The Internet as a Continuous Learning Tool — A Comprehensive Guide
Read long and prosper!
The internet is a rabbit hole of information. And yet, it is perhaps the most misjudged and undervalued of all avenues of learning!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We all lead fast-paced lives, and while time has historically been the costliest commodity that we can trade in, the latest thing to come really close is visual real estate. Shorter format, condensed content is king. As a tool of communication design, it is ingenious in that it forces people to be concise, crisp, and incisive. But human cognition has another side to it, of course. It arguably causes insufficiency of meaning.
Or at least the insufficiency of its transmission.
Alas, it is of information that we speak, and like any other anthropogenic concept, it is not loathe to evolve. So however much we may decry the attenuation of long-form communication, it will chart its own path.
But fewer words on one card doesn’t yet leave a willing learner stranded. As the words grow meagre, the number of preachers grow bountiful. Such abundance further reveals the importance of well-structured words to our learning capacity.
As a technical startup founder, hobbyist musician, and part-time writer, I wade chin-depth in many waters, trying to learn and hone my various crafts. A lot of these waters seem murky to begin with, but there is a systematic method of navigating them to achieve true and lasting learning — via just the internet and a proclivity for long-form reading.
The Reading Habit
Whatever it is that you want to learn, unless you only want a degree conferred upon you, is available in some shape, order, and form on the internet. The only issue is, “Where is the content that I want? Where is the curriculum that will solve my need or curiosity towards my goal?”
Welp, here I go open the fridge instead.
I am going to argue that the content you need for your learning is available. We are mostly just too lazy to sit up straight and do the needful. We are overcome with the sort of twenty-first century indolence that succeeds the advent of innovation. But I have an important question for you.
Are you the one innovating, or is it just someone else, as always?
In order to innovate, you must know.
In order to know, you must learn.
In order to learn, you must read.
This article, as you can guess by now, is as much about the long-term benefits of reading (especially long-form reading) as it is about how to use the internet to learn something quickly.
Reading as a learning tool has certain benefits that can’t be replicated by any other pedagogy.
Reading forces you to pay attention, lest the words become but a grey blur.
Reading forces you to think, because the content is in a greater depth and possesses many subtleties.
It forces you to recapitulate on past learning, because of the volume of content that you can parse.
It affords faster processing of information, meaning that you can ingest and retain more information in less time. You can read more in a minute than you can hear and assimilate in the same time.
Reading is an act of sensory dichotomy. You need to use your eyes and your brain. On the other hand, when you hear something, you need to use your ears, along with visual cues, and your processing centres to attain the fastest possible rate of ingestion. Reading is less overload for higher quality.
Reading forces you to devote time. Content that is spoken may be cursory and ephemeral. But when someone commits knowledge to writing, they are doing so for the benefit of posterity. It is well contemplated, well formulated. It is detail oriented, and it seeks to illuminate as many aspects as possible. Remember that you are that posterity.
Seas and Oceans
The internet may be a sea of learning, but swimming in an ocean of learning is a function of you and you alone. Knowledge will accrete each second, but you must grow bigger with it.
Before we look at how to plan your learning without spending currency, we must scrutinize where we go wrong most of the time.
First, when people want to learn, they want to ascribe the responsibility of teaching them to someone else.
Second, because the responsibility of good learning has already been outsourced, people also want to outsource the quality of the learning. A great teacher or an expert mentor would teach you something important in a mere 10 minutes, but an in-depth article, paper, or chapter would teach you nuances in two hours that said great teacher would never have the time (or perhaps the skill) to teach you. In which case will you be the richer in the long run?
You may want to start a new business, or get a new job, or learn a new skill to solve a challenging problem at work, or even just quench your primal thirst for knowledge.
So how exactly do you go about making the internet the best learning tool you can ever have?
Towards Continuous Learning in 15 Gradual Steps
1.Acknowledge that you need to spend the time to read and learn. Preparing your mind is always the first step.
2. Know that the internet is bound to contain the information you need. There are only a very limited number of ways to search Google and turn up no results — the most reliable trick is to write gibberish. And even that will fail in the face of autocorrected, suggested search results. You’ll learn something new. That being said, most people do recognize this. The problem is that people make searching the internet for answers a cursory effort at best. When you want to learn, you must put in the time. The subsequent steps will help you do understand how to.
