com). At JourneyEd.com, with proof of student status, you can get large discounts on software and hardware. Student status can be proven using a student I.D. or via letter from an advisor on the institution’s letterhead. Other retailers may offer student discounts and just not advertise them. So never feel bad about asking whether a student discount is available.
Plug-ins Plug-ins are applications or programs that have a very specific function. These programs are usually free but need to be downloaded from the Internet. Some plug-ins do come installed on new machines, but you’ll most likely be required to download some additional plug-ins throughout your educational career. Your institution will tell you exactly what plug-ins you need or your computer will notify you when you need a specific plug-in and help you find it. Here are two popular plug-ins:
✓ FlashPlayer: Flash is a popular format for videos shared over the Web. To view these videos, you may need to download the FlashPlayer plug-in specific to your Internet browser. Even though the institution will most likely provide links directly to required plug-ins, you can get a jump on things by downloading FlashPlayer at get.adobe.com/flashplayer. ✓ Java: Even if your course doesn’t require it, chances are some of the online games you want to play and other cool Internet applications require the Java plug-in. The only problem is that Java is updated frequently. To get the latest version, go to http://www.java.com.
Virus protection software Whenever you’re surfing the Internet, you should consider using virus protection software. Virus protection software, such as McAfee (www.mcafee.
com) or Norton Anitvirus (www.norton.com), protects your computer from malicious applications created to harm your computer hardware and files.
Once installed on your computer, antivirus software can monitor incoming communications and attachments from other computers. It can also check Web sites you’re visiting to see whether they pose any danger. When viruses are found, the software alerts you to the danger.
Because computer viruses are always changing, you need to purchase an application that keeps up with those changes. Some programs have the option to update automatically, whereas others require you to manually update the software. We recommend that you update your antivirus software at least once a week.
To reduce the risk of getting viruses, follow these guidelines when surfing the Internet:
✓ Stay away from sites you don’t know. ✓ Don’t open e-mail attachments from people you don’t know. ✓ Don’t open e-mail attachments that seem suspicious, even if they’re from people you know. For example, don’t open attachments that have no name in the subject line or that seem goofy or out of context. ✓ Turn off your computer (or at least your Internet connection) when you’re not using it.
Additional programs Depending on what class you’re taking, your instructor may require you to acquire and install additional programs. For example, if you’re taking a business class, you’re likely to need a spreadsheet application, such as Microsoft Excel. Or, if you’re a doctorate student, you may be required to install SPSS for calculating research statistics. Courses that require additional programs often have you purchase these applications via the online bookstore. By doing this, students usually receive a discount on the software compared to typical retailers’ prices.
Establishing a reliable Internet connection When taking an online course, the Internet is your lifeline to your instructor, peers, and course materials. Therefore, reliable Internet service is essential for your success. Not only do you need a fast, reliable Internet connection at home, but you should also have alternative options just in case your connection fails.
If you’re taking an online course that uses only text-based materials, dialup connections may be okay. However, courses in which you use other
materials, such as audio and video files, will take what seems like forever to download and play. Courses that use technologies such as Web-conferencing programs also will require a faster connection. We recommend a fast, broadband connection such as DSL or cable to help you connect and accomplish work in much less time.
Before signing a contract with an Internet service provider (ISP), make sure the one you choose is able to deliver the speed and service availability needed to take an online course. Some institutions will tell you the minimum upload and download speeds you need to connect to their system. Even if you don’t know what this means, you can still ask prospective service providers whether they’re capable of meeting those requirements.
It has been our experience that some satellite companies have a difficult time connecting to institutions where students are required to log in to systems using a more complex authentication process. The delay between earth and satellite causes the system to time out, which means that it is unable to complete a task within a specific amount of time. The result is that you can’t log in.
If you live in an area that has limited options for connecting to the Internet and are concerned that the connection speed may not be adequate, you should do two things:
✓ Contact the institution and explain your situation. See whether their technical support staff has any ideas. ✓ Be sure to arrange for a 30-day, money-back trial with any prospective Internet service providers. This allows you to test the system without having to a commit to a one- or two-year contract before knowing whether it’s going to meet your needs.
