Sunday, August 29, 2004

Internet Literacy

Newbies on the Net

When most people begin to use the internet they email a few friends, share some jokes and digital photographs and search on Google for some information about a hobby or interest. This done, they soon run out of motivation.

That's pretty much it, unless they are teenagers. Teenagers are into Instant Messaging in a big way, and perhaps into downloading lot of music. When you connect to the internet nothing essential in your life changes. The internet does not make you clever, it does not get you a job and it does not give you entry into some new cyber-age of wonderful opportunity. That need not be what happens, but for almost everyone, that is the truth of it.

Some people believe that broadband is the answer. When we get broadband into every home people will "get it", they will understand what the internet is good for. Nobody I know has broadband, or "imitation broadband" which is all you can get in NZ. There is among politicians and the business community a belief that broadband will make the internet "real" for people. I don't believe it. To use the internet well you need to become firstly internet literate, and secondly information literate.

My view is contrary to most of those who think they are experts in this area. The future of the internet doesn't depend on broadband being generally available. The future of the internet depends on people across the world making contact with each other, on sharing views and opinions and on learning to trust each other. Instant Messaging and email are fine for that. Bandwidth would make reliable voice connection possible. That's why the Telcos's don't want it to happen. All those lovely toll call revenues might melt away.

The internet gives each of us the opportunity to be actively engaged as citizens of the world. Do we want that for ourselves? Do you want to he broadly educated, with contacts in many countries, with a diverse range of interests and special skills? Do you want to become someone different with new opportunities and new potential? It will take hard work and effort, maybe over 10 years. Do you want that journey? Do you have any choice? Of course you do.

If you want it, it's there. Most people do not yet understand the opportunity. They ask, "what use is it?" Many people who have a glimpse of the potential don't have the courage to begin.

Internet Literacy

a) Skill enough to keep the computer and it's files in order. Knowing how to create folders and to save files. To be able to find files on your hard-drive. To download and install software from the internet.

b) Ability to use a web browser, changing window sizes, running many windows at once and navigating between windows. Knowing how to set up the browser's tool sets and tool bars in an efficient way.

c) Knowing how to use an email client easily and effectively. Setting up email folders and using filters to send mail to those folders. Maintaining address books. Joining lists and user groups, and effectively dealing with large volumes of moderate to low interest mail.

d) Confidence to type fairly quickly so that one can participate in real time networks. Instant messenger can offer personal or group services. Internet Relay Chat, or proprietory chat services are also available. This is time consuming, but it's a very effective way to communicate.

e) Confidence enough to write your own letters to groups and lists and online forums. Confidence enough to maintain some of your own web pages.

f) The ability to format text into a basic HTML page, and to publish a text with photographs. There are only about eight tags one needs to know. This is in fact a fairly simple task. There are editors to help you, but all the editors I know do too much and are difficult for beginners to use.

g) The ability to search for the things you need to know using several different search engines.

h) Beyond these basic skills you need to become Information Literate over the next ten years. While this "newbies" guide is aimed at people who need to become Internet Literate, the long term goal is Information Literacy.

Becoming internet literate should take you about six months. But I've met people who after five years can do very few of the basic tasks above. What a waste. This is the thing that really concerns me. But it doesn't seem to concern anyone else. The newbie in his or her home is not concerned. Suppliers of computers and software are not concerned. Politicians and civic leaders don't understand the problem. Schools and educators are not interested either. So I ask: Where are people going to learn their basic internet skills? The usual answer is; "It's all on the internet." That's true, but if you are not internet literate, what's on the internet is not available to you.

If you are yourself internet literate, who do you know who isn't? What can you do to bring them up to speed?

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