3. Get acquainted with methods for scouring the internet for information. When presented with a haystack, you must know the different ways to find the needle. Learn about various search engines and the type of information that they index and help you search. Learn advanced search techniques — this is quite easy to learn, and in about a week’s time, you should be good to go, e.g. Google, Semantic Scholar, Wolfram Alpha, etc. More fine-tuned searching is treated in a further step.
4. Learn a little about how the concept of a curriculum works. We have all taken a curriculum, and we have loved it on some days and abhorred it on others. But most of us have not taken the effort to understand the rationale and ontology of a curriculum. If you decide to use this guide, you will have to forge your own curriculum (Step 8). Take some time to expose yourself to the various types of pedagogy — this will give you flexibility in creating your learning plan. Pedagogy is a method of teaching, and in learning about it, you will make a better teacher to yourself.
The first four steps are by far the most important. They are foundational to a methodical and profound learning experience.
5. Make a simple mind map of what you want to learn. Be sure to include what you already know. Also be sure to include what you don’t know — the importance of this is difficult to state. Use mind mapping software. Play around, write a few questions that you’d like answered, or pose questions about the subject to yourself from different analytical perspectives. It is always useful to look at the existing hierarchy and web of the subject. Topics and categories on Wikipedia are a good starting point; you may also browse technical curricula of universities, which is essentially a collation of relevant knowledge and skills — in a given subject and towards a given end.
And although it is a “mind” map, always put it to writing. Do it often enough that it becomes second nature. And even then, it doesn’t hurt to record it.
6. Start with a simple search. A face value search will give you a glimpse into the subject, and bring out the key ideas. If you look well enough, you’ll find the beginnings of an answer to an immediate question, or a semblance of a web of knowledge on the subject. Keep your eyes open.
7. Peruse anything you find in the simple search. Don’t worry about complete relevance at this point. The purpose is to expose yourself to ideas in the field, so that you can categorize in your head, and then pick and choose when the time comes. It also assists in creating a macro view of things. Keep updating your mental model and/or your mind map.
8. Setup a guiding curriculum once you have explored the reaches of the subject. Once you’ve spent enough time collecting the pieces of the jigsaw, it is time to visualize and plan what you want the jigsaw puzzle to finally yield. In your initial search, you will find many different avenues of learning. Your job is to tie the best of them together in a way that makes sense for you. Make a curriculum that caters to your needs, but throw in the occasional challenge. You may setup a simple curriculum very easily in MS Excel (or Google Sheets if you want it to be available wherever you are).
9. WHAT ALL TO READ (Beginner): While I use the verb “read” here as a generalization, at the outset, your internet-based learning will likely come from an eclectic set of sources. Articles from informational sites, journalistic or scientific publications, learning-oriented websites such as Brilliant.org, MOOCs, YouTube educational videos, YouTube tutorials, university-hosted learning modules and other material, webinars, etc. are all on the table at this point.
There is enough content housed in these formats to get you into the pre-expertise zone. It is imperative to point out that many of us go to these lengths, but then call it a day. It either seems like this was too much, or that this was enough. But there is more you can, and should, do.
In Step 14, I have provided links to my own set of regular readings as a sample for you— it’s a list I’ve curated over the last four to five years. It is meaningful and useful to me, and you should create one too.
10. WHAT ALL TO READ (Advanced): The information, knowledge, and exposure you need to step into the expertise zone lies in a different category. Of course, expertise is a function of practice, but the knowledge required to practice at increasing expertise has to come from somewhere, right?
Read blogs and long-form writing by professionals and academicians (example: Quanta for science, Aeon for humanities) — they contain a much denser treatment of a subject than a textbook, because in such articles, textbook knowledge of the subject is assumed, and the discussion is at a higher rung of the metaphorical ladder of learning.
An obvious way to reach deeper is to read scholarly articles and published literature, and today, it is easily available from both academia and industry (see Step 12 too). Use academic search tools such as Semantic Scholar, Academia.edu, ScienceDirect to begin, and then go to more focused tools such as PNAS reference sites.
If your learning lies in the technical or design domains, then it is essential to learn from commercial intellectual property. Read actual patents! Start with tools such as Google Patents, and then the USPTO and EPO search tools. Once you get the hang of it, it will unravel insights that can rarely be found anywhere else.
