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Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world
Digital skills: succeeding in a digital world

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3.1 Useful starting points

Image of a person wearing a suit standing in a field, holding a map in front of their face.
Figure 4 Finding the starting point

There is an old saying: ‘If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here’. Although using a general search engine such as Google may sometimes be the best approach when looking for resources online, there are other alternative starting points that can save you time.

You have four options:

  • freely available online resources
  • resources available via subscription
  • specialist search engines
  • social networks.

Of freely available resources, some are produced by organisations such as universities and may be licensed under Creative Commons for anyone to use, share and (sometimes) adapt. Others are contributed by individuals or created by members of online communities.

Freely available resources

Wikipedia is well-known example of a freely available resource created by many different people. When searching for information on the web, you will often find that references to Wikipedia articles appear near the top of your list of results. Opinions on Wikipedia are often divided, as many people are sceptical about the quality of information held here. The best advice when assessing the accuracy of an article is to find out about the author and look at the references listed at the end. You could also keep an eye out for who has edited the page, how many times it has been edited and any conflicting agendas on the part of the editors. You can find this out by clicking on the ‘View history’ tab of any Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia is useful for getting a quick overview of a topic, but it is always wise to double-check what you find against other sources.

If you are looking for a particular type of media, you may find it useful to go to a site that brings those resources together. Some examples include YouTube [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] for videos, SoundCloud for music and podcasts, and the site which provides access to newspapers from around the world. It is often possible to interact with others on these sites by commenting on, rating, sharing or liking resources.

Open Educational Resources (OERs) have already been mentioned. This course is an example of an OER on the OU’s OpenLearn platform. The OER Commons network lists a large number of OERs provided by many people around the world.

The Open University Library also provides a list of good-quality publicly available online resources that anyone can use. These resources cover a wide range of subject areas and are worth exploring if you have time.

Subscription resources

An important resource for students doing degree courses is their college or university library. The Open University Library is completely online, free to OU students and staff, and provides access to a wide range of high-quality resources, including books, journals, images, videos and music.

It is also possible to take out your own individual subscription to online journals and magazines for a fee.

Specialist search engines

Specialist search engines can be useful. For example, Google Scholar is useful for tracking down academic articles and books, though the results aren’t always comprehensive, and the full text is not always freely available. Wolfram Alpha is a specialist search tool for finding data. If you are concerned about privacy, DuckDuckGo is a general search engine that (unlike Google) doesn’t track your personal information or provide you with personalised search results.

Online social networks

Online social and professional networks can be useful resources for information research. LinkedIn is one example. Not only can you put your own profile and CV on there, but you can also find other people in the field you are interested in, identify potential jobs and learn from the discussions that happen in special interest groups. Some online networks are informal, such as Facebook groups set up by groups of students to support each other. Universities, including The Open University, have many such groups. You will also find groups set up for particular communities, like the Facebook pages for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Open University Library.