Amended 26 October 2008
Towards the end of April I got a call from a Harriet Swain, a freelance journalist who writes an advice column aimed at students for the Guardian Newspaper. Here is what I sent her, with several subsequent helpful additions proposed by readers.
What to advise a student about using the Web
Minor revisions 18, 19, 20 May 2008
Students are like many users of the Web. You are short of time, easily distracted, and you've probably given little thought to how you use the Web.
8 9 things to do that will make life easier, and your studies more fulfilling.
1. Hone your searching skills. Don't just type a term in to the standard Google search window and hope for the best. Instead improve the efficiency of your searches by doing things like:
- putting quotes round search terms;
- searching within a particular web site using site:URL;
- search the scholarly literature using Google Scholar.
For more on this see http://www.google.com/help/cheatsheet.html.
2. Make use of some of the excellent curated resources on the Internet, for example Intute - http://www.intute.ac.uk/ - a free listing of high quality Web resources for education and research, that is maintained by a network of mainly university-based subject specialists.
3. [20/5/2008 - with thanks to Jay Fogleman] Learn how to use the high-quality online research resources your library has already paid for. These databases and news services are often better for research than public search engines, and provide access to more full text articles. (If your institution's systems are well configured then if you find a subscription-only research resource using Google or Google Scholar to which your institution has subscribed, you should be able to click straight through to it.)
4. Do not expect to find everything you might need on the Internet. Some documents have never been digitised. Others require you to log in to see them. So use your library, and get to know the subject librarians for your discipline. They can be a mine of useful information and support.
5. Discriminate. Much of the Internet is devoted to entertainment of one kind or another, and it is easy to get distracted. Furthermore, plenty of the information resources on the Internet are of variable quality, with Wikipedia being a case in point. Over time your information literacy will improve, and you will become a much better judge of the quality of what you find.
6. Manage your stuff. Create an account on a bookmarking service like del.icio.us - http://del.icio.us/ - or on Nature's Connotea - http://www.connotea.org/, and bookmark things you find for future reference. You'll be able to access this from any device connected to the Internet.
7. Use Firefox as your browser. It is free, and there are a mass of free "addins" for it, for example, excellent spell-checkers in many different languages, tools to make your use of Connotea or del.icio.us easier.
8. Learn how to use RSS feeds. One of the easiest ways to use RSS is to set yourself up with an iGoogle account and install the Google Reader. As with Connotea or Del.icio.us you'll be able to access this from any device connected to the Internet. Many of the web sites you will need to keep an eye on for your studies have RSS feeds. Subscribe to a web site's feed, and you'll be notified in Google Reader as and when new content is published.
9. Get good at collaborating online. This will assist you in your future working life, as well as in any group-based assignments that you are set. Try out different ways of online collaboration (Facebook, Google Groups, Ning, plain email, SKYPE, wikis, etc etc), and do not assume that the tools provided by your university will necessarily meet your needs. [19/5/2008 - with thanks to Mike Cameron] Be vigilant about how much personal information you reveal online. Once it is "out in the wild" it will be there for ever, visible to future employers, your children, the authorities, and identity thieves.
For reference, here are Harriet's 29 April 2008 and 14 August 2008 "Art of Being Virtual" pieces; as of 25/10/2008, after much faffing about, the latter now has an acknowledgement and link to this piece.