Learning in the Age of the Internet
A recent conversation with my friend, Phil, leads me to post these thoughts about how one learns now that the tool of the Internet is available. Our conversation centered around the new RealOne media player and the differences between it and the Windows Media Player, but the topic could have been about anything. But the net is especially well suited to learning about anything having to do with the technology associated with the Internet.
How does one keep up on technologies that affect the end user of the Internet? I don’t have any special insight, any more than others of you may have, but the way I try to keep up is by following my interests. The first tool I turn to when I want to learn about a subject is the Google search engine. I have the add-in that places the Google search engine on my browser’s tool bar, but even without that, just going to www.google.com quickly takes me to an invaluable tool. Just enter the topic of interest into the search engine and click on Search the Web. It’s just like turning to the “card catalog” during my college years, except that now I’m able, without going to the library, to get a listing of relevant locations (sites in the case of the Internet) where I can find information on the subject that has caught my interest.
Once those links are sorted for me by Google, I can search through them looking for the kind of information I am concerned about. Of course, each search produces hundreds of references, so the job is only begun by this initial step. However, thanks to hyperlinks, each of those initial references leads potentially to hundreds more. As I explore, there is no evading the necessity of reading the topics at the locations that are most productive from these sites. Learning always involves the labor of getting the information from before my eyes into my brain.
Sometimes, though, I can use the Internet’s multimedia capabilities and save myself the chore of reading information, particularly when there are links to audio-visual presentations on topics of interest. For instance, in the case of my discussion with Phil, I visited the RealNetwork site and clicked on the link that provided the 1 hour and 7 minute public announcement of RealNetwork’s new Helix server. So for an hour and seven minutes, I was able to absorb some of the information about the product in a way that I’m more accustomed to. That is, I sat passively and listened and watched as Rob Glasser and others explained what they had achieved and how they thought that would affect the landscape of streaming media across the Internet. Now, I know this was largely a publicity event for the company and that it was filled with the company’s glowing vision of how their new product was going to change the world, but there is no substitute for hearing it “straight from the horse’s mouth” because these people know the product best.
One problem we semi-technical types have in such presentations is dealing with the technobabble or at least the jargon they use. I confess that I don’t always know all there is to know about terms they use, such as codecs and the scalability of servers, but as with reading a technical journal, I just plod along trying to pick up the meaning of such terms from their context. If I’m really concerned to get a precise definition of something, I can always visit www.webopedia.com, where I can get a one or two paragraph explanation of the terms.
Another source of information that can get one started in understanding a subject is www.cnet.com or www.zdnet.com or www.wired.com. All these sites that monitor news provide good background information about the topics I might be interested in. Also two other sources that I have found to be excellent sources of information, particularly of information that I didn’t know in advance might be of interest, are www.metafilter.com and www.slashdot.com. At these sites, everyday users like you and I post links to articles that they’ve come across along with a comment and sometimes a basic description of what they are. Scanning these sites on an almost daily basis gives me a heads up for new developments and/or ideas that are a part of the general development news cycle for things technological.
In the end, one researches only those things that he finds interesting. Not all of us share the same interests, of course, so what is appealing to me may not be to you. But the general strategy of availing yourself of the tools that are out there can be used by anyone. The only differences will be that our interests will take us along different paths. When we share what we’ve found interesting with others, as we can do on weblogs such as this, then those of like mind and with like interests can benefit from the “research” each of us has done.