Historical Awareness of the Internet

Historical Awareness of the Internet (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Most college students today would probably say that they feel very comfortable using the internet. Some really and truly are expert users, with a deep understanding of the function and history of the internet. But I find that when they first arrive at college, most students bring with them an experience that is shaped (and in many ways limited) by the social and entertainment uses of the internet. While I would say about a quarter of my “Writing for the Internet” students had used weblogs before , several students who had kept LiveJournal accounts didn’t consider that an experience with online authoring or weblogging.

According to web design expert Jakob Nielsen, “The idea that children are masters of technology and can defeat any computer-related difficulty is a myth.” Nielsen’s research involved sitting and watching as children from age 6 to 12 struggled to use various web pages. My own teaching experience is with college students, but I can see that most leave high school with only the most basic sense of how to use the internet in their research.

I teach a new crop of college freshmen each year. They are trained to use Google to find “the answer” online; they often aren’t terribly critical of what Google decides to put at the top of the list. Every year I have to tap-dance, plead, and cajole in order to get them to see the difference between the article in a peer-reviewed academic journal that is only accessible through a library database and an easily Google-able resource such as this “History of a Victorian Era Robot.”

But most recognize that college is supposed to push them outside their “comfort zone” and into the world beyond. Many are amazed that after a fifteen-minute demonstration, they are online authors. (See Vanessa Kolberg’s, “Look at Me, I Have a Blog!“) I love seeing this kind of enthusiasm, and I hope I can sustain it after the newness of online publishing wears off.

At my previous university, I taught “Writing Electronic Text” as a 300-level course. The class began with theory, then moved to web design, and also included a researched essay. That class was my one shot at teaching HTML, hypertext theory, and alternative forms of e-text such as interactive fiction — so I loaded quite a lot into it. (I’m bracing myself for what Will, a survivor of that class, is going to say about this blog entry!)

In my present position, “Writing for the Internet” is about half freshmen, most of whom won’t be taught how to write a college research paper until next term. They are generally very comfortable with computers and writing (though not always equally), but it’s an entry level class. The “New Media Journalism” class includes two 300-level media courses (one is “Media Aesthetics” and the other is “Media and Culture”) as well as a senior projects course, so there will be plenty of time for advanced research papers and in-depth projects.

My “Writing for the Internet” students generally have less college-level experience than the students to whom I used to teach “Writing Electronic Text,” but that’s OK. Since most are recent high-school graduates, they are used to writing assignments that value personal expression. Since one kind of weblog is an online diary, I can introduce weblogs right away. Students can begin writing in an informal, personal voice. As they begin to develop an academic voice, I can ask them to adjust their online writing style. But more important, they can begin to feel the rhythms of webtext right away. After they’ve done online writing for a while, I will gradually introduce the theory. I hope they will nod and say, “Yes, I noticed that on my own, and here’s somebody who’s laid out categories and terminology to help me understand it!”

So far, so good.

When I first started teaching full-time in 1998, I asked all my students very early in the term what they remembered about the first time they used a word processor. After four or five years, I stopped asking that question, because almost all the answers were, “I don’t remember.”

The internet changes so rapidly (just a few weeks ago, I would have capitalized “internet”) that the cyberculture that gave birth to online file-sharing, blogs, the WWW, and even the genesis of the internet itself is as hazy and mythologically distant to most of my students as the history of the transistor radio and the cathode ray tube was to me when I was in college.

If I have time in class today, I plan to ask my students to estimate the dates of various key events in the development of cyberspace and hypertext– birth of the internet, the first e-mail, etc. I’ll publish the results as soon as I’ve compiled them.