Educate Yourself Online

How to Educate Yourself Online

The web is an amazing educational resource. The quantity of information available on any given topic is more than most people will ever need, and probably more than they can handle. This vast amount of information is the web’s greatest strength, but also creates major usability problems. If you try to educate yourself online without a clear strategy, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated and misinformed.

Effective online education goes beyond finding answers. It requires you to process numerous information sources, evaluate them based on credibility and relevance, and piece together a mosaic-like picture of the truth.

Everyone does this to some degree, whether they realize it or not. The following is a strategic framework you can use to make the most of your online self education.

Choose a Subject Wisely

This part seems obvious, but I’m inclined to believe that most people skip it completely and go straight to Google with the first search that comes to mind. That solution works if what you need to know is simple and straight forward, but it creates problems if the topic is more complex and the level of education desired is more than skin deep.

Before you jump into the vast ocean of the web, take a few minutes to think about your main objectives:

  • What do you really want to know?
  • How deep an understanding do you need?
  • What is the ultimate application of this knowledge?

By answering these simple questions, you’ll give yourself a much better grasp of your educational purpose. This is essential when evaluating sources and making the decision to move on or dig deeper.

It’s also important to consider if your topic is one that can be effectively studied online. For example, if the topic is modern and related to technology, chances are there is a wealth of reputable and comprehensive sources online. On the other hand, if you need to learn about agriculture in the 17th century, you’ll probably be better off at the public library. Much of what you find online for historical topics will be incomplete and off-target. Know your medium, and don’t expect the web to be a resource for everything.

Learn the Vocabulary

The biggest challenge when getting started with a new subject is learning the vocabulary. If you start out with little specialized knowledge, you’ll run into terminology that’s unfamiliar and confusing. If you can’t understand what you’re reading, it’s a waste of time.

Make learning new vocabulary a top priority in the beginning. One strategy I use is creating a glossary. When you first start educating yourself on a new subject, make a list of every word or phrase that’s new or has a specialized meaning you aren’t familiar with. As you go along, fill in your list of definitions until you can read through a highly specialized article without missing anything.

One tool that’s great for general vocabulary research is the Firefox extension. Once you have it installed, you can view the definition of any word by holding ALT and clicking on it. Although this won’t help with specialized lingo, it’s a great time saver when you run into a random word you don’t know.

Another way to build your subject specific vocabulary is starting off at Wikipedia. Although it’s not ideal in terms of depth and reliability, the way key phrases and ideas are linked to their own Wikipedia entry makes it easy to spot the important concepts and learn about them immediately. This is helpful for developing a solid grasp of the basics.

Start With the Pillar Sites

As you learn vocabulary and build general knowledge, it’s important to start off in a place that’s trustworthy and accessible to the general reader. Instead of doing random searches and wandering from one random site to the next, try finding one or two pillar sites that you can depend on. The benefit of restricting yourself in the beginning is that it allows you to build a foundation thats consistent and reliable.

Try to find sites that are known authorities, like trusted brands you’ve used before or academic resources. If you can’t find any, then start with Wikipedia and make sure to checkout the external links at the end of each entry. If the sites you find have a basics or introductory section, be sure to read it and get a feel for the different subtopics within the main subject. Once you have a solid foundation in the subject you can start to get a bit more adventurous.

Branch Out Cautiously

This is where it gets interesting. You know the general concepts and the wheels in your head are really starting to turn. Now you’re ready to unleash the search engines.

When a question strikes you, do a search, but be discerning about the results you trust. Look to see if the authority sites you’ve used before turn up. Look at the profile of each site when evaluating information. Is it a blog, forum, or .edu site? How popular does it seem? When was the entry posted? Are there many comments?

Questions like these will help you get a handle on how much you can trust information. If a site looks good, dig deeper. Browse the archives. Do a site search. Be sure to follow links whenever a source is cited because it might lead to the information you need.

Participate in a Community

Eventually you’ll reach a point where the questions you have are so complicated and specific that you can’t find any decent answers through Google. You need human help, and the best place to find it is an active community.

This is the real value of online education. Now only can you read up on a subject, but chances are you can find an active group of people who are willing to answer your questions. If you’re reading something on a blog that raises a question, try asking the writer via the comments or (especially is the post is old) by email.

The vast majority on bloggers are happy to see someone is actively engaged in their content and will go out their way to help you. Although this isn’t always possible on busier sites, you still might get some good responses from other readers in the comments.

You should also join the best forum you can find and become an active member. For many subjects there are dedicated forums with thousands of active users. Even if you can’t find a forum for exactly what you need, general communities like AskMetaFilter provide a great environmet for intelligent discussion.

Apply Your Knowledge

The true test of education is the ability to apply what you’ve learned. Once you feel confident that you know enough to instruct others, test yourself with demonstrations. Start by answering questions on forums and blogs instead of just asking them. Not only does this force you to clarify what you’ve learned, it perpetuates the community of education that you benefited from.

