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Study tips for online-only modules

This article helps you to make the most of your online study materials. It tells you how to use a computer to make study notes rather than handwriting your notes and recommends approaches to use when reading material that's presented online rather than in a printed book.

If you’re on your first online-only module you’ll need to adapt how you study. You won't get any printed study materials – instead you'll use a module website that contains video and audio clips, online activities and assessment questions. Alternative formats such as ebooks, interactive ePub3, PDFs, Kindle and Word (adapted for screen-readers) are available for download to mobile devices for study on the move or while you’re offline.

Developing new study styles

As your module materials are all online, you should learn to make the most of the tools on your computer and develop new study habits such as

  • reading your module materials on your computer or mobile device, rather than printing them out
  • making notes on your computer using online or offline annotation software
  • being aware of when you need to be online (e.g. when completing online activities) and when you're able to download material and work offline.

You may be used to annotating your study books with a pen or highlighter, and you can do this electronically in PDF documents and web pages. So, before you go to the expense of printing out your online module materials experiment with the techniques described here and in the related articles.

Being online, working offline

Your module materials include video, audio and interactive activities. Although you might be able to download some video and audio to watch or listen offline, there'll be times when you need to be online to complete activities or web searches.

Organise your online and offline time

Make sure to look ahead at the kinds of materials you'll be using during the week ahead.

  • Use your module website’s study planner to check the items you will work on that week.
  • Decide which material you want to download and identify anything that can only be done online.
  • Look out for any activities where you're expected to collaborate with fellow students online at a certain time.

Do you have a good enough internet connection?

Some of the newer module activities require a reasonably fast internet connection. If you're still using dial-up (with a noisy modem that connects your computer to the phone line to use the internet) you should upgrade to broadband if you can, because a dial-up connection is too slow and will delay your study progress. Do this as early as possible as it can take several weeks to get broadband installed.

If you have broadband already it’s worth checking to see what speed you actually get as a slow connection can be frustrating. Search online for “internet speed test” to find a website to test your connection, and follow the instructions. Make sure that there’s no other activity on the line when you do the test. If the result is less than 1 Mbps you should investigate how you can improve things.

For more information on your options see Choosing an ISP .

Computer hardware

An online-only module demands quite a lot from your computer. Almost any PC or Mac is fine if it’s less than three years old, but if your machine is older you should compare it to the computer specification in the Study Materials section of your module’s prospectus to check that it will cope.

Two screens are better than one

Consider getting a second monitor or a larger computer screen. It isn't essential, but you'll frequently have both your web browser and your word processor open at once as you take notes on the module material when you write an assignment. Many modern laptops, and some desktop machines can run a second monitor, and it’s worth checking if yours does. If it only runs in mirrored desktop mode it won’t be much use, as both screens then show the same material – it needs to be able to use the extended desktop display. You might be able to use an old monitor from a previous computer, or buy one second hand. Older monitors sometimes need an adapter to connect to your machine, and other technical problems might arise, so do some checking first.

If you have a small screen and can see only one window at a time you’ll find yourself constantly switching from one application to another. See the article on Switching between open applications for efficient methods of moving between open applications.

If you’re using a tablet you’ll have to use the app switching method offered by the device, as described in Switching between open applications.

Making notes on your computer

There’s a variety of ways people interact with printed text, from underlining and highlighting key points to scribbling in the margin and sticking in Post-it notes. Everyone has their own technique which works for them. With all the material online you'll have to adapt your style to a much reduced tool set. But with practice and dedication you can get proficient and quick.

It’s worth taking time before your module starts to practise your technique. Check Making notes online for some ideas on how it’s done.

You'll need to use different tools to annotate web pages and PDFs.

For web pages, take a look at our guidance on alternative annotation or bookmarking tools in our web annotation tools section.

There are many options for PDFs, which you’ll find useful if you download the PDF alternative format of your module material or use online journal articles or similar; see Making notes online.

Read about the active process of taking notes in Critical reading techniques and learn about different methods in Notetaking techniques and How to take notes. Try out different approaches before the module starts so that you can start making effective notes from the start.

Handwriting is important, too

Notes stored in computer files are great for searching and sharing but you shouldn’t neglect your handwriting. It can deteriorate if you only ever use a keyboard to write – but at the end of your module you might have to sit a three-hour exam that has to be handwritten.

Handwritten notes can be stored electronically by scanning or photographing them. A smartphone’s camera creates an acceptable image if you’re careful with the lighting and the positioning of the camera. You should rename the file with something that’s explicit about the contents of the note so that you can retrieve it when you need it. Applications are available that automatically adjust a photo of a page of notes or a whiteboard to yield a properly squared off image (Microsoft's Office Lens, for example).

There’s even a service — Evernote Premium — that attempts to read your handwriting in your pictures and makes the text searchable (but not printable). Clearly, it’s more successful where the handwriting is clear. The service isn’t included in the free Evernote account. A similar facility has been added to Microsoft's OneNote programme.

As a last resort, print the module materials

An online-only module encourages you to study online. If you choose to print the materials instead then you'll miss out on the audiovisual and interactive components that are present in the online version and any updates that may take place.

There may be circumstances where you have to print out the material, which is straightforward to do if it’s just a few pages and you own a printer. However, if there’s a lot to print or you don’t have access to a printer you’ll need a different solution.

You may find that your module offers print on demand (PoD) services. If it does, the link to access the service will be on the 'Other formats' page in the Resources block on your module website homepage. You can read more in the Computing Guide.

If PoD services aren't available, you could take the files to your local print and copy shop. The best files to use would be PDFs from the Alt format page. Just download and copy them to a memory stick as they’re probably too big to email. Or you could save them on Dropbox, or whichever cloud server you use, and email a link for the file to the shop. Printing this way is often cheaper than printing on your own machine, especially if you tell them to print double sided. You can ask them to drill the holes you need to bind them too.