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Using Online Resources to Learn

Overview: Instructor/class information vs. online information

When seeking to learn something online you must first realize an important fact. Rarely is the information created for your very specific needs. This is very different from information you might get from your college instructor in a given class. Online information is both broad and deep. Finding what you need at the level you are at can be complex. One of the responsibilities of a college professor is to take all the knowledge on the subject, understand your current level of understanding, and present the knowledge you are looking for that is specifically tailored to your needs.

This is way taking notes in class can be so essential instead of just deciding to look it up later. For example, if you are installing software, class instruction will include things specific to your environment. It will include information that you will need to make it work for the environment in class. In term sof learning how to program something, classroom instruction will typically be aimed to help you learn a concept whereas online aids will be aimed to help you solve a specific challenge. The online resources typically will not take into account your current level of understanding. But your classroom instruction will. So the technique covered in class is usually better suited for your purpose than a generic solution found online.

When to use online vs class instruction

  1. If the information you seek is extremely narrow and specific (such as the syntax and details of a substring command), typically online resources are fine. They may also be better than class instruction because they will be more complete. Class instruction usually aims at a concept. However, beware! Online resources can be very technical and overwhelming. Linux/Unix man pages are a great example. For these you need to be able to weed through all the stuff you don't need to find the little bit of information you want. But it doesn't hurt to try. There is a good change you might find a specific site that has the exact information you want and it does not take long to look.
  2. If the information is about a specific concept covered in class, you are best starting with that information before going online. Seek the professor's help!
  3. If the information is specific to the environment you find yourself in (and it is not a highly configured personal computer), classroom instruction is the best place to start.
  4. If you want to learn something beyond what is covered in class, then online resources are a good place to cover (of course). The same is true if you want to learn something new. But see the guidance below to help make it productive.


  1. Determine what you want to know. The first step is to try to determine exactly what you want to know and why. The more precise you are here, the better your search.
  2. Check class information. Check your notes to see if the answer has already been covered in class and you forgot. Also check your textbook. Both of those are more targeted to what you are trying to learn at that time.
  3. Determine the level/type of knowledge. If you decide you need online resources, your next step is to decide what type (level) of knowledge your are seeking:
    • An overview of an idea
    • A specific answer to a technical question
    • Information to help you decide which of a number of options to choose
    • Help doing a complex task from the start via the standard method
    • Help with a complex task that you are somewhat familiar with but have encountered problems with.
    • A deep level understand of a concept or idea
  4. Determine acceptable sources. Will any reasonable online source be sufficient or do you need an qualified expert.
  5. Go for it.

Techniques, guides to help

Being productive

The more you can know going in, the more productive your search will be. You will know when to skipped unuseful information. However, don't be upset if you waste some time. The learning process (esp. on your own) might at times seem unproductive. That is because it is know your job to shift through the information to find what you need. In the processing of shifting, you might gain information you were not expecting.

Finding the right source

The more generic the idea, the less qualified your source needs to be. For example, if you are wanting the specifics of the java substring command, most online blogs, support sites, etc. are sufficient. However, the more specific your problem (esp. with technical issues), the more you should go to qualified websites. This would mean going the the official java documentation site for usually uses of a function, going to the Oracle websites for specifics about weird problems with an Oracle database, or going to Microsoft for configuration issues for SQL Server. The closer your sought for knowledge is to a specific software package/environment, the closer you want to go to the qualified experts in that area, and typically the most qualified experts are those employed by that company.

What to do with too much information

There will be times when what you seek is buried in a lot of information, often information that is too complex. So how to you find that one nugget of knowledge? The first thing is to make sure you know what you are looking for. Next, skip things you are totally foreign to you If you don't find what you are looking for, you can always come back. Also, don't get sidetracked for too long with interesting ideas that are directly related to what you are searching for. Look for examples similar to what you want. When using a search engine, the more precise your query is, the more likely you are to find your answer quickly.

When looking for totally new information in an area you are unfamiliar with

In this case wikipedia is a great place to begin. It has technical articles one most (if not all) areas associated with computing. It also usually does a great job giving an overview of an idea with examples. If after reading the article, you want more details, it almost always has great references for more in-depth knowledge.

Don't start with technical white papers. This are typically written for people who understand the basics and are looking for specific answers to specific questions. If you don't know enough yet to ask a good question, these items will not be of help to you.

Be careful about which videos you might use. Each video will have a certain goal (that you may not be able to tell from the title). Often these are aimed to answer those specific questions again. You want something that gives an overview.

Your thoughts

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