Trust us when we tell you that there will be times when an assignment is due and your Internet connection, even one that’s typically reliable, will die. This can be frustrating and keep you from being able to turn in assignments and/ or participate in synchronous meetings. Therefore, it’s important to have a backup plan for accessing your course. Some ideas for backups include your public library, office, or a nearby cyber café. Of course, a laptop with wireless Internet connection capabilities is required to connect from a nearby coffeehouse, unless they also provide the computer.
Testing Your Technological Abilities Once you have the right hardware, the right software, and a reliable Internet connection, you’ll need a few technological skills to match. Understanding your technological competencies up front can help you determine whether it would be a good idea for you to take an introductory computer course or read some computer books before enrolling in an online class. The following sections describe the skills you’ll need.
Reading and scrolling efficiently Much of the information you receive when taking an online class is provided to you directly on the screen. Although printing it is always an option, you’re not always provided with a word-processing file that you can save and print easily. Therefore, you need to be able to read on-screen information quickly and know how to scroll when text goes off the screen. To scroll, simply find the scrollbars on the bottom and right side of your window. The bottom scrollbar allows you to scroll left and right, whereas the scrollbar on the right provides the ability to scroll up and down.
Having your window maximized to fit the entire screen is also helpful because it reduces the need to scroll. If you’re a Windows user, you can maximize the screen by clicking on the maximize icon in the top right of your active window. Mac users can click on the green plus button on the top left of the active window. Both of these buttons are located in the active window’s border.
Knowing how to zoom text within your Web browser may be helpful as well. For most browsers, you can find zoom in and zoom out options under the View menu. However, your Internet browser may work differently.
Another important tip is to take breaks. This helps reduce eyestrain, which can lead to higher levels of productivity in the long run. A simple two-minute break to get a drink of water or use the restroom will do wonders for your efficiency.
Typing quickly and accurately Because most communication in online courses occurs via text, you need to be able to type quickly and accurately. Speed and accuracy are even more important during synchronous meetings where you may be trying to answer questions in real-time. (We explain synchronous learning in detail in Chapter 2.)
Being able to type quickly reduces the time it takes to complete assignments and participate in online discussions. Though spellcheckers are a wonderful tool, accurate typing skills are always more desirable. Spellcheckers with automatic correction often “correct” misspellings erroneously, replacing the word you intended with a similarly spelled one that changes the meaning of your sentence. So, no matter how well you type or how much you use spellcheckers, always proofread your work before submitting it.
Whether you have your fingers properly placed on the keyboard or use the two-finger, hunt-and-peck method doesn’t matter. No one will know how you type. However, if you need practice, you may want to consider a typing program that helps you learn how to type and provides timed tests that report
your speed and accuracy. Examples include Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing at http://www.broderbund.com or Power Typing’s free tutorial at http://www.power typing.com.
Dictation programs are on the market for those who may experience carpal tunnel syndrome or have arthritis. These programs allow you to use a microphone and word-processing program to translate your speech to text. These are great programs, but you should know that their accuracy rate is about 85 percent, which means you still need to use the keyboard and mouse to correct mistakes. Two common speech-recognition software programs include Dragon NaturallySpeaking (www.nuance.com/naturallyspeaking/ products/preferred.asp) for Windows-based machines and MacSpeech Dictate for Mac users (www.macspeech.com/).
Organizing folders Have you ever gone looking for a file on your computer and not been able to find it? This tends to happen for two reasons:
✓ Students are unorganized and save their files in different places on their hard drives. ✓ Students save different files on several devices, forgetting which flash drive or folder the file was saved in.
We recommend that you have one place where you save all your course files, whether it’s your computer’s hard drive or a flash drive (see the nearby sidebar for more about these devices), and perform backups frequently. We also recommend that you organize your digital files the same way you would organize physical files in a filing cabinet, using folders and subfolders.
Image a three-drawer filing cabinet. In the top drawer, you want to store personal information. In the middle drawer, you want to store your work files. And in the third drawer, you want to store your school files. In the digital world, we think of these drawers as folders. Therefore, you might create three folders on your hard drive with the titles “Home,” “Work,” and “School,” respectively.
