Teaching the World Wide Web with a Text-Based Browser

Article excerpt

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.

Read me!

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. …