"Exploring the Internet"

         "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
         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
"bogus@gactr.uga.edu"), then to a nonexistent server (such as
"bogus@bogus.edu"). 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