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Learning About Technology Online

A guide to web-based technology resources for nonprofits and libraries

Leaning About Technology Online 
Ariel Gilbert-Knight - November 11, 2011
When a technology question arises at your nonprofit or library, the amount of technology information available online can be overwhelming. From quick tutorials to an entire college lecture series, you can access information on any topic and in any format. This article will provide suggestions for navigating the amazing array of online resources.

This article was updated from a 2009 piece, written by Chris Peters for TechSoup for Libraries (formerly the MaintainIT Project). This effort was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers in libraries.

This article is part one of a two-part series. This part addresses online resources, and the second part discusses offline resources.

When a technology question arises at your nonprofit or library, the amount of technology information available online can be overwhelming. From quick tutorials to an entire college lecture series, you can access information on any topic and in any format. This article will provide suggestions for navigating the amazing array of online resources. Sites discussed here include quick reference sources, news and product review websites, social networking and discussion forums, and more in-depth training and e-learning sources.

Online learning offers a low-cost, green alternative to traditional classes and conferences. You can dramatically reduce your carbon emissions, cut back your travel expenses, and lower your paper consumption when you use online learning resources judiciously. With budgets tightening and environmental issues topping everyone's list of concerns, it's a worthwhile option.

Finding Quick Answers

These sites are useful for targeted searches as well as for learning basic technology concepts:

  • Search engines like Google will often be your first stop when you have a question. But you can get more out of Google if you familiarize yourself with its advanced search operators. These little tricks can save you time by narrowing your search much faster.
  • Wikipedia is another frequent starting point. It's good at showing how a particular technical topic relates to other subjects, and you can usually find useful links at the bottom of articles. There are also thousands of subject-specific wikis out there. Beth Kanter has listed a few wikis with a nonprofit focus.
  • Webopedia is an online computer dictionary and a good quick reference source.
  • The "In Plain English" video series from Common Craft provides short (three-minute) video introductions to technology topics.
  • About.com includes many introductory articles on a wide variety of topics, written by subject experts.
  • How Stuff Works also offers articles, graphics, and video tutorials on technology topics.

Keeping Up with the Latest News and Products

For product reviews, news, analysis of technology trends, and background information, the following can be helpful:

  • Technology websites: Wired, InformationWeek, eWEEK, CIO, PCWorld, Network World, Macworld, Computerworld, PC Magazine, and Linux Magazine are all good sources for news and product information. Also check out CNET for product reviews and news, Slashdot for news with a focus on Linux and Open Source issues, and Ars Technica for in-depth discussion of technology topics. A few popular technology blogs are ReadWriteWeb, TechCrunch, Engadget, and Mashable. To find other popular blogs, check out the Top Technology Blogs at Technorati.
  • Nonprofit technology websites: Idealware, NTEN, and TechSoup.org have hundreds of articles between them, all targeted at a nonprofit audience. Beth Kanter has also created several annotated guides to online resources (look for "Resource Sheets" in the left-hand navigation bar) and a list of nonprofit technology blogs and blogs about fundraising, philanthropy, and nonprofit management. Alltop lists the most recent posts from a number of nonprofit-focused blogs.
  • Social news: Digg, reddit, and Techmeme are social news sites that let users determine the most important stories on any given day. Reddit also partnered with Idealist to launch Idealist News, a social news site specifically for nonprofit issues.
  • Social networking sites: Many organizations, companies, and individuals post news and links to other resources on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites. Because these sites are usually geared towards brief, real-time updates, you can sometimes find more up-to-date information there than on a blog or website.
  • Podcasts: These may be in audio or video format and often focus on current topics. iTunes has a good selection of podcasts available.

