I know, I know. If you teach about the Internet and are already using Mosaic, Netscape, or some other graphical Web browser, you are either skipping over this column, or wondering why anyone would waste energy teaching with text-based browsers instead of devoting that energy to upgrading to a graphical browser. But bear with me. If you think about it, you're more than likely to find yourself in the position of teaching about the Web to some of the many "have-nots" out there, and when you do, what I've got to say here will help you.
The fact of the matter is, a lot of people don't yet have access to the hardware and software to run graphical browsers. Sure, we've all heard the phenomenal statistics on the increased use of the Web, the growing number of images being put up daily, and new versions of graphical browsers that allow you to dial in to use the Web over phone lines. But I've talked with many public, school, and government librarians, as well as business people, teachers, and Internet newcomers who have to use text-based browsers to access the Internet.
Graphical browsers, as the name implies, allow you to see and retrieve all those images and graphics you've no doubt heard about or seen in demonstrations or in the news. Loads of pictures--art from museums, images from space, science experiments from schools, and photographs from special collections--are available on the Internet through the World Wide Web, a multimedia hyperlink way of viewing information.
But keep in mind that even if you have the capabilities of new graphics-based technologies, much of the current information being put up on the Internet through the Web is still text-based. And historically, use of the Internet over the past 15 to 20 years to exchange information has been based on text. So while a text-based browser only allows you to view text, there's plenty you can do with that browser. Now here are some things to think about if you're going to "teach the World Wide Web" using one.
Graphical browsers are nicer, for a lot of reasons. There's no argument there. After all, it's not just the MTV generation that wants images. For many people, visualization helps to facilitate learning. The problem is, how do you keep people interested when teaching a text-based browser?
This is something I pondered two years ago, even before Mosaic became an overnight sensation, when I was teaching how to use an ASCII textbased UNIX Gopher. Some people had difficulty understanding the structure behind a menu. To them it just looked like a list--a page of text. They complained they couldn't figure out "where they were going," and that they were overwhelmed by all the text on their screens. Since then, some of the same complaints have come up when I teach how to use the text-based Web browser, lynx.
Part of the problem in that UNIX Gopher class seemed to lie in students' lack of understanding about how the Gopher works--how the menu represents a list of addresses the browser (or client) can follow to retrieve another menu, or a document, from a computer on the Internet (a server). I developed a role-playing exercise called the PLACES Game (presented recently at a workshop at this year's Computers in Libraries Conference) that had participants "act out" the interactions of clients and servers, giving users a context for what goes on during information retrieval. The game borrows from the constructivist school of thought in education, which says in part that people learn more effectively when they can create their own general models for the environment in which learning takes place.
However, the other part of the problem is that people think of a screen of text as being static. Images and icons can beckon to explore, but text seems just to sit there and say, "Read me!" Paradoxically, the text of a Gopher menu isn't meant to be read so much as browsed, treated as a pointer leading to something else. This "pointer" role is much more evident on a Web page, with its highlighted or iconic hyperlinks. Your job as a teacher, then, is to get people interested and help them understand that linking and retrieval are the same when they use a text-based browser as when they use a graphical one. The trick: Show them both.
But, you ask, wouldn't that be confusing? Or worse, cruel teasing? Last fall, I gave a workshop for K-12 teachers on finding, using, and evaluating resources on the Internet. They asked that I not show them all the "bells and whistles" of a graphical Web browser like Mosaic, because they only had access to Gopher back at their schools. But if I had it to do all over again, I would show them Mosaic/Netscape alongside Gopher. I found recently in teaching staff in the library at Purdue that this can be an effective way to demonstrate information retrieval on the Internet.
Words and Pictures
This approach to teaching works on a couple of levels. Remember that constructivism seeks to get learners constructing models to which they can apply their experiences, and thus make learning sink in at a deeper level. One way to do that is to show them two systems so they can distinguish similarities and differences, and build a general model of what's going on. In this case, by comparing Gopher or lynx to Mosaic/Netscape, they can conceptualize a better general model of what a Web browser does than by seeing Gopher or lynx alone.
On another level, by seeing lynx and Mosaic side by side, users can comprehend a little easier and faster how information is organized on a page. As I mentioned, with a graphical browser, organization is often made clear by varied fonts and icons. With a text-based browser it is sometimes difficult to discern the organization and the hyperlinks. By comparing the same page with both browsers, users can see how the links are organized, and better understand how to move around on the page or between links. Also, users who wonder what they are missing when they see the "image here" tag with a text-based browser can better relate to what those images might be. With better understanding comes confidence and comfort in using a text-based browser.
You Can't Always Get What You Want ...
In the best of all possible worlds, it is ideal to sit down with a user, one-on-one, to show her or him the two browsers side by side, each running on its own computer. The next-best scenario would be to show the two browsers side by side to a group or class, "live" and simultaneously on two separate overhead projector units. Unfortunately, neither scenario is often possible, even in the best training facilities.
The most likely scenario for giving a lynx-Mosaic demonstration is to use a single workstation, preferably attached to an overhead projection unit. If you can, switch back and forth between two "live" sessions as your students or trainees watch the monitor or projection screen. As an alternative, one session could be "canned" (screens saved from a prior session) while the other is "live." You, the presenter, could toggle back and forth between the two. It's best to have the Mosaic one "canned" and the lynx one "live," as this gives you greater flexibility in showing the features of the lynx browser. You could even pull this off with two "canned" demos. Which ever method you use, be sure both demos are well scripted to ensure that the same pages are being shown with both.
. . . But You Can Get What You Need
In addition to learning how lynx works and helping construct a general model of how Web browsers work, there is an added benefit to making comparisons. Often, people assume they need the latest technology to keep up with everything going on. They are anxious to get access to the newest information, but take little time to assess or analyze their true needs. By seeing the Web browsers side-by-side and making comparisons, users can get a real idea of how their needs can be met. In many cases, if all they really need is access to text-based information, users may find that a text-based browser is more than adequate.
What It Takes to Browse Graphically ... And Why You Don't Have to
It takes the right kind of software and hardware to use a graphical browser. You must have the right kind of display software (graphics drivers) to interpret and display graphics, since images are stored and transmitted in a different format (most commonly gif or jpeg) than text (almost universally ASCII). Most graphical browsers do include the software to display them. Computers on which the browser is run must have a graphics capability, usually meaning an appropriate graphics card and/or monitor and enough speed and memory to make viewing the images acceptable. An older, slower computer can easily handle ASCII text, but may not be able to resolve colors or size of images, leaving you with a screenful of barely-discernible pixels/squares. Additionally, you need a particular kind of connection to the Internet to retrieve the images "in real time," whereas you can easily pull text off the Net over most telephone lines.
Anyone who has had a chance to view the Internet through the World Wide Web will notice that many of the images tend to be incidental--put there simply because hey can be, or to make Web pages a little more exciting. Logos, icons and other graphics that don't contribute directly to the information at hand like a picture of the "owner" of the page) are often included because they add variety and provide a break from otherwise somewhat dull and tedious text.
Of course, that's not to say incidental images are frivolous! In addition to images, graphical-based Web pages allow variable fonts and sizes, which make organization evident and certain words or phrases stick out. However, viewing the same document with a text-based browser does not take value away from the information there, and being "stuck" with a text-based browser means still having access to a wealth of information.
D. Scott Brandt is technology training librarian at Purdue University Libraries. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.…