10 Top Tools for Doing Research Online

As an online college student, you probably have one or more reasons for choosing your mode of study - whether it includes having the ability to balance work with school, parenting, or having the flexibility to learn at your own pace.

Just because you are a distance student doesn't mean you don't have as much college research to do. Since you are likely spending a fair bit of time on the Internet to complete your distance/ online study requirements, it will be beneficial to have tools available to make your research easier and more efficient.

Here's my brief review of eight extremely useful online research tools. Each tool falls into one of the following categories:

  • Viewing information
  • Seeking information
  • Subscribing to information
  • Comparing topic popularity
  • Networking with peers
  • Writing
  • Sharing information

1. Mozilla Firefox: Without a web browser, you simply cannot do online research or even online tests. But one browser isn't the same as any other. Everyone has their favorite, though power surfers and researchers typically pick either Mozilla or Mozilla Firefox. Once Firefox became available, I stopped using Mozilla, so I can only tell you about Firefox: it quite simply is one of the most powerful web browsers around. From multiple tabs to skinnable interface to XUL-based add-ons to literally hundreds of free plugins useful for research, it can't be beat.

If you intend to do serious research on the Internet, this is a must-have free tool. Here's a link to Firefox, skins, and extensions.

2. Google Alerts: One of the fastest ways to find online information about a topic and its related terms is a search engine. A more efficient and controlled way to view web results is to use one of the available Alerts services. An Alerts service delivers snippets of web pages to you, in your email inbox, so you can followup at your convenience. (Each snippet contains a link to the source web page.) It's basically a step above using just a search engine.

With Google Alerts, you enter a simple or complex search query, and it emails you the search results with whatever frequency you indicate (as-it-happens, daily, weekly). Alert emails are sent to you until you delete an alert.

3. Bloglines News Feed Aggregator: As you do research for your online degree courses, you'll find that some topics simply have have hundreds of websites covering them. Keeping track of all that information is an absolute chore. You need the information, but you don't really want to check in daily to each and every website of interest to you. If you're a typical distance student, you're probably taking more than one course simultaneously. You could potentially be tracking several dozen websites for new articles. Is there an easier way? Yes.

Several years ago, two separate web-based projects were seeking to accomplish the same result: a simple means of subscribing to your favorite websites. So, every time your favorite website added new articles or news, you would get some sort of notification in a stream of "headlines". Each feed item would consist of the article title and the first X words of the article, as well as a link to the original web page containing the article. In a nutshell, the result was something now called RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication), which is both a file format and a technology.

Of course, if you are going to subscribe to a website's feed, you need a way to track the "headlines" you'll receive. Some sites offer a feed-to-email service, which sends new article snippets to your email box. Most, however, just offer their web feed, for which you'll need either a standalone feed reader or a web-based feed aggregator to browse headlines with. Stand-alone feed readers are software packages that you download to your computer and install. They often resemble email software such as Microsoft Outlook in that they have three panes: one listing all your feed subscriptions at far left, one at top right to show a list of headlines for a given feed, and one at bottom right to show the details of a specific feed item.

Web-based feed aggregators require no software download. They work straight from a suitable web browser, but have a slightly different viewing paradigm. It's this type that I've moved to, after nearly eight months of trying various standalone readers. I find Bloglines to be mostly superior to the other feed aggregators. (I've tried a lot of them.) What's more, many websites have a "Bloglines" graphic subscription button.

You can register for Bloglines free of charge with any email address.

4. Google News Search = Feed Subscription: If you've discovered the usefulness to your research of Google Alerts, described above, you may like to try an alternative method of delivery. It's not precisely Google Alerts, but the source is the same: Google News delivered as a web feed to your Bloglines subscription.

First, go to Google News to search for terms of interest. When the results page is generated, look at the navigation menu at left. There is a link underneath the menu that says "RSS". Right click your mouse on it and copy the URL. Then go to your bloglines subscription page and "add a feed".

5. Google Trends: Not everyone is going to need this tool, but Google Trends is a popular service for many online students. For those of you taking courses which require you to choose a topic for an essay or project, you might like this tool. Given a set of up to five search terms, Google Trends comes back with two line graphs and a series of geographically-defined bar charts.

