Technology Used in Online Learning
Online colleges and universities deliver courses using a cloud-based platform known as a learning management system (LMS). The LMS may either be proprietary or open source. Proprietary LMS platforms, such as Docebo and Blackboard Learn, feature source code that is copyrighted. As a result, schools using proprietary LMS systems must pay licensing and subscription fees. Open-source LMS platforms, such as Moodle, use source code that is freely available and modifiable.
LMS platforms are comprehensive by design and are typically used for the following purposes:
- creating customized course lessons formatted to feature text, images, graphs, and tables;
- streaming live or recorded videos and audio files, including course lectures;
- enrolling new students or developing self-enrollment programs;
- tracking student attendance;
- designing customized exams in different formats, such as multiple-choice or essay; and
- facilitating conversations and feedback between faculty members and students through email and discussion boards.
LMS platforms can be accessed anytime,and course materials generated with LMS systems can also be reused for subsequent students. Students must use computers, tablets, and other devices that are compatible with the specific hardware and software requirements of their school's LMS.
Any computer made within the past 3-4 years should be adequate for online coursework. Additionally, computers used for eLearning typically need the following hardware and software components:
Online students generally need access to a laptop or desktop computer with the components listed above. While most cell phones can access proprietary and open-source LMS platforms, phones, tablets, and other mobile devices may have more limited LMS access and functionality.
How Student Technology Policies Work
Student laptop and technology policies vary from school to school and may include the following requirements.
Obtaining the Computer
At some schools, students must claim their laptop during their first academic year or semester. Those who do not forfeit their free or discounted device. Other institutions do not issue the laptop and other technology materials until the student has been enrolled for at least one semester.
Some schools provide laptops and other devices for free. However, most charge students a usage deposit that's typically at least $100. Select schools sell laptops to students, allowing them to keep the device after they finish their program. These options tend to be more expensive -- typically starting at $2,000 -- but students with financial need may qualify for applicable scholarships.
Software and Hardware Upgrades
Most online colleges that offer laptops and tablets prohibit students from performing software and hardware upgrades on those devices; instead, students can take their device to the school's technology center. Additionally, some schools forbid students from downloading music, movies, and games from the internet onto borrowed devices.
Damages and Theft
Students may purchase damage and theft protection for their issued device. However, some schools offer these protections at no charge. If insurance is unavailable, the school may charge the student for replacing the laptop if it is stolen or damaged beyond repair.
Some schools issue laptops or other devices to all incoming undergraduates, including transfer students, while other institutions may be more selective. For example, students at some schools may receive technology materials only if they are enrolled full time and have fewer than 45 transfer credits. Additionally, some schools give the laptop or tablet device to students who graduate from that institution as a parting gift.
Leaving School Early
In some cases, students need to pay additional charges for leaving school before they complete a certain number of credits. These charges often match the institution's replacement fee for damage or theft.
Accredited Online Schools That Offer the Best Laptop and Tech Perk Programs
The following colleges and universities with online programs, listed in alphabetical order, offer laptops, tablets, and other technological incentives for students.
- Bethel University
- Location: Arden Hills, MN
- Student body: 6,500
Bethel University offers new laptops to all incoming first-year students. Eligible recipients must claim their computer within the first semester or else they forfeit their device.
Bethel recommends that students insure their laptop for no less than $600, which covers repairs or replacement in the event of theft. Students must update the computer's preinstalled AVAST antivirus software when prompted. They may install games and other programs using original licensed copies, but Bethel does not permit them to download media or games. The school also provides re-imaging services if the computer needs to be wiped.
Bethel's online programs include undergraduate degrees in business, criminal justice, customer relationship management, nursing, and organizational leadership. The school also offers online graduate degrees.
- Chatham University
- Location: Pittsburgh, PA
- Student body: 2,300
Chatham offers a new MacBook Air to all incoming students, available for pickup at their first-year orientation. Students also receive a backpack and laptop carrying case, along with four years of AppleCare warranty coverage, SafeWare damage protection, and SafeWare theft protection.
Additionally, students may access Chatham's HelpDesk services at any time. As part of the contract they must sign to gain ownership of their computer, students agree not to perform any hardware modifications or upgrades on the device. If the laptop is stolen or destroyed, students must pay a $100 deductible. In addition, students must pay a $100 processing fee if they do not return the computer within 10 days of graduating or leaving Chatham.
Chatham offers online nursing degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. The school also delivers online programs in psychology, healthcare informatics, business, fine arts, and architecture.
- Full Sail University
- Location: Winter Park, FL
- Student body: 9,000
Full Sail University offers the Project LaunchBox initiative in partnership with Apple. As part of this program, most students receive a MacBook Pro at an institutional discount that varies by department. The university also offers a scholarship for students who cannot afford the device after the discount has been applied.
In addition to the laptop, students in certain programs may also receive supplemental hardware and software components. Those who already have a functioning laptop can opt out of purchasing the MacBook as part of the LaunchBox package.
Full Sail offers most of its undergraduate and graduate programs online, including many accelerated options. These include degrees in arts and design, business, film and television, games, media and communications, music and recording, sports, and technology.
- Independence University
- Location: Salt Lake City, UT
- Student body: 8,600
Independence University offers laptops and tablet devices to all undergraduates, with the costs built into the school's tuition rates. Master's students do not qualify for this offer.
Each learner receives a tablet during their first semester and a laptop during their fourth term. Those who graduate from Independence can keep both devices at no extra charge. All laptops and devices come preloaded with online course software.
