Thompson Rivers University

Open Learning

Open Learning Student Orientation

Technical Basics: Software

Software Requirements

  1. A word-processing program compatible with Office 2003 or XP. Alternatively, an rich text format (RTF)-compatible word processor is recommended unless otherwise specified in the course description. Either Office 2007 or 2010 are preferred.
  2. Email account that supports file attachments.
  3. Any current JavaScript enabled web browser, e.g. Internet Explorer 8.0 or higher, Firefox 10.0 or higher or Safari 5.0 or higher.
  4. Current versions of Adobe Acrobat Reader as well as Adobe Flash Player for course registration.
  5. The latest version of Java. PC users can get this from, while MAC users can find this on the Apple menu under "Software Updates"; ensure all Java updates have been applied.

If you don't know whether your computer meets these requirements email our IT Service Desk at


Software refers to the programs or applications that your computer uses to perform tasks. For example, if you want to write an essay, you need word processing software. Most computers come with basic software packages that allow you to do everything you need to do for your online course.

Software requirements for online courses are minimal, but there are some types of programs required to complete a course, and there may be some additional requirements for specific courses (this information can be found in the course description). Here is a brief description of the types of software you will need:

Web browser

A web browser is a software program that enables you to find, retrieve, view and send information over the Internet. Most students use either Apple or Microsoft (Windows) computers that come with browsers pre-installed. Some of the most common browsers are Safari for Mac and Internet Explorer and Firefox for Windows computers (though these also work on Mac computers).

Other browsers will work, but some functions in Blackboard may not work as well. If you have difficulty accessing pages or files using Safari, try using another browser.

Like hardware, browsers change frequently and you might be using an older version of a browser. Blackboard provides a list of supported browsers that have been tested to ensure they work consistently in Blackboard's online environment. Find your version by clicking the "Help" button on your browser and opening the window that says "About ... (your browser name here)" and checking it against Blackboard's list. Or even easier, use the "Check Browser" function that you can access even before logging into Blackboard. If you are using an older version of a browser, consider updating it. Unsupported versions may not enable all functions in Blackboard to be accessed or you may get constant (and annoying) pop-up reminders from Blackboard stating that your browser is not supported.

Your browser needs to be JavaScript enabled and running a current version of Java (see below for more information on Java).

Word processor

A word processor is software that enables you to create and format text documents such as essays. Most computers come with a word processor already installed. Microsoft Word is the most widely-used word processor and is also available for Apple computers. The most important feature your word processor must have is the ability to save files in rich text format (RTF). RTF is a format for saving a text document that retains most of the original layout and formatting and allows you to send it to others by email without knowing what computer configuration the receiver is using.

Email Account

You need to have consistent access to an email account that supports file attachments. Once you have started in your course you can use the Blackboard Mail tool but this email account only allows you to send messages and files to course participants and your Open Learning Faculty Member. You need an external email account to receive course registration information, access your password if you should forget it and communicate outside of the Blackboard Mail tool.

Adobe Acrobat Reader

You will need the current version of Acrobat Reader to open and read files sent in PDF format (read more about file formats below). The newest version of Flash Player is used to access our course registration webpage. Many students will already have this software, but if you do not have it you can download it from the Acrobat website.


A plug-in is a computer program that interacts with another program to provide a certain, usually very specific, function. Some of your online courses may feature audio, video or other types of media that you access by downloading and installing a plug-in. Plug-ins that you might already be familiar with are Quicktime, Shockwave, Flash and Windows Media Player, which enable your browser to display audio and video files from the web. If you've ever watched something on YouTube, you've used a plug-in.

Plug-ins that you will be asked to use in your Blackboard course are free to download and safe to use.

Installation procedures vary. If you are required to use a plug-in for a specific course, there will be a link to the program's website where you can download the program and find instructions to install the required program.


Java (also referred to as Java Runtime) is the underlying technology that allows many applications and websites to work. Blackboard relies on Java to generate its interactive webpages in almost every area. Java is enabled by default on all of the browsers that are supported by Blackboard, so you should not encounter error messages or other problems with Java, but if you do, you can use the "Check Browser" function to find and remedy them. Most often, a Java problem can be easily resolved by downloading Java updated version.

File Formats

Uploading and downloading files simply refers to the process of transmitting information to your computer from another computer or the Internet (downloading), or from your computer to the Internet or another computer (uploading). However, to successfully upload and download files it is important to use the right file formats.

Common File Formats

File formats can be thought of as file types. Different programs store information in different ways and some programs can identify and use only specific file types. You are probably already familiar with a number of file types, maybe without even knowing it. The file type is included in the file name and is typically the last few letters that follow the "dot" at the end of the file name. This is known as the file extension and is a quick way to identify a type of file. Some common files extensions are ".doc" or ".docx" (for word processing), ".jpg" (for photographs and images), ".mov" (for movies) and ".pdf" (for portable document format).

Most students will use these common file formats and Open Learning Faculty Members will definitely use these common formats for course files so that they are easily accessible and and so anyone can read the course content. If you are using a program that uses a less-common file format you should check before uploading the files; you must use file types that can be opened by your Open Learning Faculty Member for marking.

PLEASE BE AWARE: If you create documents using Word 2007 or Word 2010, they will be saved as ".docx" files and cannot be opened in older versions of Word, unless they have been saved using the .doc extension. As a courtesy, you should choose this option (it is on the "Save As" menu in Word and lets you save a copy that is fully compatible with Word 2003). Many people still use Word 2003 or older versions.

If you are in doubt about what type of file format to use for word processing, you can always save your file in RTF (Rich Text Format). This can be opened by any other user; you do not have to know what type of program the other person is using.

Compressed Files

Another type of file that you will encounter is the ZIP or compressed file. File compression is like computer shorthand for files that you are sending from one computer to another or even from your computer to a USB flash drive. Compression allows the same information to be transported in a smaller space. Compressing files is a very good idea. You will save time as well as space since compressed files take less time to upload or download.

There are several utilities that allow you to compress word processing files. Look for them in the program that you are using. For example, in Word you can quickly and easily send your work to a compressed file by choosing the "Send to . . . Compressed (zipped) Folder" option on the drop-down menu that opens when you right-click a file name. You can choose one or many files to send to a compressed folder; all you have to do is click and the program does the work. Your compressed folder (containing all the files you selected) will appear in the same window with a new name. If you have included more than one file, the program assigns one of the file names to the ZIP folder. You might want to change this so that the file name is representative of the contents.

Your assignments or assessments in Blackboard might require you to upload compressed files so, if you are not sure how to do this, it is good to take some time to experiment with the utility before you have a deadline looming.

You can also reduce file sizes for images depending on how the image will be used. For example, if you are including a lot of images in a Microsoft Word document, you might want to explore the options in Picture Manager to reduce the size of your documents for upload. Many image formats take up a lot of space and slow download time.

Virus Protection

Anytime you are working online, virus protection is an issue. Make sure your virus protection is up-to-date and consider adding spyware and spam detection software if you have only a basic virus protection program. You are protected from some of these issues because Blackboard is a self-contained system; your Blackboard mail for example is not sent over the Internet, but within Blackboard itself. However, if you will be downloading and opening files, you'll want to be sure your system is protected.