Now imagine opening the bottom drawer where you want to store your school information. Inside the physical cabinet, you might create a hanging folder titled with the name of the institution. For example’s sake, assume you’re attending Smarty Pants College. Then, inside that hanging folder, you might create a file folder for each of the courses you take at that institution. Your digital file structure should follow the same concept. Therefore, inside
your “School” folder, you need to create a subfolder called “Smarty Pants College” and then a sub-sub-folder inside that for each of the courses you take, for example, “ENG101.”
By having a standard organizational structure on your hard drive, you can quickly and easily save and retrieve information when needed. Consistency is the key. Figure 3-3 is a screenshot of the drive structure where Kevin saves his school files. Notice for each term he creates a folder for each course. Within each of those he then creates four subfolders: “Admin” for administrative files such as the course syllabus, “Assignments” for course assignment files, “Discussions” for original discussion posts, and “Resources” for additional files provided by the instructor throughout the term of the course.
Toting your files on a flash drive Flash drive. Jump drive. Thumb drive. Memory stick. What are they? These are external devices that connect to your computer and allow you to store a ton of information. They are all USB, or universal serial bus, connections. To the average user, this just means that you can plug such a device into almost any computer and save files to it (and get them off later). These devices are inexpensive and very portable. They’re so small you can stick one on a key chain. Buy one! Consider it exclusively for online courses, so that you always know your files are safe if your computer crashes.
To create a new folder in Windows, right-click inside the directory where you want to put the new folder. Choose the option New and then Folder. A new folder with the name “Untitled” will appear. Simply type over the name to rename the folder to your liking. To create a new folder on the Mac, Command-click (right-click if you have a two-button mouse) inside the director where you want to put the new folder. Choose “New Folder” and replace the default name of “Untitled” with the name of your choice. We recommend that folder names be short and without spaces or special characters.
Navigating the Web Being able to access and navigate the Web is one of the most important skills you need to take an online course. Specific navigation skills you should have include:
✓ Opening your Internet browser: Locate and click on your browser’s application icon in your Start Menu (Windows) or taskbar (Mac). ✓ Navigating to a given URL: Type the HTTP address in the address bar at the top of the browser’s window — for example, http://google. com. In most cases, you can leave off the “http://” and simply type the address — for example, google.com. The browser will automatically assume you mean an HTTP address. ✓ Navigating to the previous page: Use the browser’s back button at the top of the screen, which has an arrow pointing to the left. ✓ Opening a hyperlink in a new tab or window: Right-click on the link and select whether you want a new tab or window. ✓ Switching between open tabs or windows: To open a new tab or Window, click on the File menu and choose the New Window or New Tab option. To switch between tabs, either click on the desired tab with your mouse or hold down the Control (Ctrl) key and press the tab key on your keyboard. To switch between windows, click on the desired window on the task bar. ✓ Refreshing the current screen: Click the refresh button on your browser or press the F5 key on your keyboard. ✓ Resizing the browser window: Click and drag the bottom right corner to resize the window to your liking, or use the resize button in the top right (Windows) or left (Mac) of the browser window. ✓ Locating and opening downloaded files: Navigate to the Downloads folder and double-click on the downloaded file. ✓ Conducting a Web search using Google or another search engine: Navigate to http://google.com and enter your search criteria in the search box. Then click on any of the links provided on the search results page.
A quickie on right-clicking Just in case you’ve never heard the term “rightclick,” a PC mouse has two sides. Most of the clicking we do when surfing the Web is leftclicking (and right-handed users do this with their index finger). But the other side works, too! You usually use the right side when you want to display a menu of options that can be executed depending on the location of the cursor. So when we say “right-click” you should hover over the words or icon, and then click on the right half of the mouse. For the “lefties”
out there, we recommend that you locate your computer’s Control Panel (Windows) or System Preferences (Mac) and change the primary button to the right-side where your index finger is positioned. For you, when we say “rightclick” we really mean “left-click.” Confused yet? Mac users, you can’t right-click, can you? Instead, use Control + Click or place two fingers on the track pad while hitting the click bar.
If any of the preceding skills are unfamiliar to you, don’t worry. None of them take long to master; it’s just important that you know how to do them. If you need help, you may want to check out the latest edition of The Internet For Dummies by John R. Levine, Margaret Levine Young, and Carol Baroudi (Wiley).
