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Public Internet Access and the Online Learner

shutterstock_6408157Whether it's at the library or Starbucks, many online students study away from home for a variety of reasons, including access to hardware, software, and the Internet. I volunteer at a branch of my local public library to assist patrons with the dozen or so computers available for public use, sometimes even helping online students upload their assignments and navigate their schools' learning management system.

The digital divide presents real concerns at all levels of education. Technology along with all of its trappings can be very expensive. It's not recommended that you commit to an online course without the basic technology requirements, but some students are doing it. Some students don't have a computer at home, and of those who do own computers, not all subscribe to an Internet service or purchase the software needed to create their assignments. What do you need to know about using someone else's computer or bandwidth?

Public Computers

Libraries are perhaps the major provider of public computers. With a library card, or perhaps a guest account, you have low- or no-cost access to the hardware and software you may need to participate in your online course. Challenges do exist in terms of time limits on sessions, older computers, and reduced hours of library operation, but there are a few things you can do to maximize the experience:

  • Be safe. Even if you are just getting up to go to the printer, if you aren't there with a buddy who can watch your stuff, don't leave handbags, laptops, phones, backpacks, etc. behind. It's an unnecessary security risk to take. You may also want to minimize the applications you have open on-screen, so that no one can quickly view your activity and any personal information.
  • Bring a flash drive. Also known as a thumb or jump drive, these devices provide one of the easiest ways to take your work with you. Relatively inexpensive, they connect to the computer via USB so that you can upload and download documents, etc. to a location you can access later. Public machines may not allow you to save your work in other ways, or will delete anything you've saved after you log out. Attach a label with your name and contact information, and don't forget to take it with you when you leave!
  • Try a web-based service: When you have Internet access, online file storage can be even more convenient than a flash drive. SkyDrive, GoogleDrive, and Dropbox are just a few options that allow you to set up a free account and access your files from anywhere you can get online.
  • Use headphones. These don't have to be a major investment, and you may even have something that came with another device (i.e., mp3 player, cell phone) that will work. Some libraries require patrons to use headphones if listening to or watching presentations on the computer, so that you don't disturb other users. You may find that your library provides headphones, but it's a budget thing and you can't rely on it.
  • Don't forget to log off and log out. Completely exit any accounts you signed into on a public computer, such as email, social media, and course sites. Close out your Internet browser and log out from the computer station itself. The computers may be set up to log off automatically after a certain amount of time, but this is another safety issue to consider. Logging out also allows someone else to log in more quickly if there is a queue.
  • Ask questions! Most locations that provide public access computers also have someone on staff (or volunteers) to assist with the technology. Check for scheduled times when staff members are available and for classes or workshops. Research and reference librarians can also help you identify resources related to projects and papers you might be working on for your courses.

It is interesting to note that pubic computer use isn't just for those who don't have one at home. A 2011 study from the Institute of Museum and Library Services [PDF] found that "public access computer users largely resemble the general public in terms of age, education, and even in the overall level of home computer and Internet access." In other words, the demand for these services continues to exist even as more people own computers and subscribe to Internet providers.

Public Wi-Fi

You may have everything you need, except the Internet. The options for connecting seem to expand everyday. I've personally connected to public Wi-Fi from locations you might expect, like libraries, airports, hotels, and coffee shops, as well as those you might not, such as fast food restaurants and the local gym. No matter the location, accessing the Web via public hotspot does present several challenges. Here are aspects to consider before you connect:

  • Find local access points. Sites like Open WiFi Spots and WiFi Free Spot can help you locate businesses and organizations in your area that provide free access to the Internet. Several mobile apps are also available.
  • Read the terms of service. Registration may be required to access public hotspots, or you may have to click that you've "read and understand the terms of service." In reality, we rarely actually read these details, but it's worth taking the time to at least scan for information about possible restrictions or fees.
  • Activate your own hotspot. If you are fortunate enough to have a smartphone, your plan and device may allow you to connect other devices, such as your laptop or tablet, to the network. Check with your service provider to find out what may be available, and what it will cost.
  • Again, be safe. Internet safety issues abound, and seem to be particularly problematic with public access points that may not be as secure as your home or work network. Make sure the network is a legitimate one before logging in by confirming with the organization providing the hotspot, and avoid online shopping and banking on public connections, which could leave your accounts vulnerable. Check out the Goodwill Community Foundation's tutorial on Internet Safety for more tips.

If you are like me, you are almost always looking for the free options, but sometimes paying for Internet access is in your best interest. If, for example, you have travel planned and aren't sure about Internet availability along the way, services like Boingo and iPass allow you to purchase short-term connectivity from multiple locations.

Make Your Studies More Mobile

The convenience of any time any place means that you can be an active online student even while traveling for work-related reasons or even the family summer vacation, and most schools will expect you to do so. Many of us also need short-term public access from time to time, due to a computer crash or service outage. I unexpectedly experienced a power outage at home while writing this post, which put me to the test. What can you do to make online learning more portable?

  • Make your files mobile. In addition to backing up your work with something like a flash drive, you should also consider web-based storage. Whatever method you choose, make sure the files you want to work on are up-to-date and ready to travel when you are.
  • Don't forget chargers, mouse, keyboard, headphones, etc. In my own recent experience with no power or Internet at home, all of my devices (laptop, tablet, cell phone) were flashing "low battery" indicators. I needed to relocate and recharge, so the cables and adaptors went along.
  • Create an emergency study kit. If you find yourself without any kind of access to your online course, what can you accomplish offline? Do you know how to contact your instructor? Print a copy of your syllabus and have school contact information (i.e., phone numbers) available for quick reference.

Whether you are just stepping out for an afternoon at the library or leaving for a vacation, rethink your packing list to include what you'll need to stay on track with course participation. For longer trips, plan your itinerary in advance blocking specific times to attend to your assignments. It's easy to get distracted when you are out of your routine (and when everyone else is on the beach), but even small blocks of time will be worth it to help you get a little closer to your goals.

Have you experienced online learning "any time, any place?" Share your lessons learned and success stories with other readers in the comments area of this post.