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Session 5

Searching for information online

Tim's here for this Digital Literacy guide as we take a look at something that many learners take for granted when using digital tools: searching for information online.

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    Activity 1

Activity 1

Go searching for distance learning success

Search engines, social media, wikis – there is so much information available online! It's not easy to know where to start and it can be a challenge to know what sources you can trust. Thankfully Tim is here to help us out. Scroll down to watch his video and find out how to navigate your way to finding information online.

Which online sources does Tim trust?


Tim's got lots of great advice on searching online for academic source material.

To do

While you watch the video, decide how trustworthy these platforms are: 1) social media, 2) online forums, and 3) academic search engines. Which would you trust the most?

Watch the video

Show transcript Hide transcript

So it is true! Indigenous people from the Arctic have 100 different words for snow. That's an amazing fact! Or is it!??

Everybody knows that we can use digital resources to find information we need. Think about how many times we do this in a day… What's the next train home? What will the weather be like tomorrow? What messages have I received from my tutor on my distance learning course? We all use online information services, but are we using them effectively? Hmmm. We need to think about effective ways to search for information.

Today, we are looking at using the internet to search for information and do research for our distance learning studies. But the internet is so full of so much information: what is the best way to find information – and how far can we trust what we find?

Think about all the ways you find information online. You probably use a search engine like Google or Bing or one that is popular in your country. Search engines are fantastically useful, but they usually show links to other websites, so you need to critically evaluate those sites to know if the information there is reliable. Imagine if you used incorrect information you found online in one of your university assignments. You won't get good marks like that. 

Luckily, your academic institution may provide you a list of trusted sources. As a good distance learner, you are expected to do additional research to find additional information, so you need to critically evaluate what you find online. As well as websites, many people now use social media as a source of information. We need to be even more critical here to avoid incorrect, false or even deliberately fake information. It's a good idea to question everything you find online, in all areas of your life – as well as for your distance learning needs!

So, whyshould we be so cautious when using online for searching for information? To put it simply, you could easily find incorrect information. If the information you find is wrong, then you will get poor marks in your assignments.

Just the same as if the train times you find online are wrong, you could be in for a long walk home! So, let's talk about how to make sure you are finding and using information online correctly. Firstly, you need to build up your list of trusted sources. These are sources that you know have a high level of credibility. Your tutors can help you with this, but you also need to be able to evaluate sources you find online.

Many distance learners use online forums and wikis such as Quora, Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia to find information. For everyday life these can be useful resources. But for distance learners they should only be used as a starting point for study. You can research more fully by going to the sources referenced in articles on sites like Wikipedia. If they are reputable then you can use them as a resource. You can also use academic search engines such as Google Scholar or REFSEEK.

Similarly, we need to avoid untrusted sources. Unfortunately, social media is full of examples of incorrect information. So: just because somebody posts a story on social media, don't just accept it as fact – you need to do more research to see if the information is credible.

Another important aspect of online research is avoiding online plagiarism. Plagiarism is an important word for all students. It means 'taking other people's work and claiming it is your own'. This is a serious matter in academic study and can result in serious consequences. It's fine to look at other people's work and use it as a source, but you have to cite your references. This means stating exactly where the information has come from: another important skill for students! Citing references is a requirement for all academic institutions, so your distance learner provider will supply you with guidelines on how to do it.

So that's an introduction to finding information online. There is a world of resources out there, but always be careful in how you use it! 

Trust these sources

We asked you: How trustworthy are these online platforms? Did you understand Tim's guidance about how much to trust them? Check what you've learned with this activity.

Trust these sources

1 Questions

Identify which source Tim said was the most trustworthy

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Tim's tips for searching success

Here's what we've learned about searching for information online:

  • Search engines will show you links to other websites – you should critically evaluate these websites to decide if the information there is reliable.
  • Your institution may provide you with a list of trusted online sources – but also do your own research to build up your own list of trusted sources.
  • Be very careful if you use social media to search for source material – information you find here may be incorrect, false or even deliberately fake.
  • Online forums and wikis can be useful, but these should only be used as a starting point – do further research into the information you find there.
  • Try using academic search engines like Google Scholar or REFSEEK. You're more likely to find links to appropriate academic sources.
  • Check and double-check – just because someone posts a story online does not mean it is a fact.
  • Don't plagiarise! Make sure you acknowledge the source of material you refer to. Your institution can give you advice on citation and referencing.

Find out more

That's it for now. Next time, Sian has to deal with IT support – she's got lots of tips to help you troubleshoot your digital problems. In the meantime, visit our partner The Open University for more digital literacy tips – just click on the 'Where next?' link.

Where next?

Student Life image link 6  Digital Literacy index image link  GTD OU DL image link 5

Session Vocabulary

  • Find out more about distance learning – visit our partner,The OU