Independence operates entirely online. Students may choose from undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, graphic arts, healthcare, and technology.
- Northwest Missouri State University
- Location: Maryville, MO
- Student body: 6,200
All undergraduate and graduate students at Northwest Missouri State University qualify for a preloaded laptop, regardless of enrollment status. Individual models vary by student and often depend on availability.
Northwest encourages students to back up all important files on a weekly basis to protect their data from software or hardware malfunctions. In addition, the university recommends students insure their laptop for $1,500 to cover the device in the event of damage or theft. Those who do not return their laptop by the last day of finals week or within five days of graduating or leaving the university must pay a $1,500 processing fee. Students who do not take summer classes must pay a $75 summer rental fee.
Northwest offers online bachelor's degrees in business management and marketing, along with an RN-to-BSN pathway for nurses. The university also delivers 11 online master's degrees in education, business, geographic information sciences, and health science and wellness.
- Rochester College
- Location: Rochester Hills, MI
- Student body: 700
Incoming first-year students at Rochester College may receive a free MacBook Pro or iPad if they come in with 29 or fewer transfer credits. In order to qualify, candidates must be new students at Rochester who are admitted by May 31 for the next fall term or November 30 for the next spring term. Only full-time students can take advantage of this offer.
Students must pay for their laptop or tablet if they leave Rochester before completing at least six consecutive semesters or if their enrollment drops to part time. The school places a hold on transcripts and registrations until this balance is fully paid.
Rochester does not offer fully online degrees but does deliver online courses using the Moodle LMS.
- St. John’s University
- Location: New York, NY
- Student body: 21,000
Students earning select degrees at St. John's University can opt in to the school's laptop program. Available models include the Lenovo ThinkPad L380 and the Lenovo ThinkPad L380 Yoga, both Windows machines, in addition to the Apple MacBook Pro. Eligible students can generally choose any of these models, but some departments may advise degree candidates to select either an Apple or Windows machine.
All eligible students must opt in to the computer sharing program within six weeks from the start of the semester or they forfeit the offer. The program includes full warranty support and accidental damage protection, and those who graduate from St. John's with a bachelor's degree or higher may keep the laptop after leaving school.
St. John's offers a handful of online graduate degrees and advanced certificates, including MBA, MPH, and master's in education pathways.
- St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
- Location: Winona, MN
- Student body: 5,900
St. Mary's University of Minnesota administers online graduate degrees through an LMS optimized for tablet devices. As part of this format, all graduate students receive an iPad to assist with their studies, the cost of which is built into the school's tuition rates.
St. Mary's mobile learning platform features productivity apps that enable students to collaborate with classmates for course projects, read textbooks and share notes, participate in online discussions, and connect with others using Skype, Adobe Connect, and FaceTime.
Online graduate degrees at St. Mary's include nine master's programs in business, three in education, and three in healthcare -- all of which qualify for the iPad promotion.
- Seton Hill University
- Location: Greensburg, PA
- Student body: 2,500
Seton Hill University offers a MacBook laptop and/or iPad tablet device to students in select programs, though device availability depends on their area of study. Traditional undergraduates and those earning a master's in physician assistant studies qualify for both devices, while master's in art therapy students qualify for the MacBook and those earning a master's in marriage and family or orthodontics are eligible for the iPad.
All students who receive a MacBook and/or iPad must pay a $1,000 technology fee. Both devices come preloaded with programs and applications that correspond with the student's degree area. Students can access Apple support any time of day and may obtain a loaner device if their current machine needs repair.
Seton Hill offers fully online bachelor's degrees in accounting, behavioral health, business administration, criminal justice, and healthcare administration.
- West Liberty University
- Location: West Liberty, WV
- Student body: 2,800
West Liberty University's student laptop program provides computers at discounted prices to incoming, first-year students who are enrolled full time. These students may receive free diagnostic checks, hardware and software upgrades, and other support for their device through the university's Student Laptop Center, which also serves students with personal computers.
Eligible students have access to both tablets and laptops, and all devices come preloaded with Microsoft Office and other programs. In addition, students can seek repairs on school-issued devices at no cost.
WLU does not offer fully online degrees but does deliver fully online and hybrid courses. SAKAI, the school's LMS, works with most PCs, Mac computers, and other machines with a Linux processing system.
Checklist: Smart Shopping for College Technology Extras
Now that we've discussed technology requirements for the top online colleges that offer laptops and tablets to students, let's conclude with a comprehensive checklist of software and hardware requirements for distance learners. This checklist can assist students attending online schools that do not provide laptops or tablets.
Although specific requirements vary from school to school, the following components meet the criteria for most online courses and LMS platforms. Be sure to inquire about the specific requirements of your school's LMS platform before making any purchases.
- A computer manufactured within the past three to four years equipped with the following:
- at least a 2.0 gigahertz processor
- a hard drive of at least 20 GB with at least 500 MB of RAM
- the latest version of the machine's operating system, such as Windows 10 or Mac OS X 10.10
- Microsoft Word 11/13/365 or the latest version of a similar word processor
- a sound card
- A monitor and video card with 1,024 x 768 resolution or better
- updated software applications, including Adobe Reader and Adobe Flash
- updated virus protection software
- Speakers, a microphone, and noise-cancelling headphones
- A web camera with web-conferencing capabilities
- A DVD-/CD-ROM
- A printer
Lastly, if you do not reside on campus, make sure the internet connection in your home is 1.5 MB per second or faster.