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If I knew then what I know now

Using The Internet For Academic Assistance

1 Mar 2021
Using The Internet For Academic Assistance

Hi, my name is Conor, and I am a second year PhD student in UCC’s economics department. If I knew then, what I know now is a platform which allows us postgraduate students to pass down the knowledge we have acquired during our time in UCC, with hopes of making your transition into third level education as smooth as possible. While incoming first years will undoubtedly benefit most from this type of blog, I guarantee even final year students will learn something from at least one of these (past or future) blog posts. 

The aim of this post is to offer advice on how to appropriately utilise the internet when studying, sourcing new material, and learning about new subject areas. 

As third level students, we are often exposed to narratives which shun the use of open repositories like Wikipedia because they can be unreliable. This argument stems from the fact these websites can often be edited freely, without regulation. While in principle, I agree with this sentiment of caution, from my experience this ‘stay away’ narrative is generally pushed too strongly.  

Often, when being introduced to a new concept, problem, or software, I would struggle to understand what was going on from the start. In the case of a software, I might not even know how to ‘turn it on’, and in terms of a concept, I might have no idea what is being talked about. While this is a totally normal experience, it can feel unsettling and awkward to navigate through.  

Exacerbating these problems further is that from my experience, these issues cannot be solved by consulting academic literature, as this often presupposes the reader is relatively versed in the software/concept/problem at hand, and often focuses on intricate nuances which only serves to confuse novices most of the time. Additionally, the relentless jargon which perpetuates this literature can be overwhelming to someone struggling to understand its basic premise. 

Facing this problem, platforms like Wikipedia, YouTube, online forums, and podcasts have become a godsend to me. Websites like these generally introduce an elementary clarity to the problem/software, allowing you to gain a foundational understanding of the issue. Once you attain this foundational understanding, you are then able to investigate the academic literature much easier and fluidly as you, for want of a better phrase, know what’s going on.  

Accompanying this, could be the use of external sources of material, to compliment your module-specific content. If you want to learn more about a topic or subject, and are struggling to navigate the academic literature, which is a very reasonable scenario when exploring new subject areas, platforms such as EdX, YouTube, and Skillshare (these are just the ones I am familiar with) could be a good place to start. Platforms such as these offer software tutorials, accessible topic breakdowns, and self-taught programmes created by recognized experts, experienced practitioners, and passionate hobbyists. This material is predominately presented in accessible ways, creating straightforward paths towards enhancing existing, and creating new, knowledge.  

While Skillshare requires a subscription (and offers exploitable free trials), EdX is mostly free, and YouTube is entirely free. I say EdX is mostly free because you can pay for accredited certificates proving completion of the courses you undertake, which may be nice for the CV, and some courses have enrolment fees. But from my experience, needing to pay for material is a rarity. 

To sum up, it is important to acknowledge that these sources do not supersede academic literature when studying for exams, assignments, and research projects, but they are great assets in kick-starting your study, enhancing your conceptual understanding, and improving your practical skillsets. Naturally, it is important to be careful when using them because they can be unreliable, but experience will significantly enhance your abilities at differentiating the good material from the bad. As a result of this patchy quality, using them as the main sources for an academic piece or assignment is a bad idea. These sources perform best as background reading which doesn’t make it to the reference list but is reflected through your illustrated understanding of the question at hand.  

Skills Centre

Q -1 (Q minus 1), Boole Library,