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The Edupunks' Guide: How to Do Research Online

There's a knowledge revolution happening online, and there are thousands of places to educate yourself. Anya Kamenetz highlights some of the best.

It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a learner. College tuition has doubled in the past decade, while the options for learning online and independently keep expanding. Anya Kamenetz's new free ebook The Edupunks’ Guide is all about the many paths that learners are taking in this new world, and we're running excerpts from the book all week. We're also asking GOOD readers to doodle your learning journey and submit the result by Sunday, September 11.


There’s been a revolution in the way people spread knowledge. Sharing information openly over the Internet is way cheaper than purchasing it commercially in dead-tree format, and often the learning that happens this way is faster, more up-to-date, and more relevant to our immediate needs. A simple example is learning to make pizza. A few years ago, you may have had to take a class or at least buy a cookbook. Today you can put “how to make a pizza” into YouTube and within minutes, you’re watching a video that shows you how to fling the dough!

More and more people around the world are building on this knowledge revolution to explore new modes of learning and to transform what we mean by “education.”

For many, the first step in an online learning journey is a simple Google search.

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  • Start with Google, the most-used search engine on the web. Put your phrase in quotes to return pages with the exact words, like this: “African-American history”
  • Search on Wikipedia to get an overview of the topic. Follow the links to an article’s sources at the bottom of the page.
  • Google Scholar will give you scholarly journal articles and other verified sources of information.
  • An online archive like The Internet Archive may offer original source material.
  • YouTube is good for videos—a quick entry into a topic. Or just Google your phrase and the word “video.”
  • For news stories, try Google News\n
  • For links on news, trends, and up-to-the-minute happenings, you can search Twitter with a hashtag, like this: #americanidol.
  • Try posting your question to a site like OpenStudy or WikiAnswers.
  • Put in your search terms plus the word “forum” or “blog” to see what ideas other people have discussed on message boards or on blogs.
  • \n

A successful online research session will leave you with 20 open tabs or windows at the top of your screen. Follow your curiosity, but keep track of the links you’re following in an email draft, Word document, or an application like Evernote or Diigo so you can consult them later.

Top Free Learning Resources Online

Europeana: A digital library with 4.6 million items from libraries, archives, museums and other institutions across Europe. Read Charles Darwin’s letters or listen to Pavarotti singing Verdi.

The Internet Archive: A vast nonprofit digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts—video, audio, texts, and live music.

Khan Academy: The Khan Academy has over 2000 videos covering basic math through calculus and trigonometry, physics, biology, chemistry, banking, finance, and statistics. The videos are short—5 to 15 minutes long—simple, and entertaining. They’re all made by Sal Khan, a 33-year-old former hedge fund analyst who started making them to help tutor his young cousins.

LearnFree: 750 free lessons on basic computer skills, reading and math.

Library.nu: Half a million free books. May not be exactly legal. Browse at your own risk.

MIT Open Courseware: The oldest open courseware site, with 1,900 courses on everything from history to physics. A favorite for science and math.

Open Courseware Consortium: This site has even more courses, from 200 institutions, including MIT. To search, go to the “Courses” tab.

OpenCulture: A well-edited blog and site chronicling “the best” cultural and educational media on the web. They have lists of free online courses from top universities and free language lessons.

Open Learning Initiative: The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon has 13 free complete courses in topics ranging from physics to logic to French. The courses are highly interactive, using video, animations, and lots of embedded quizzes and assessments so you know how you’re doing. The site requires a signup and sometimes you may have to download some software.

Open Textbooks: A catalog of open textbooks that are free to read online.

Quia: On Quia, you can create your own games and quizzes to test yourself, or take thousands of quizzes—flashcards, matching games, word searches—that other students and teachers have created for the ultimate study guide.

Saylor Foundation: Saylor lists 241 original courses on the site, for which the material comes from around the web.

Scribd: Scribd is a place to find free books and presentations on almost any topic, uploaded and shared by the authors.

Slideshare: Slideshare is a collection of free PowerPoint presentations, sometimes with audio. It’s a good place to learn about up-to-date topics like design, technology, and music.

TED: TED (for Technology, Entertainment, Design) has an excellent collection of 300-plus short video lectures by scientists, authors, artists, political figures, and more. Browsing the site is sure to be enlightening and can give you clues about fields you might want to study, like behavioral economics or biophysics.

Textbook Revolution: A student-run site with links and reviews to textbooks and other educational resources. Many are available free as PDFs, viewable online as ebooks, or websites containing course materials. You can also use the site to find descriptions of books that aren’t free, and find where they may be cheaper.

Wikiversity: Wikiversity has a wide variety of multimedia course materials. Courses are run through the site, meaning students at universities create and publish course modules for other students’ use. Like Wikipedia, you can participate in the community by editing course material (a great way to test and expand your own knowledge) or by joining discussions in the “Colloquium” section.

YouTube and YouTube EDU: Don’t forget to search YouTube for lectures and presentations on any topic you find interesting. YouTube EDU contains content that’s been tagged “education,” which may include quirky things like Tina Fey’s 2011 book talk at Google.

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