The internet is a beautiful thing. All sorts of information, entertainment, and opinions are just waiting to be discovered along the information super-highway. So, how do we go about weeding out the quality stuff from the noise and distractions? This question is one which I have been forced to contend with since middle school, when I started being taught how to do research. The big questions back then was, which search engine should I use: Dogpile, AskJeeves, AltaVista, or funny-named, new-fangled Google?
All through school I was inundated with the idea that the internet is not always a reliable source of information (it isn’t) because anybody can (and does) put whatever they want up. As the internet and I grew up, spaces started opening up where it was easier to locate information, and track who was writing it. For me, the question still remained: where should I go if I want to learn something new? The conclusion I have come to is that where you go to learn your information all depends on what you are trying to learn and why you want to learn it. If you are reading this blog, you might want to learn some things to help yourself be a more well-rounded person, and you might suggest it to your friends if you think this blog does a good job. If you were writing an article for an academic journal on the state of education in the United States, though I would be flattered, you probably shouldn’t cite this blog as one of your main sources.
I believe there are three main groups a person would fall into if they are doing their learning on the internet: The Casual Learner, The Interested Learner, and The Academic Learner.
The Casual Learner
The Casual Learner is somebody who is interested in the quick-and-dirty version of whatever it is they are learning. I tend to be this kind of learner during the week and in my free time. The Casual Learner is interested in quick-tips, and cursory information which could lead to a good piece of trivia, or being able to add something to a conversation at a cocktail party (or whatever today’s equivalent might be).
The place Casual Learners generally turn to is the all-knowing Wikipedia. This is where we turn whenever we having a nagging question we need answered. Even though it will never be accepted in academic circles, Wikipedia turns out to be more credible than our teachers and librarians might have us believe. If you’re interested in learning about what makes Wikipedia reliable, but not worthy of citing, check out this article from Teaching History.
The other common places and resources for Casual Learners are blogs (like this one!) and podcasts (be on the lookout for a podcast post in the near future), and videos like TED Talks . These modes of learning allow for quick bits of information which might fill our down time, or keep us from listening to Top 40 radio over and over on our daily commute.
The Interested Learner
The Interested Learner is exactly what they sound like: a person who has found a specific topic which they find interesting enough to do a little more extended research or work on. If somebody describes themselves as an amateur historian, I would probably classify them as an Interested Learner. Their research may be solid, and their information or skills may be good, but they probably lack the sort of official vetting which might give them formal credibility.
One of the most well recognized places for E-Learning. It started out as a place to learn math (be on the look out for a post about reconnecting with math), and they do a great job of teaching math for all levels, but they have been expanding their arsenal of lessons to the humanities, science, computer science and a test-prep. Lessons are given in a conversational way, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice what you have learned.
I have not spent much time on Khan Academy’s computer science courses, and I don’t think I will because Code Academy does such a wonderful job. The folks at Code Academy set up step-by-step lessons with explicit instructions. If you mess up, no worries, they will have suggestions for what might have gone wrong. There are projects and different courses to work on, so you can go as far as your interest takes you. I am proud to say that I have used some of the knowledge I have gotten from Code Academy’s HTML/CSS course to help me do some basic coding for this blog!
MIT Open Courseware
Truly an incredible thing. An institution as well-respected and known for high-quality academics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers a plethora of courses from creative short story writing to Aeronautics and Astronautics. Be warned, though the courses, the syllabi, and materials are available to you, it will you up to you to do the work and decide if it is satisfactory. No one is grading you.
I love this little (free) app! If you are looking to buff up on a language you learned in high school or college, this is perfect. Or, if you are about to go abroad and you want to try to have some idea of how to speak the local language, Duolingo should be able to you give you a good conversation base. Most of the Romance languages already have full courses, and more languages are running in beta and being added all the time. With focus on speaking, reading, remembering, and listening, spending some time on Duolingo every day is bound to increase your ability to interact with the language of your choice.
The Academic Learner
Some great things have come out for people in academic professions or students at universities as the internet and data storage has increased accessibility. Unfortunately, academia is a slow changing institution, and many of these resources are limited either by your own status, or by which databases your school subscribes. While I was at Indiana University, I enjoyed access to JSTOR and other academic databases which created an avenue for me to get my hands on journal articles without having to subscribe to the entire journal. These academic databases also make it much easier to find and access resources. Occasionally Google Scholar provides good content, but I have some academics decry the use of Google Scholar almost as much as the use of Wikipedia.
In academia, right now, there is no real substitute for a good library and its network. Use the Internet to access a library’s catalogues and to see if they can give you access to other libraries. I would encourage the use of Google Scholar and other such databases as a way to read abstracts and excerpts to find out if the book or article in which you are interested truly has what you are looking for before you seek it out or purchase it.
All of the things I have pointed out for each learner can be used for any level of learning. If you are getting ready to write a big research paper for college, Wikipedia isn’t a bad place to orient yourself to some of the ideas you might be seeing. Often times what truly separates each of the learners is not the resource they use but the time they put into learning. Remember, no matter what kind of learner you are, the important thing is to always keep learning. Allow your interests to guide your self-education, and see gaps in your knowledge as a chance to broaden your horizons.