Downloading and installing software Earlier in this chapter we discuss the possibility of having to purchase or download and install software. It’s important that you know how to do this. Most commercial software programs purchased at a retail store provide step-by-step instructions, and the process begins automatically when you insert the program disk into your computer. However, software downloaded directly from the Internet (such as plug-ins) may require a few extra steps to install. Typically, you need to download and save the software to your hard drive, browse and locate your file, run the file by double-clicking on it, and follow the step-by-step instructions displayed on the screen.
By finding out what software is going to be needed early in the process, you can better determine whether you can install it yourself or you need assistance. If you need assistance, you can try calling technical support at the institution, but depending on the program needing to be installed, they may not be able to help you. (Chapter 9 details what technical support can help you with.) However, you can always find a local retailer that has technical staff on hand who can help you for a fee.
Whenever purchasing or downloading software, it’s important to know what operating system your computer uses, how much memory it has, and how much hard drive space is available. Refer to the earlier section “Meeting minimum hardware requirements” to determine your computer’s profile information.
Using e-mail One of the most common forms of communication occurs by using electronic mail, also known as e-mail. E-mail is used to communicate with peers and your instructor. Some institutions will provide you with a new e-mail account for school use. Others may require you to provide them with a personal account. In this situation, we recommend opening a free e-mail account with a service such as Google’s Gmail (http://mail.google.com) for school use only.
Here is a list of common tasks that you should be able to complete specific to e-mail:
✓ Opening your e-mail application: Locate and click on your e-mail client/ application in either the Start menu (Windows) or Taskbar (Mac) — for example, Microsoft Outlook or iMail. If you’re using a Web-based e-mail account, open your Internet browser, navigate to your e-mail provider’s Web site, and log in using your username and password. ✓ Checking for new messages: Click the Send and Receive or Get Messages button. ✓ Checking your SPAM box for misplaced messages: Click on the Spam folder and open for any mislabeled messages. Click the Not Spam or Send to Inbox button to reclassify the message. ✓ Composing new messages and addressing them to one or more recipients: Click the Compose New Message or New Message button. Type the recipients’ e-mail addresses in the To textbox, separating each address with a space, comma, or semicolon, depending on your e-mail application. Enter an e-mail in the BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) textbox if you want to send a message to multiple people but don’t want the recipients to see who the message is being sent to. ✓ Attaching a document to a message: Click the Attach Document button, browse for the desired file, and click the option to attach the file to your document. ✓ Opening messages with attachments: Click on the desired message in your Inbox. Click on the attachment and download the file to your computer. Locate the Downloads folder and double-click on the file. ✓ Editing a document and resending it as an attachment: Edit the document, click File➪Save As and save it to the desired location on your hard drive. Return to your e-mail application and click Compose New Message or Reply within an existing message. Follow the procedures for attaching a document to a message.
If you need help learning how to use your e-mail, there are a few resources you can explore. If your application is on your computer, you can use the application’s built-in Help feature, found on the Menu bar at the top of the screen. If you use a Web-based mail system, you will most likely have a Help link somewhere on the screen that will transport you to a Web site with detailed descriptions and screenshots on how to use the application.
Staying Safe Online As you start using the Internet more, it will become even more important to understand when and where to provide certain information. In the following sections, we explain how to make secure payments, remember and protect your passwords, and ensure your personal safety.
Making secure payments You need to be sure you’re truly protected when making online payments. This may be when registering for classes, purchasing books, or ordering study supplies online. Before entering your credit card or contact information into any Web page, be sure that you trust the vendor and that you’re entering your information on a secure Web site. There’s a quick way to assure that the Web site you’re viewing is secure: Look at the Web site address. If there’s an “s” after the “http” in the address, then you are visiting a secure site.
For example, if you visit Amazon.com to look at things to buy, you can see that the address, http://www.amazon.com, always starts with “http://.” This is because you are simply looking, and you aren’t being asked to share private information. However, when you’re ready to check out and make your payment, you can see that http://www.amazon.com/ changes to https://www.amazon.com. This means that you’re now connected securely, and any information you share is private between you and Amazon.com.
The following screenshots provide examples of unsecure and secure Web sites. Figure 3-4 shows an example of a Web site that’s currently on an unsecure page. Notice how the Web site address, also known as the URL, begins with “http.” Figure 3-5 shows a secure page of the same Web site. Notice how its URL begins with “https.” The “s” means secure. Don’t forget to check for this before sharing private information, especially financial information. As this example shows, Web sites don’t need to secure every page, only those where private information is being entered or displayed.
