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 Answers.com 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.