The first line graph shows you the relatively popularity of each search term over a specified period of time - up to two years. The second line graph shows you the relative quantity of web pages that refer to each search term. This is particularly useful if you plan to write your research paper based on online materials. Obviously, if one topic has more web pages discussing it, then you'd probably find it easier to find relevant references. Finally, the bar charts show you the relative interest for each term by the most popular cities in the world, or countries, if you prefer.

6. Instant Messaging: When you are completing your degree online, you don't always have the live support group of select classmates that you'd have if you were in actual bricks-and-mortar classes. For this reason, some distance schools team people up to work remotely with each other, and offer a dedicated instructor for small groups of students. But if the school doesn't have a toll-free phone number, what are your choices? Emailing someone doesn't always cut it, especially if you need to discuss something in real time. And being a distance student means that talking to your study mates on the phone is probably costly anyway.

Fortunately, there are dozens of free instant messaging software. If you've been using the Internet for anything length of time and have signed up for a free email with AOL, Microsoft or Yahoo, etc., you might already be familiar with IM software (or "clients") such as Windows Live Messenger (aka MSN Messenger), Yahoo! Messenger, or even AOL's AIM Pro. Originally, these text IM clients had only text-mode real-time chat, whereby you'd communicate with one or more people by typing in your conversation.

More recently, these IMs are now enhanced with voice-mode chat, also called pc2pc (pc-to-pc) calling and even video calling. That means that you can talk to a distant study buddy or instructor via your computer, as if you were on the phone. Free of charge. Unfortunately, you probably have to both have the same software, although this requirement is changing. For example, the latest versions of (Windows Live) MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger can communicate with each other.

Some of these IMs also let you call from your computer to a regular telephone. This is sometimes referred to as pc2phone or net2phone calling. There are also some voice IMs that assign you a real phone number so that people can actually call you from a telephone to your computer (phone2pc). (Hullo is one such VoIP IM, which for now provides a free telephone number and extension. Skype is another, but they charge for a real number - no extension, and you can choose from several cities' area codes.)

7. Web-Based "Office" Software: Once you've done all your research for a project and are ready to start writing your paper, you have a couple of choices for tools. Typing on a typewriter is obviously something of the past. That leaves using one of the popular word processing tools such as Corel WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, or Open Office (free, and also has spreadsheet and other software included).

With the exception of Open Office, these packages cost money. Sometimes, a word processing program might have been included on your computer when you bought it. But if you are collaborating with another distance student, there's a better option: web-based office software. A web-based word processor allows you to share your document and even collaborate. Just assign "write" access to a document to each virtual team member.

There are actually quite a few contenders, but this time, I'm not favoring Google's. Instead I'm recommending Zohowriter. I find it easy to use, and easy to share files. The interface is sort of a cross between Microsoft Word and an HTML editor for creating web pages. In fact, if you intend to create web pages, you can actually post directly to certain free blogging platforms. Or you can export to a number of formats including HTML, Microsoft Word and others.

8. File Sharing Services: Once you have finished your research, maybe you want to share it (or a draft copy) with friends, an instructor, or possibly yourself (between computers). There are loads of file-sharing services, but two that work from within Firefox are GSpace and AllPeers. Both are "drag and share" services, making them very easy to use.

9. GSpace is incredibly clever in that it takes advantage of the multiple gigabytes of storage through a GMail account. If you are on a computer that for some reason will not let you save files to a diskette, you can install the GSpace extension for Firefox, navigate to the directory that the file is in, login to your GMail account from the GSpace multi-panel window, and drag the file into your account. Or maybe you just want to share files with someone else. If they trust you with their email account password, you can login into it with GSpace and drop in files for storing.

10. AllPeers works similarly, but uses a social network and doesn't require Google Mail. You can add people under your own group categories (friends, family, colleagues, study team, etc.), tied to their email address. They must be registered with AllPeers with that same email address. (Provided you and they are both registered with AllPeers, and both have the other in your respective AllPeers contact list, you can actually tell when the other person is logged in and using the Firefox browser.) You can select files from your computer and share them with one or more contacts. According to the AllPeers site, there is no file size restriction - something that many free email services have (usually 10 Mb attachment size). In fact, according to the info on their website, you can share hundreds of gigabytes if you want to.A word to the wise: if you have any sensitive/ private documents, you might not want to use file-sharing services. While they offer some measure of security, anything really sensitive should be encrypted and sent to the intended party by other means.

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