Organizing All That Information

An RSS reader can help manage the flood of information, especially if you regularly check several different blogs and other websites. An RSS reader is a tool that lets you easily subscribe to and organize syndicated website feeds. New content from sites you subscribe to is automatically delivered to you. For an introduction to RSS, see Common Craft's RSS in Plain English video.

delicious is a social bookmarking site that helps you collect and organize your favorite links. It also lets you search everyone else's bookmarks and see what the most popular bookmarks are for any given topic.

Discuss Technology and Get Your Questions Answered

Many websites have networking or discussion features, but the resources in this section make interaction the primary focus.

  • Social networking sites: When you have a technology question or concern, sending a message or status update on Twitter, Facebook, or the like can get a fast response. Twitter isn't the best place to ask a complicated question, but you may be able to get quick answers to simpler ones. Google+ is currently in its early stages, but it may become a good tool for discussion and sharing with friends and peers.
  • Forums, discussion boards, and mailing lists:
    • Progressive Exchange hosts a vibrant, active mailing list for nonprofit professionals.
    • NTEN's Affinity Groups have discussion groups where you can post questions, share resources, and get opinions from others in the nonprofit world.
    • The TechSoup Forums have tens of thousands of members and hundreds of active conversations at any one time.
    • Computing.Net is a well-established technical support website where volunteer experts will help answer your technical questions.
    • Yahoo! Answers and Quora are other places you can discuss technology questions.

Digging Deeper with Tutorials, Webinars, and E-Learning

If you want a more in-depth learning experience, there are many options online, including in-depth tutorials, free course materials from colleges and universities, webinars, and more formal online training.

Tutorials and How-Tos

These sites can help you find detailed tutorials on technology topics.

Books Online

Safari and Books 24x7 are searchable online book collections, including books on current technology topics and computer manuals. Even better, your local library may have a subscription to one or more of these sites. All you need is a library card number, and you can usually log on and read or download books from home.

Open Courseware

MIT, Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, and many other schools make their course materials available online for free. Content can include lecture videos, audio recordings, assignments, syllabi, and lecture notes. Check out the offerings in iTunes under iTunesU for video and audio recordings of lectures from top universities. Open Culture, LectureFox, Academic Earth, and the OpenCourseWare Consortium are a few sites that will help guide you to other open courseware offerings.

Webinars

Webinars are real-time, interactive online presentations combining lecture, demonstration, and (usually) audience participation. After the live session, you can usually access a recording with all of the original content, including audio, slides, and discussion.

  • Nonprofit technology webinars: NTEN, Idealware, and TechSoup all offer technology webinars for nonprofits. TechSoup's webinars are free. The others address more advanced topics and offer a smaller teacher-student ratio, so they often charge a modest fee.
  • Vendor webinars: Keep an eye out for vendor-sponsored webinars. Microsoft, Symantec, Cisco, and others host thousands each year.

E-Learning Websites

E-learning tends to be more structured and goal-oriented than webinars and tutorials. These trainings may take days or weeks to complete; they might incorporate exercises, quizzes, and tests; they often provide you with certification or classroom credit; finally, they usually cost money.

  • Self-directed learning: These are often provided by commercial e-learning vendors. If you don't mind paying ($25 per month and up), Lynda.com is a popular site for online software training. Skillsoft also provides on-demand training solutions. Through TechSoup donations, eligible nonprofits can request access to online Atomic Training courses on technology topics. We also offer discounted access to management and strategy courses developed by The Society for Nonprofit Organizations. SAP users can request training for SAP products through TechSoup as well. Microsoft also includes access to e-learning classes as part of the Software Assurance included with Volume Licensing products it donates through TechSoup.
  • Instructor-led: Many colleges, universities, and technical schools offer online courses. Again, they aren't free, and sometimes classes are only available as part of a degree program.

Conclusion

This list is a starting point to help you answer your technology questions. For offline learning resources, check out our companion article. But remember, there's often more than one way to find those answers and more than one way to learn new skills. As with all new challenges, it helps to be flexible, patient, playful, and creative in your approach to learning about technology.

Image: Computer training, Shutterstock