Finally, make it a point to expose yourself to different interpretations and varying perspectives on the same subject. This is especially important in subjects such as theoretical physics, philosophy and ethics, law, but its importance doesn’t wane in other subjects of moderate complexity.
11. Setup a reading list. If you’re like me, you will find that your list of pending reading over-enumerates by the hour. Download reading material, so that you can annotate it. As you read, mark your thoughts for later. E.g. if I’m reading a technical article that talks about a certain algorithm to be used for a music app, I would try and correlate the choice to end goals, and if I know a thing or two beforehand, this will surely help provide context to this new learning. Classic systems thinking. While a very simple and logical act, creating a reading list faces a very insidious phenomenon that you must always be wary of — PDF alibi syndrome. Also, as I’ve pointed out before, there is just too much content to curate.
12. Track important people and organizations in your subject of interest. This will help provide context and direction, in addition to the core units of learning. It helps you understand what the most pressing challenges or agenda are for that field today. And you can obviously do this on the internet, too. Visit their web pages. Follow them on social media. When they deliver talks at important events, don’t miss out. (And yet, don’t just squander all your time listening to their videos or podcasts — as interesting as it is, it is also a distraction after a certain point. Remember, you have a curriculum to answer to.) Make friends with people working in the domain that you are learning about — maybe catch up with an old friend who now works in that field. Your mechanism of learning will have put you in a position to communicate at their level, and they will be a great source of your future learning.
13. Use social media, smart news apps, and other tools. Linkedin, Twitter, and perhaps Quora, are great ways to connect to new ideas and people and engage with important people and organizations rather quickly. There is surely a wealth of information out there on how to leverage social media for learning and growing, so I won’t go into much detail here.
Besides social media, there exist sector-specific tools or apps that improve the experience of learning. If you are learning aspects of UI/UX design, for example, then Dribbble might be indispensable for formulating your own practice case studies. Smart news apps let you collect ideas around a single concept from different perspectives, different decades, and so on.
The idea encapsulated in this guiding method is that you should be submerged in the process enough to know where to look.
14. Maintain bookmarks. I can’t stress the importance of bookmarks enough. And no, they don’t make you look like a bookworm. They are a simple and effective way of returning to important sources, but more crucially, of returning to important states of mind in the process of learning.
Use your browser’s bookmarks bar, or any custom method you may like. You can even use session storage (in-built in the browser, or browser apps) to make mental collections.
When you’re at an advanced stage of continuous learning, you can leverage reference management tools like Mendeley and Zotero — it’s basic features are as useful for an advanced learner as it for a PhD student!
Make sure that the bookmarks are always quickly accessible. Good bookmark design entails that they provide the correct intellectual “affordance” to use them repeatedly.
Below is a link to my own set of regular readings as a sample for you — it’s a list I’ve curated over the last four to five years. (Note that this may not be the full list I have curated for myself, but it should very well indicate the nature of bookmarks.) It is meaningful and useful to me, and you should create one too.
15. Scale up your learning. Ah. We’ve covered good ground so far, and if I have done my job right, you’re already on your way. To follow through to long-term continuous learning, this last step is essential though.
The first fourteen steps can help you learn anything from small concepts to large subjects in a highly structured and goal-oriented manner. But you need to scale up your process and learning as you go. Scaling up may including writing about your subject of interest, however small or large. Much like reading, writing is a phenomenal way to self-reflect, design arguments, generate new ideas, or to educate. Indulge in communicating your knowledge in new ways and formats.
But the best way by far, among all the possible ways, is to keep exposing yourself to new, high quality things. High-fidelity things.
Don’t hesitate to outsource the source of your learning to the internet (or books; or videos) — media that you can curate and peruse yourself. Create a curriculum — you can adjust it to suit your own learning abilities and preferences. Spend time really diving into the information.
Most importantly, create a method that works for you, and apply it ad nauseam.
You will end up having a conspicuously unique set of knowledge to set you apart in the knowledge economy, and you won’t have spent a single dime (in most cases).
As you prepare your mind map, though, remember the key word: holistic.
About the author
Sarang Deshpande is an engineer, founder [Flow Mobility; Cambio Motion], and writer. He regularly writes about science, tech, business, and life (sometimes). He is an editor at World In Mind, a new publication which brings cutting-edge research to students and working professionals: important research across industries will set the tone for humanity’s future trajectory, and young humans would do well to keep the world in mind when they choose their area of professional focus.