"Exploring the Internet," a ten-hour noncredit evening class, was first taught at the University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education in February 1994. Offered three to four times a year since then, it receives steady enrollment an positive participant evaluations. Its goal is to provide adult novices with the concepts and skills necessary to use the Web, e-mail, and other Internet tools. The course is taught in a Windows computer lab with a computer for each student as well as one for the instructor. The lab has a projection system to display the instr-uctor's screen, and all the computers have direct network connections to the Internet. The course is frequently taught by Darrell Rainey, a graphic designer who works for the university Like many of the computer instructors who teach for the Georgia Center, Darrell does not have an academic background in computer science or engineering. This is an advantage for him, as the program planners have discovered that teachers with deep technical expertise tend to be less effective in communicating with novices than experienced computer users from other backgrounds. The following description of "Exploring the Internet," its participants, and the activities and teaching strategies that have made it a success is based on interviews with Darrell and observations of his classes. The course description specifies that experience with basic mouse and keyboard use is required, and in general participants meet this prerequisite, but otherwise they are a diverse group, varying widely in age, prior computer experience, and educational backgrounds. Darrell estimates that as many as half of the participants in recent classes had Internet access at home during the time they were enrolled, something that was rare when the first class was offered. Couples, parents and children,,and friends often take the course together. Asked at the beginning of the class to describe their reasons for taking it, many allude to relationships rather than work requirements, citing children or spouses who already use the Internet. Other participants are small-business owners or employees interested in using the Internet for communicating with customers. The class is taught in five two-hour sessions. Typically Darrell spends one hour of each session teaching Web skills and the other hour working with e-mail, FTP, or newsgroups. One of the most striking characteristics of his teaching style is his avoidance of lecturing. The main exception is the first session, which he begins by introducing himself, surveying the participants about their goals and previous experience, and presenting a brief overview of the history of the Internet and some basic concepts of client-server computing. Within the first half-hour, he has begun to lead the group through hands-on exercises. His subsequent presentation of conceptual material is done almost entirely through responses to questions and especially through his interventions to resolve students'problems. A typical activity in the first session involves learning to use Netscape Navigator to retrieve a Web page by entering its address. Taking the White House Web site at http-//wwwwhitehouse.gov/ as an example, Darrell demonstrates how to reach the Web site, explaining each step of the procedure as the students observe his actions on the projection screen. He then calls on them to repeat the process themselves. Most students are able to do so, but inevitably several will fail, receiving error messages or other unexpected results. Where a less experienced computer instructor might view these errors as disruptive of the flow of the class, and either ignore or hurry past them, Darrell uses them as opportunities to demonstrate troubleshooting skills and to present or reinforce conceptual information. Asking the participant to describe the symptoms of the problem to the rest of the group, Darrell identifies its source-in the case of this exercise, often a simple typing errorand explains the often-cryptic error messages. An error reporting a failure to resolve a domain name might lead him to provide a brief explanation of the purpose and format of domain names. Then he suggests steps for recovering from the error (for example, canceling an error message and correcting a mistyped Web address). Darrell's primary goal is to give his students experience in overcoming errors. The effectiveness of this strategy is demonstrated by students' progress in the class and their positive self-assessments in course evaluations. This focus on error recovery, which has support in the experimental work of Carroll (1990), benefits students in two ways. First, by moving students quickly into hands-on exercises and then using errors as opportunities to explain concepts, Darrell provides a practical context for material that might be confusing or boring if delivered as part of an extended lecture. Computer errors are events that are both memorable and likely to recur; by associating the explanation with the experience of an error, Darrell increases the likelihood that the student will recall both the solution and its rationale under similar circumstances. Second, through his relaxed approach to hardware crashes, software failures, and network outages, Darrell demonstrates that troubleshooting episodes are a normal part of using the Internet and models the attitudes and tactics necessary to resolve them. While this method of instruction is less systematic than detailed, organized lecturing, in practice it allows students to construct and retain more reliable mental models. Darrell uses similar approaches in teaching his students to use e- mail. During the class, each student has access to a temporary e- mail account. Prior to a class session, Darrell sends brief messages to the students, who read and reply to them during the class. He then randomly distributes index cards on which he has written the students' e-mail addresses and has participants exchange messages with each other. To show the kinds of errors produced by defective e-mail addresses, Darrell deliberatel y sends mail to a nonexistent account on the local mail server (such as "email@example.com"), then to a nonexistent server (such as "firstname.lastname@example.org"). Discussion of the different messages produced by these errors deepens students' understanding of the interactions of client and server programs on th' Internet. However, not all concepts are best conveyed through analysis of errors. In some instances, the social consequences of errors make it desirable to avoid them. For example, teaching students about mailing lists requires both a series of activities-in which students subscribe to a list, read mail, and unsubscribe from the list-and a brief lecture about the etiquette of mailing list participation. Darrell urges students to postpone participation in lists until they have read others'messages for some time and have consulted available FAQs (frequently asked question documents). Similarly, Darrell discusses flaming (exchanges of angry or abusive e-mail) and recommends that students wait to mail any particularly heated comments. At the end of the ten-hour course, most students report that they feel confident in their ability to apply what they have learned and to continue to develop their skills on their own, using the textbook provided in the class as well as information they find on the Web.
© Brad Cahoon 1998