Back in the old days (pre-internet), writing research papers for school was an arduous task. The process began with badgering my poor mother into dropping me off at the public library and then returning several hours later to retrieve me. My badgering was often at a fevered pitch since I’d usually wait until the day before the paper was due to raise the matter. Looking back, it’s no small wonder that my mother made the effort to retrieve me from the library after dropping me off.Things only became more complex and challenging from there -never mind the distractions of running into classmates in a similar dilemma and seeing how far we could push the librarians before getting ejected from the premises.All information searches at the library began with pulling out the drawers that housed the card catalog. I can smell the musty contents as I type this. The cards held a code that was tougher to crack than any RSA encryption standard. It’s known as the Dewey Decimal System and no, that’s not one of Donald Duck’s nephews. But it might as well have been for what I knew of it, and as a result, I usually went straight to the stack that held the books on the topic I was researching and started scanning. An armload of books and a few pages of plagiarized content later and I was done.Things are certainly quite a bit different today. Sure, public libraries still exist and remain a tremendous resource for information gathering. They also provide information that despite the internet's vast treasure trove of info, simply can’t be obtained by performing a Google search, but having said that, there’s a ton of information on just about any imaginable subject available at your fingertips from any internet-connected device. In this post, which is part of the series
on how to be an educated consumer of online information, we’ll have a look at the wealth of information and training currently available online.Can Wikipedia.org be trusted?
As discussed in the post on "How to Use Google Like a Ninja
" in this series, most online information searches typically begin with Google’s search engine. However, for some research projects you can save time by circumventing Google and going directly to the mother lode. In the lead off post of this series, I listed a bunch of popular websites by category. For research and general knowledge lookups, Wikipedia.org is as good as any place to begin, albeit with a few caveats.Wikipedia.org has been fairly well-maligned as an authoritative source for information, and for the most part, I feel unfairly. When it comes to getting a broad overview on a topic - either to begin your research or just to get a quick explanation - Wikipedia.org is hard to beat. Thousands of editors or “Wikipedians
” as they’ve become known contribute to Wikipedia.org. Their collective efforts form the largest crowd-sourced knowledge repository on the planet.So what sort of things should you be on the lookout for when using Wikipedia.org? Despite editing by committee, sometimes incorrect information gets added to Wikipedia.org – either inadvertently or intentionally. The latter occurs from what’s known as vandalism or flat out spam. Wikipedians do a commendable job working hard to thwart vandalism but it sometimes creeps in especially if vandals are persistent and their efforts overwhelm editors.
The quality of some entries can be lacking as is sometimes the case of less popular ones with few contributors. A good way to gain insight into what goes on behind the scenes at Wikipedia.org is to click on the “Talk” tab (see screenshot) of an entry and view the threaded discussions. This is often revealing, especially for more active entries and can provide an indication of areas of controversy around a topic which can often get quite heated. It’s akin to turning over the proverbial rock.All-in-all, Wikipedia.org is a good place to begin your research efforts, but for more in-depth projects it’s a good idea to supplement Wikipedia’s information with that from additional sources. Supplementary sources can consist of whitepapers and other PDFs using Google’s doc search. Google Books is also great for finding sources not otherwise available online, especially out-of-print books. You can even find patent applications using Google's patent search option.Getting your info straight from the horse’s mouth
There are times when you’d like something more resembling actual training on a subject or skill area. These are the times when you’re willing to invest more than a few hours in learning about a topic. You only need to perform a Google (or Bing or Yahoo!) search with “tutorial” mixed into the query to find a host of online tutorials on virtually any subject.A prime example of a comprehensive tutorial is Oracle’s Java “Trails.”
Oracle provides learning paths for everything from the basics of the language to advanced coverage of Java’s APIs. Oracle (and now, Cybrary) also offers tutorials to prepare for the Java Certification exam
via their Oracle University.Online reference material on subjects ranging from chemistry to physics to web technologies is another avenue to explore. Perhaps the best-known reference and training site for all things 'WWW' is W3Schools.com
. The site has short tutorials and reference pages on SQL
Then there are times when you just want someone to show you step-by-step how to do something. Whether it’s unclogging a sink, removing a stubborn fuel injector in 1991 Nissan 240SX (my car), how to properly hit a topspin tennis forehand, or learning how to properly smoke a brisket, there’s a video for that. There are even videos of surgical procedures if you have the stomach!YouTube.com of course is the largest and most popular video-sharing site. It’s also been owned by Google for several years now and leverages Google's search technology. For this reason, it’s often more efficient, as well as more productive, to search directly for videos on YouTube.com. You’re presented with more filtering options on YouTube.com and the related videos in the sidebar can often prompt you with a wealth of similar videos. Just be aware that it's easy to get sucked down the rabbit hole once on YouTube.com!MOOCs, Online Courses and Cybrary.it
Taking the tutorial and video demonstration formats a few steps further there are full-fledged university-level courses from renowned institutions such as MIT, the University of Indiana, Maryland University, and many others. There are both degree and non-degree programs. Just bear in mind that at this level you’ll be making a larger investment in terms of time. There is also a monetary investment to consider if you choose a degree program.There are quite a few free
and low-cost options when it comes to online courses. One-off courses in a wide range of subjects are offered by universities such as Harvard, MIT, UC Berkley and many others. This is the virtual equivalent of auditing top-notch courses in subjects as varied as art history to economics.A growing trend is what is known as “Massive Open Online Course” or MOOC. These are courses designed to accommodate a large number of students that are widely dispersed around the globe. Many offer certificates of completion in a wide range subjects. Coursera is an example of a popular MOOC. Just be aware that despite massive enrollment, only a minuscule number of sutdents successfully complete most MOOCs. As an example, I enrolled in a Coursera MOOC on introductory Android programming a few years ago in which over 10,000 students from around the world enrolled. By the end of the course, only around 1,500 had earned a certificate of completion. There may be a massive number of students with good intentions in most MOOCs, but attrition is a killer.In the middle-tier, there are paid courses from sites such as Udemy.com and Linda.com. These are courses from independent instructors, and as such, the quality of the courses can vary considerably. In some cases, it’s a business opportunity for those looking to make a quick buck and in fact, a cottage industry teaching people how to whip out Udemy courses to make their fortunes is quite prevalent right now. Then there is the true dark side of online education that should be avoided at all costs. These are programs offered by “for profit” universities and colleges where the focus is on profits and not the students. The recent closure of ITT Tech
that left many students out in the cold with no degrees or jobs while saddled with massive student loan debt is a case in point.Combining all of the methods of online learning is the future of education: online tutorials, video instruction and demonstrations, podcasts, webinars, and student forums. People learn in different ways and offering them multiple learning channels increases the chances of successfully mastering a subject. This is exactly the approach being undertaken at Cybrary.it. By offering specialized online training in the full breadth of IT and Cybersecurity training at no cost, the benefits of all of the online learning channels are combined into a highly effective learning platform. Simply add highly motivated students with a generous helping of drive and discipline and great things are bound to happen!