From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

December 31, 2002*: You mean you teach this stuff?

One of my most reliable sources of additional income over the past six years seems finally to be drying up. I write finally not in relief (I certainly wouldn't complain were it to continue) but in surprise. The surprise is, however, not at the fact that this is now happening, but that it has taken so long to happen.

For about the last six years I've taught teacher in-service introductory courses in using the internet. I don't remember exactly when I first started teaching these courses, but I can make a fairly accurate guess. Five and a half years ago, in these columns, I reported on the publication of my introductory book for learning to use the internet. The book was activity oriented, and though I didn't use it in my courses, that activity oriented approach defined my teaching style. Though I don't have an exact date for when I first started teaching these courses it was at least a bit before the publication of the book.

When I first started teaching these skills I felt a bit uncomfortable. The money was certainly nice, but it was hard to understand just why these classes were necessary. I learned my own computer skills on my own, and found it hard to understand why others had difficulty doing so. The hands-on approach was, for me, the most logical - how much harm can you do, I would ask my students who seemed fearful of putting their hand on the mouse. But apparently not everyone is as attracted to the do-it-yourself approach as I am. Some people sit down in front of the computer and their hands immediately reach out for the mouse, or position themselves in a hovering pattern above the keyboard, while others keep their distance, as though they've come to watch a performance rather than be part of the production themselves.

I had expected that about two years of teaching courses of this sort would be all that I could squeeze out of the educational system. My reasoning was fairly simple: Internet use was becoming common knowledge. In most families at least one member of the family, adult or child, was learning to use this tool, and that person was then in a position to pass his or her knowledge on to the other members of the family. It was a simple sort of osmosis, and one that would leave me out in the cold. In addition, it was becoming easier and easier to use the internet. Not that things were so very difficult in earlier times, but the buttons and menus on browsers and e-mail programs were pretty self-explanatory, and even the help files were accessible and understandable. Anyone who wanted to learn to use the internet could do so rather easily. They didn't even need my book.

But it was not only the continued ease of use. To my dismay, it was also a general lack of desire to truly discover what these tools can really do. Some of my students, of course, caught the bug. As soon as I would teach them how to bookmark pages in their browsers they would ask whether they could arrange them more logically so that they would be accessible. I of course intended to show them how to create folders in their bookmark files anyway, but it was satisfying to discover that some people immediately felt the need for them. Some, but not all. Even at the end of these courses many of my students were still trying to figure out where they'd bookmarked a certain page.

E-mail presented a similar problem. I would teach my students how to organize their mail into folders so that they could more readily file and access what was important to them (emphasizing that even though I personally don't delete enough mail, having their finger on the delete button is the first step toward filing mail successfully). But when you only have five items in your inbox, it's a bit hard to convince you that those items have to be logically distributed into folders.

Rather strangely, even though I was sure that the end of these courses was in sight, it was becoming more and more difficult for me to teach them. I had expected the opposite to be the case. I had figured that students in my courses would discover that I was teaching them things which they'd already figured out themselves, and thus there was little reason to take the course, and since they knew what I was teaching, the class would flow easily. (I had also hoped, and even expected, to be able to deal with more advanced aspects of internet use, though of course that didn't happen either.) But things didn't turn out that way. Something else, sort of an equal and opposite reaction to the ubiquity of the internet, was also taking place. Those people who were able to pick up the basics through exposure to friends and family who used it did just that, and they didn't sign up for my courses. The people who did sign up were those who were just as frightened of the computer and the internet today as they were five or six years earlier. But now it was no longer something strange and exotic, but something that everyone was expected to master. It became hard not to enroll in a course. So via a sort of natural process of weeding out, the people who signed up for my courses were those whom it was most difficult to teach.

Ultimately, however, what finished these courses off wasn't the fact that people had learned on their own to use the internet, or that those who enrolled were close to unteachable (they weren't!). The final blow was delivered by what might be called the microwave oven syndrome. Microwaves can be used to prepare just about anything, and fascinating cookbooks have been published that offer the aspiring microwave-chef mouth watering challenges. But the fact is that three basic functions make up the overwhelming majority of microwave use: warming up baby bottles, warming up the morning coffee, and popping popcorn. People have paid substantial sums of money in order to purchase their ovens, but they're satisfied with those limited uses and they don't feel any need to learn to do more with them. And that's the way it is with the internet as well. As long as people can log in to MSN Network and occasionally read the headlines and think that they're tapping into the wealth of the internet, as long as they're satisfied with sending or receiving e-mail about twice a month, as long as they think the ultimate challenge of the internet is downloading an MP3 file or viewing a bit of pornography, they're not going to be in need of what I can teach, and there's little chance that I'll be making much money off introductory internet courses in the foreseeable future.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Communications & Computers In Education - Main Page