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The Edupunks' Guide: How to Teach Yourself Online

Online forums have transformed the possibilities for independent learning. Here's how to navigate the web's possibilities.

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 and her free online course are 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. See all Edupunks excerpts here.

There are plenty of open resources on the Internet to allow for college-level learning on almost any topic. But figuring out how to dive in can be daunting. If you want to read a textbook, answer the questions at the end of each chapter, and take a sample test, you can certainly simulate that kind of traditional classroom-based learning online, but there are many other possibilities.

Here’s one method, distilled from the stories of many different edupunks I talked to:

1. Start with a question. “What does the Federal Reserve do, anyway?” “How does a wind turbine work?” You may turn first to video sites like YouTube or TED for an overview.

2. Zero in on unfamiliar words, phrases, symbols or expressions: “Bayesian analysis,” “Fourier transform." Wikipedia, Scholarpedia or Wikiversity might be good places to start, but you’ll want to follow the links from there to source materials, papers, textbooks, book excerpts on Google, and others.

3. Do some serious reading. You may have several tabs open at this point. This phase can last hours or days.

4. Ask someone else for help. Depending on what you’re studying, you may want to locate some experts on the topic. Or you can search forums or other online learning communities for help.

5. Test and demonstrate your knowledge. MIT Open Courseware, Khan Academy, and other sites may have sample problems. Or you can go onto a forum and answer someone else’s question. Or blog about your discoveries!

Sites for Open Social Learning

Lots of research shows the importance of study in groups for motivation, encouragement, and diving deeper into learning. You can use these sites for live learning in groups or to see if anyone before you has asked and answered a similar question, which is a great way to get started learning something.

OpenStudy: There’s a large and robust community on this site, and helpful answers were almost instant. The answers and groups are organized around topics, which can be hard to find or hard to understand sometimes. It might be a good idea to form your own group if you have a topic of interest that’s not represented here.

Quora: A good place for long philosophical discussions, but a bit harder to search.

Twitter: Twitter is one of the best places to build a learning community online. But it takes time to build, to find the right people to follow and talk to—it’s not an instant fix.

Wikianswers and Yahoo! Answers: These two sites are more superficial, though helpful for some practical queries.

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