If you have a website or blog, write an article. Try explaining the basics in conversation or applying the ideas to your work. Use what you’ve learned to build something. See what happens and keep experimenting. Once you get past the basics, it’s up to you to use the knowledge creatively.

26 Responses to How to Educate Yourself Online

  1. Pingback: Mathematics Education Blog » Blog Archive » How to Educate Yourself Online

  2. Joe says:

    Interesting post. You make some good points that I tend to follow instinctually. I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who think Google should be able to read their minds.

  3. Very interesting indeed. I totally agree about Google. Also concerning is the increased reliance on Wikipedia. After reading “Cult of the Amateur” I can say it’s probably smart to exercise a little caution!


  4. Ravi Vora says:

    There are many online classes offered as well. You can get all of the material of a college-level class for free in some cases, such as MIT

    I know as a college graduate, I deal with easy ways to learn things in my blog as well as finding new things to learn for free.

  5. John Wesley says:

    Thanks for the resource, Ravi. The number of free college courses available online is great. Actually, I’ll probably make of post out compiling all the best courses I can find at some point. :)

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  7. I wish I’d had this guide when I was busy becoming to RSS what the cat lady is to cats.

  8. John Wesley says:

    Haha, I feel your pain, Alex. I need a way to mass unsubscribe from feeds from Google Reader. That’s the thing with free stuff, you’re always tempted to pick it up that after a while you have too much to deal with.

  9. We are only at the beginning of the role of the Internet in education. I think that increasingly we will see systems that tie educational content together in ways that offer more depth, more sustained focus, while at the same time helping people to use the computer for easy retrieval with less clutter than now. We will see more learning communities. Also we will see less stressful and more evolutionary ways of grading and evaluating the progress of the learner.

    We are still at the “twitter” stage in all of this, still playing around the edges of the revolutionary force that can eventually liberate learners from the shackles of the education establishment, and its phony pretense to a quasi-monopoly position in the production and transmission of “le savoir” as Bourdieu would have it, knowledge, wisdom and thought.

    It is not only the learners who will be liberated, but also all of the thinkers and creators who are not recognized and supported by schools, universities, publishers, Oprah Winfrey etc..

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  11. shobaday says:

    Thank you for a nice guideline on how to maximise learning with the internet as a resource. often we can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information out there, yet there is a specific question we want to ask and don’t know where to start.

    I have heard about the online podcasts and lecture notes from MIT and similar unis. Being a uni student, I’d like to see that become popularised.
    I sincerely believe that knowledge is better shared.

  12. Interesting points. I’ve started on-line studies on Oxford University this year and found it *very* exciting. And that’s why it’s called a world-class education, isn’t it? :)

  13. Marti says:

    I disagree with the statement that for some topics you are better off at the public library. So many libraries are filled with old, outdated, and downright erroneous material. I think there is more information available online, and more accurate information, too, especially using the new academic source search facilities.

    But as with anything internet, caution, discrimination and a grain of salt are key.

    But this is definitely a great post, along with the thoughtful and helpful comments. I have printed it all out for hardcopy reference.

    Marti in Mexico

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  16. James says:

    The following web site is the best one I have found for self education in the liberal arts.

  17. Interesting article that how to educate your self online….
    Thank you for a nice guideline on how to increase learning with the internet as a resource.On net there is plenty of useful information about related topic of your interest and also some useful resources for Online learn Education….

  18. David says:

    well I think applied knowledgeable is every thing …what good is it if you don’t apply it !!!!!! very interesting !!!!!!!~~~~~~~~~~

  19. Joshua Trujillo says:

    Im still a senior in high school, but i have always wanted to further my knowledge and I think this article is really helpul for people trying to educate themselves online. The internet is vast and can’t always be reliable but it has many helpul things also. I look to the internet for all my studies and just whenever i feel like educating myself. I think I’m ahead of my age and should test my knowledge. If anyone knows someway i can test it tell me. Thanks

  20. Ask says:

    The true test of education is the ability to apply what you’ve learned. Once you feel confident that you know enough to instruct others, test yourself with demonstrations. Start by answering questions on forums and blogs instead of just asking them. Not only does this force you to clarify what you’ve learned, it perpetuates the community of education that you benefited from.

  21. Ask says:


  22. Ryan says:

    WOW! This is just what I needed. To learn how to learn. Lol It is so useless going on the net with out having  a goal, purpose or reason why I do what I do. I mean, I know I want to learn, but with such a vast network of information, where do you actually begin? Sometimes I do get frustrated and give up, but this has put things in perspective. Thanx

  23. stevie wonder says:

    so for by just reading this it seem to be so interesting i love it.

  24. Jjhicks58 says:

    Stop wasting peoples time. Tell then something instead of the bullshit

  25. NeverKnow says:

    init it is just so lame like teletubbies ( i am not saying that i watch it)

  26. Sms-502 says:

    I am amazed by the six steps that you provided for us. I would like to thank you again to share your knowledge with the websites users.

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