We’re spending more time online than ever before, especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. We know it’s easy to be distracted or overwhelmed by all that’s available. Most people can relate to getting absorbed by content on a social media platform, reading news or binge watching a series. It’s sometimes difficult to know just how to maximize your productivity online and get things done. There is a huge amount of valuable information available and being able to make sense of it all is the key. Sticking to some simple and basic guidelines for conducting online research of a university will go a long way in helping you navigate the virtual landscape and reaching your study goals. We’ve got a simple and effective guide for you.
Define the parameters
Before you kick off your research the first thing you should do is narrow down what it is that you are looking for and are hoping to achieve. You can then form a reliable blueprint from which to work and this will provide you with a clear direction. It can be helpful to brainstorm and develop priorities when designing your research architecture. Starting with a set of questions is a good way to do so, as this will eliminate a lot of the superfluous information that you may spend your time looking at and collecting. For example, it you could be searching for information about the effects of coronavirus on higher education.
A further technique that helps in developing your framework is the use of keywords. Creating a set of core keywords is a great way to stay focused and on topic. They should ideally be the fundamental points that guide you in your research from start to finish. Think carefully about what sort of sources you’ll be using and how best to use these. Sometimes it’s useful to divide your research plan into more manageable pieces, so that it doesn’t become too vast or unwieldy. This not only allows you to track progress, but also creates a logical flow to the project.
Think about the type of information you’ll be dealing with. If you’re conducting research into a prospective university or comparing institutions, you’ll be looking for both fact-based information and more opinion orientated information. Combining and analyzing the two to achieve your objective is the essential skill you’ll need to fine tune. Remember, many people will have conducted similar research to you in the past and there are bound to be answers to nearly all of your questions.
Create a schedule
Creating a timeline for your research with a clear deadline can go a long way to improving your process. Set yourself daily or weekly goals, which can then be used to build the schedule of your online research activities. The schedule should ideally include how much time you will spend on each area or your research. Having a dedicated time set aside will help you to focus and motivated.
Work some flexibility into you research schedule to allow for any unexpected hurdles or stumbling blocks. A helpful technique if you’re struggling to find something is to work backwards or laterally, in order to work out how best to get hold of what you’re looking for. Phrase your question/s differently or play around with the types of words you’re using on a Google search. You can incorporate specific times for different channels of research into your schedule. For example, a day for looking at Google, another at specific university websites and one for reading through a prospectus.
Having a schedule will also allow you to stick more closely to your parameters and not stray off track. It aids in the collation of information, keeps things clear and provides momentum. It’s a great stimulus to completing elements of work and being able to enjoy the satisfaction of ticking off completed items.
An essential part of any online research is keeping track of what you’ve found and being able to create some order to it. You probably know the feeling of having a few too many browser tabs open at the same time, or trawling through your search history because you didn’t bookmark a page. As you gather your information try to find a system of filing that works best for you, perhaps based on themes, topics or dates. You may also find it easier to organize what you’ve found by the type of source it comes from, such as a video or a podcast.
It’s always a good idea to make some notes as you go and it can’t be overstated what a positive effect good file and folder naming can do. In some cases, you may not be able to save files so creating a working document with relevant information that you have copied would work well. This can be a word document or a spreadsheet, whichever you are more comfortable working with.
Don’t forget to bookmark important pages. This can be done by using your browser menu or mobile app menu. This way you’ll be able to create a list of useful resources that you can refer to whenever you need to. It’s a great way of stopping you from wasting time re-visiting pages you’ve seen before and can come in handy if you find information that may not be related to what you’re doing, but find interesting, like our guide on what to study abroad.
Select information with care
One of the cardinal rules of online research is being judicious and prudent in the way you choose the sources of information that you choose. For example, make sure that you’re using a reputable search engine to filter your results and check the dates on websites and articles to make sure they are relevant. This is particularly important when researching universities, as accurate information relating to entry requirements, application dates and course information are crucial to know.
You will need to make sure that you are accessing legitimate, official and verified communication channels, especially on message boards and social media. Try and cross check the information on different sources to see that it matches up. For example, if someone is promoting a scholarship on Facebook, see if it is an individual or a dedicated university page and then search for the information on the institution’s website to see if it is verifiable.
Sometimes it’s fairly easy to tell whether you’re using a good source. If the website or information you’ve accessed is full of errors or poorly designed, you can be fairly sure it’s not going to be reliable. If at any time you’re asked to provide personal and confidential details that is also a red flag. Universities may give you the choice of signing up for newsletters or registering an account, but this should all be done securely. If you have verified the website is legitimate and can see a padlock appear in your browser, it’s likely safe to sign up. The padlock indicates that you’re operating in secure mode and that the communication is encrypted.
Use multiple sources
While it’s always advisable to consult primary sources of information, you can also inject some creativity into your search. For example, you could look for articles in newspapers, journals or magazines to get a better idea of the institution and its culture. This can give you an indication of the history of the institution or the success of certain of its programmes. In addition, you could follow student run blogs, education websites and even chat to current students to inform your research.
Using multiple sources allows you to build a clearer picture and begin to sort fact from fiction. Making sure you keep your critical thinking cap on, you can also do things like follow university student clubs on social media or a high-profile student on a social channel. There is a significant amount of user generated content available and this can give you a great idea of what the student and academic experience is like at a particular university. You never know, it may reveal something that you hadn’t considered? It always helps going into a research project with a set idea of what you’re looking for, but allied to an open mind. The flexibility of online research makes it a great tool to explore your prospective academic home and can lead you to discover a bit about yourself along the way.
Summary of online search tips
If you’re looking to ace your online research and stay of top of it, there are some key rules to apply:
- Define and decide what you’re looking for
- Brainstorm, develop keywords and create a schedule
- Organize your research and information carefully
- Bookmark websites and create a working word document/ spreadsheet to store information
- Take notes as you go
- Evaluate information critically
- Check your sources
- Consult multiple sources and channels
- Be creative in your approach
- Keep a record of what you’ve done