How Beginners Do or Don't Get Going as Internet Users

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Dena Attar
University of Sussex

Courses for Internet beginners often concentrate simply on helping them acquire technical competence. Many beginners get disillusioned early on because they can't seem to find a use for what they're seeing and doing, or else they remain mystified by it.


I have been tutoring Internet beginners at a London inner-city site for about eighteen months and researching the factors that make for success or difficulty throughout the courses I teach. The students have been of all ages from 19 to 75, of varying abilities, and from many different parts of the world. What they mostly have in common is that they don't have access to the Internet at home or at work, so their opportunities to learn are quite limited. Internet access, and computers generally are seen by most of them as scarce resources. The courses have been adapted over time in response to the kinds of problems beginners are regularly experiencing.


Learning technical skills in isolation isn't enough to get people up and running as confident, purposeful Internet users. Material texts are highly differentiated by location and as material objects. But existing knowledge of material texts in the real world often doesn't simply transfer across to the Internet. Beginners need to construct models for themselves of the new kinds of superficially undifferentiated texts (e.g. websites, email) they encounter and how they work, and also construct mental maps of how these texts are being produced in, and fit into, the real differentiated world. They need to recognise what's likely to be of use to them, and feel confident about their ability to make selections and judgements. Most importantly, they need to find meaningful social contexts, both online and offline, for engaging with the Internet.

Learning to use the Internet therefore involves becoming familiar with a whole set of new literacy practices. In recent years literacy studies theorists (e.g. Brice Heath 1985, Street 1995) have shown that reading is not just decoding, and that literacy always has a social context. While people in better-resourced, more affluent circumstances can afford to take their time and let their understanding of the WWW, the Internet, and cyberculture develop gradually, as their Internet usage continues or increases, people on beginners' courses are anxious to progress quickly and feel they have a lot of catching up to do. Their initial lack of experience of browser interfaces, hypertext and even of computer keyboards obviously puts them at a disadvantage. Their lack of experience of the world of online texts compounds this, as this world isn't visible to non-users in the same way that material texts are.

To counter this feeling of disadvantage, and also to resist the far from neutral bids for their attention that they will encounter online, beginners need to mobilise their existing real world knowledge. Tutors need to know how to help them through the complete process of becoming skilled, confident, demystified, social users. In the time they have, beginners need to do a lot more than simply acquire some technical skills. To continue as confident users they must find their own communities of practice, for as Agre (1996) puts it, "Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer user who’s not part of a community of computer users is going to have a harder time of it than one who is."


We need to get beyond the notion of "configuring the user" to adapt to the technology. People becoming Internet users are having to develop new literacy practices, and new understandings of them. They need to find their activities purposeful in the widest sense, and experience themselves as participants in a new social context. The tutor's role needs to include facilitating this wider learning, by helping students build conceptual models and create their own understandings within contexts that are meaningful for them. Literacy studies theory has much to offer here. Educators can not only help people learn what to do when they sit at a computer, but can help them work out for themselves "what's going on here?" as social actors.

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