Remembering and protecting passwords One thing that never fails when you become a part of the Internet community is the number of logins and passwords needed wherever you go. It’s not uncommon for online students to have three or four different passwords just to access school information, depending on the technologies used.
Thinking of a password can be fun! Most institutions require 6 to 10 digits for a password, and many ask for a combination of letters, numbers, capitals, and possibly symbols. For your own security, don’t choose the obvious; instead, think of something unique to you, similar to a vanity license plate. You’ll have a chuckle every time you log in. For example, a ghost hunter might select “ICg0sts2!” (I see ghosts, too!). “2kds1DG*” might be perfect for someone with 2 small children and 1 big dog.
When it comes to passwords, here are a few dangerous practices to avoid:
✓ Don’t write your passwords on a sticky note that you attach to your monitor or on a piece of paper that’s the first thing you see when you open the top drawer of your desk. This is a common, but dangerous, practice. Be sure to keep your information safe from the public’s view. ✓ Don’t have your computer remember your passwords for you. This is especially true if you use a laptop that you take different places with you. If your computer is stolen, the person who stole it now has access to your secure information. ✓ Don’t use the same password for all protected sites. Though it seems harmless and efficient, having the same password for everything makes you vulnerable if your information is ever comprised. Choose a different password for each site, and change your passwords frequently.
One way to remember all your passwords is to store them in one location. Of course, this location needs to be secure; otherwise, you’re providing prying eyes with all the information needed to steal your identity. We suggest creating a single word processing or spreadsheet file in which to keep all your login information. Save that file securely with a password. Then, you only have to remember one password instead of many.
Most word-processing and spreadsheet products have a security feature. For example, Microsoft products, such as the 2003 versions of Word and Excel, have a protect document option under the Tools menu. When you choose this option, you are asked to supply a password that will be required the next time you open the document. Figures 3-6 and 3-7 provide visual examples of what protecting a word-processing document might look like:
✓ Figure 3-6 shows the first step in how to save and password-protect a document in Microsoft Office 2007 (Windows). To do this, click on File➪Save As➪Tools➪General Options. ✓ Figure 3-7 shows the second step in saving and password-protecting a document in Office 2007 (Windows). Type your desired password in the “Password to open” textbox and click OK. You will be prompted to retype your password as a way to confirm that no accidental keystrokes were pressed.
Never give your password information to anyone, even technical support staff. They may have to reset your existing password in order to solve a particular problem, but they should have access to everything they need without asking you to share your password.
Ensuring personal security In the previous section we discuss protecting your personal information and your passwords, and ensuring that you only provide certain information on secure Web sites. There’s another type of security you should be aware of when participating in an online course: your personal security. We don’t want to scare you; we simply want to remind you to stay safe when communicating online. Here are some important guidelines:
✓ Don’t reveal too much about yourself: Almost every online course asks students to participate in an ice-breaker activity. Many times this includes revealing personal information about yourself, including your family, hobbies, and geographical location. Be sure to share this kind of information wisely. For example, feel free to say that you’re married with two kids and live in Illinois. However, don’t post your children’s names or their elementary school photos. Disclosing medical conditions is also inappropriate. Your classmates really don’t need to know you have irritable bowel syndrome. ✓ Guard your contact information: You may need to provide contact information to your instructor or peers when working on a group project. Again, only provide information that’s necessary to complete the project. For example, you may want to give out your e-mail address and possibly even a phone number, but not your street address. If your
instructor needs to mail information to your home, he should have access to that information via the academic institution. If asked to provide that information, feel free to politely question why it is needed and who it will be shared with. ✓ Stay safe when meeting classmates in person: Occasionally we find students who live in the same geographical location enrolled in our classes. In this situation, students often ask whether they can meet face-to-face to complete group projects. As instructors, we think this idea is fine; however, be safe when meeting classmates for the first time. We recommend always meeting in a public place, such as a restaurant or café, during common business hours. As a precaution, you may also want to notify your instructor that you’re planning to meet, and provide the day and time. Afterwards, you can provide your instructor with a summary of what you accomplished.