Software and Apps

Software applications, or apps, are programs that you install and use on your laptop, desktop, or mobile device, or access from your web browser. Some are free, while others can cost a lot of money. For paid applications, check with your institution, as they may offer certain software at discounted prices.

Web Browser

A web browser is a software application used to search the Internet. Most of us use web browsers every day to search for information (psst…you’re using one right now). As you take online courses, you’ll likely run into a situation where the software or website you need to access is not compatible with the browser you are using. To plan for this, you should install more than one browser on your computer (don’t worry, they’re free), and ensure they’re kept up to date.

The most common web browsers are: Google Chrome (PC/Mac), Mozilla Firefox (PC/Mac), Safari (Mac only), Internet Explorer (PC only), and Microsoft Edge (Windows 10 PCs). While there are many others out there such as Opera and Torch, the aforementioned are the most common, and most compatible browsers. It’s advisable to have more than one installed on your computer, just in case the site you’re using is not compatible with your favorite browser.

Most web browsers offer add-ons and tips and tricks to help enhance your browsing experience. We’ll only highlight the most common browsers, but if you visit the homepage of any browser, you’ll find links to their standard and add-on features.

Here’s a list of the most common browsers, and links to information about getting the most out of them.

Office Suites

Depending on the task in your online course, you may need to create a document, a spreadsheet, or a slideshow presentation. To complete your work you’ll need to use one of the following paid or free applications.

Microsoft Office ($) An office suite of applications for both PC and Mac platforms created by Microsoft that includes: PowerPoint, a presentation program; Word, a word processing program; and Excel, a spreadsheet application.

Apple iWork ($) An office suite of applications for the Mac platform created by Apple that includes: Keynote, a presentation program; Pages, a word processing and desktop publishing application; and Numbers, a spreadsheet application.

LibreOffice (free) A free and open-source office suite of applications for both PC and Mac platforms that includes: Impress, a presentation program; Writer, a word processing program; and Calc, a spreadsheet program.

Google (Docs, Sheets, and Slides)Office Online, and Apple iCloud (free) These three services provide access to cloud-based office suites that allow you to utilize word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software for free. As an added bonus, they provide a way for you to collaborate and share files with other users right from your browser and email account.

Cloud Storage

Cloud-based file management services allow you to collaborate with others and sync your files across devices and from the Web, instead of storing files on your device’s hard drive. This is extremely handy if you work on coursework on multiple devices, or if you’re working within a group. Generally speaking, storing items in the cloud gives you more storage space beyond your device. The most popular of the services include BoxDropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive which offer both free and paid options.

Web Conferencing Tools

Your online courses may require you to meet synchronously (i.e. at the same time) online using a web conferencing tool. When using one of these applications, you’ll want to make sure you have the necessary software beyond a mic, webcam, and headphones. While institutions’ tools of choice will vary, the most widely used services include Blackboard Collaborate, WebEx, GoToMeetingAdobe Connect, Zoom, and Google Hangouts.

Multimedia Applications

When you take online courses, you’ll encounter various forms of media, from video to audio to images. Depending on the task at hand, you’ll need a software application to either view and/or edit the media. Take a look at the options below and keep them in mind when the need arises.


Video can come in many forms and formats. Basically, video is an electronic medium for visual and audio media. It can be live or pre-recorded. Examples of file formats for video are WMV, AVI, MOV, MP4, or M4V. You’ll watch videos in many of your online courses. Some will be created by your instructor (e.g. a recorded lecture), and others will created by fellow students from around the world and shared on a video hosting site such as YouTubeVimeoFlickr, or Dailymotion.

Occasionally, you may be required to create a video for one of your classes. In this case, you’ll need video capture software. If your computer came equipped with a webcam, then this software may already be on your computer. If you’re using an external webcam, the camera may have come with capture software that you’ll need to install. Certain applications such as PowerPoint and Keynote can record video by capturing what’s on your screen without the use of a webcam. This may be of interest to you if you’re required to record an audio or video presentation. Your learning management system may have a simple video recording tool included, and there are numerous free websites such as YouTube, Adobe Spark Video, Screencast-o-matic, and Animoto that can help you to record, edit, store, and share videos as well.


Audio is a medium for recorded sound without any visual content. Common file formats for audio on computers are MP3, AIFF, and WAV. For online courses, audio is used in much the same way as video. Instructors may record an audio lecture or message that does not require any visuals. You may have a live meeting in a course where students and instructors meet in a chat room with audio capabilities, where you can type messages and interact with each other using microphones.

To record audio, you’ll need a microphone and audio capturing software. If your computer comes with an internal microphone, audio-recording software may already be installed on your computer. Windows Voice Recorder is packaged with all new computers that use Windows 10. Mac computers use Garageband for audio recording. There are other programs such as Audacity ,WavePad, QuickTime, and Ardour that provide free versions suitable for basic recording as well.


Images are files of visual content. They can be photos of people, places, or things, or illustrations. They can also be presentation slides or computer-generated images such as graphics or screen captures. Common image file formats include JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and GIF. You may need to use images to visually present information in an assignment or discussion board, or as a representation of who you are as part of your online student profile (especially useful so your instructors and peers can put a face with your name).

For basic image editing, you’ll need your computer (for obvious reasons) and an image editing application such as Preview (Mac), Photos (Windows 10), or GIMP (PC/Mac). If these don’t get the job done for you, there are plenty of other free or paid options.

As you can see, there are many applications for your laptop, desktop, mobile device, and web browser. You don’t have to try them all. Just find a few that work for you! Then get familiar with them before your online courses begin, so you can focus on what you’re learning and not spend time installing applications or learning how they work. It may seem like a lot of work up front, but you’ll be happy you took the time now, instead of when you need to use the application.