Reading Intentionally as an Online Student with Web-Based Tools
June 14th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
One of the challenges that online students must consistently address is the amount of information they have to sort through, process, and retain for use in their classwork. Gone are the days when reading a textbook or visiting a local library to find a book or two was enough to complete your assignments. Now online students utilize Internet sources and online library databases, and it is very easy to get lost in a sea of information without finding what is needed. Students need a method of reading intentionally so that sources of information can be quickly assessed for relevancy.
A Chronicle of Higher Education blog post, Reading Intentionally Online, posed this question: How do you manage online reading? Feeds? Twitter? Chain e-mails forwarded by distant relatives? As I read this post, I thought about the amount of information that students are reading online, especially when they are using a search engine. A typical results list will include a high volume of websites, blogs, documents, and other related links that can become time consuming and distracting. Online students need strategies and tools that will transform distracted attention to focused intention, whether they are working with online library databases or Internet sources.
Working with the Online Library Databases
An online library database will appear helpful or intimidating for students, depending upon the results that are found. One of the first strategies that students can use to expand or refine their search is to utilize Boolean search terms or connectors such as AND/or/NOT within their search phrases. But that’s only a starting point. Once a list of articles is provided, students can then expand or narrow the results further by using the subject categories provided. To manage the amount of information gathered from a search list, read the abstract provided and if it appears to match your interests, add it to the database folder. Once you have completed your search you can review the contents of that folder and further narrow down the results.
Now that you have a collection of articles that you believe will be helpful for the development of your discussion board posts or written assignments, what do you do with this information? Some students will print it out and create file folders. Most online library databases will also allow you to export that folder of articles directly to your computer. This can be a much more effective strategy than printing the articles, especially if they are saved in a PDF format as you can use the “find” feature to quickly scan each article for specific terms. These databases will also likely have an email option if you want to share the articles with other classmates, along with a reference generator that allows you to select the preferred style used by your school.
Working with Internet Sources
While I encourage students to use the online library as part of their search strategy for finding credible, academic and scholarly (peer-reviewed) sources, many will still rely upon the Internet for their information. The challenge for many students is learning how to find information they need. Students can utilize Google Scholar to find sources that will often be more academic in nature. An extension can also be added to the search phrase to narrow the results list. As an example, by adding “site:.edu” to a search phrase will produce results from educational websites only. Many of the results listed will often be articles that can be accessed only through a library database; however, Google Scholar is easier for some students to begin their search.
As students review information that they’ve found through a search engine, they still need a method of managing the results so they can spend their time reading and retaining only what is relevant to their particular assignment or learning activity. One helpful resource is Instapaper, which allows you to bookmark and retain a list of websites you can access and read at a later time. There is no cost to set up an account and your reading list can be shared, edited, deleted, and archived. This is a very effective method of storing websites that you may use now or later in the class.
Another very helpful personal information system that is available at no cost is Diigo, which is an abbreviation for “Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff.” When you create an account you are provided with a browser add-on to use while conducting your Internet search. This program also offers many more features than bookmarking. For example, you can highlight information and add a sticky note, which is retained any time that you return to the bookmarked website. For students that prefer visual learning methods, this is a very effective method of interacting with online information. You can also share your results with other students. The following video provides an overview of Diigo.
The video demonstrates the usefulness of this resource while conducting research, as you can add tags to the bookmarked websites, archive webpages and even PDFs. You can then search your saved library by tag names or full titles. The information is stored on a cloud-based platform, which means you have access to it anywhere that you are able to obtain an Internet connection. What this source will ultimately do is help you learn to focus on the content and save only information that is absolutely necessary.
Web Curation Tools
Another important set of tools that students can use to manage information online is referred to as web curation tools. These are online programs that will help you find, organize, and retain important information.
1. Twitter: You may not consider Twitter to be a curation tool because it is an endless stream of information; however you can create lists based upon specific interests or hashtags that will provide you with focused results.
2. Scoop.it: This is another free service that allows you to establish topics of interest and then it searches the Internet to find information related to the keywords you’ve selected. There is also a browser add-on that you can use to select or scoop websites you want to save. The result is a Flipboard interface that presents the results in a visually appealing manner. The following video demonstrates the Scoop.it basics.
I’ve also created an example for you to review, Adult Education News and Features. What Scoop.it allows you to do is to spend a little time every day reviewing information from sources that are directly related to your interests, instead of simply searching through endless pages of results lists.
3. Google+: Like Twitter, you can utilize this like a curation tool as you can establish groups or circles as a means of developing focused content. You can view your Google+ stream one circle at a time to look for current topics, trends, and related sources.
4. Delicious: This is another effective means of organizing and archiving information. You can bookmark websites that you want to return to later and you can also create “stacks” or themes that are based upon your interests, which can be shared with your classmates.
5. Pinterest: This is a visually-based platform that allows you to save or pin websites to a board (or boards) that you create. The easiest method of adding pins or photos to your pinboard is to install a Pin Bookmarklet to your browser window. As you visit websites and find photos you would like to pin, you can use the bookmarklet to accomplish this task.
6. Paper.li: This curation tool is based upon feeds from Twitter and it allows you to create an online newspaper format based upon the topics you’ve chosen. You select sources of interest from Twitter and the paper is updated automatically for you. I’ve created Dr. J’s Adult Education Daily as an example.
7. Clipboard: This curation tool will help you organize your research and the following video demonstrates the basic features.
With Clipboard, you can save all of your online research in one place for easy reference later on. It allows you to tag your clips to keep them organized by subject, and you can share them with your classmates.
The work of an online student can be complex, especially given the nature of the learning activities. You will be expected to find credible sources of information that help bring the course topics to life and further develop your critical analyses of the subjects. This requires you to find methods of gathering information effectively so that you can read intentionally. The key is not to find endless streams for information but instead, find relevant sources that are based upon your specific needs and interests. Through the use of online library database tools and web curation programs, you can now develop a strategy that makes the most of your study time.
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