Bit of a blast from the past, this. I found this when I was trawling for past-it pages. Ah, the glory days, when gophers were still to get rid of. Remember when e-mail was hard?
The backlash has begun! Before the majority of folk have even tried the internet, they are being subjected to the journalistic revelation that the internet is not, in fact, quite as staggering as the last batch of hysterical nonsense claimed it was.
If you discount the more hyperbolic claims, and make your way to the internet, you will discover that the internet is as valuable a resource as it has always been, and that it makes available powerful new communications which can in turn lead to new ways of working and learning.
In this article, I will very briefly describe what the internet is, and where you might find some of these fabled resources, before describing how the new communications that the internet introduces have the potential to radically change how you work and learn, and how your organisation shares its experience.
The internet is awash with jargon and TLAs. At least some of this is inevitable, but I will try to resist explaining too much - it can too often happen that an explanation is unintelligible unless it itself has an explanation, and it's best not to climb on to such a vicious circle at all. (Oh, what's a TLA? It's a Three-Letter Acronym, of course!).
There are many answers to this question - answers which can be technical, historical or sensational. A short answer, however, is that the internet is a network of computers which was initially developed by the American military in the 1970s, but which has spread far beyond their control. Because of the way it is designed, the internet has no centre, and is essentially uncontrollable. This administrative freedom has allowed a huge number of experiments to spring up, of which one of the best known is the World Wide Web, which started off as an information-sharing system at CERN, the European Particle Physics lab, and which has been instrumental in the explosive growth of popular interest in the internet. The technical experiments have been accompanied by social ones, and the internet has been the carrier of all sorts of worldwide communications - and despite what some uncharitable souls have suggested, the communicants really do talk about other things than Star Trek (at least some of the time).
Before discussing the opportunities which internet communications present us with, I should briefly describe at least some of the mechanics. I have no space to go into detail about connection methods however, or about what resources are available, or how to find them. For that, I will leave you in the hands of the many internet magazines that have sprung up, which generally give out clear advice on how to get connected, and where to go to afterwards. Having said that, I think there are a couple of general remarks I can usefully make for those who have not (yet) got a connection to the internet.
Before you can get to any of the resources on the internet, you need a computer, a modem, and a connection. Just about any reasonably modern computer will do, but the modem should be as fast as you can afford. Don't get a modem slower than 14400 baud (don't worry about the number, just look for that, or `14k', on the side of the box!), but a 28800 baud modem (or `28k') would be better. A faster modem means less time on-line, which means lower phone bills.
Assuming that your organisation does not already have a connection, you can get one through either an internet service provider (ISP) or an online service. An online service (such as CompuServe or UKOnline, for example) allows you to connect to its own computer network, use resources there, and gives you indirect access to the internet. In contrast, an ISP gives you direct access to the internet, which is more flexible, at the cost of being slightly less user-friendly. The main difference, perhaps, is in the charging structures: ISPs usually charge a flat rate of around 15 pounds per month, whilst online services charge per minute of connection time, which starts out cheaper than an ISP, but becomes more expensive somewhere around ten hours of connection time per month. For detailed information on this process, including contact details for ISPs, I again refer you to one of the internet magazines.
Once you have a connection, you can use a web browser to find information and amusement on the World Wide Web, copy files from all over the internet, connect to machines round the world, and send and receive electronic mail (usually written as `E-mail' or even `email'). The precise steps involved in sending an e-mail message, for example, vary between machines and between different mail programs, but in outline it is as easy as sending a memo. To send an e-mail message you just type in the recipient's e-mail address and a subject, and then type the body of the message, possibly attaching other electronic documents, such as word processor files, which are to be sent under the same cover.
The World Wide Web, which started at CERN in the early nineties, and
which has become the best-known face of the internet, is a global,
constantly expanding, hypertext! Unlike a book, there is no set
order to web pages; instead, they form a network of pages you find your
own route through, with words or images on one page linking to other
pages by the same author or another, on the same server or one in
another country. Order is imposed on all this chaos by a standard
system of addresses, called URLs (does it really make it any clearer
if I tell you it stands for Uniform Resource Locators?), such as
http://www.yahoo.com/index.html. The middle part of this simply says that
the page is to be found on the machine named
www.yahoo.com - this is
called a domain name.
With a little help from your ISP, it is easy to create a web page for
yourself, and start publishing whatever information you want. Many
many folk have done exactly that, so that there are pages on a
dazzling range of topics. You don't have to have a vast quantity of
information to make available, either - it might be enough for your
organisation to publish a couple of pages giving your aims, your
skills, and your email address, supplying just enough information that
someone performing an appropriate search would turn up your page.
Organisations that have done this include the TGWU, with URL
http://www.ws.pipex.com/tgwu/, and the AUT, at
http://www.aut.org.uk/. Note that the AUT have arranged with their
ISP to have an appropriate domain name allocated for them: there's
usually a small fee for this but, like having headed notepaper, it
looks a lot more professional.
The very anarchy and decentralisation which give the internet its vitality and robustness can make it extremely difficult to find things. Since the internet has no centre, it is infeasible to maintain any authoritative list of resources such as web pages or e-mail addresses. Instead, there are numerous non-authoritative indexes which make strenuous attempts to find all the resources they can, and to make them available to the world through the web. Notable examples of web indexes are Yahoo, and Digital's Alta Vista. Gophers are simple precursors to the web, and are in the process of disappearing, but some valuable ones still exist. They have their own index, called Veronica - there are several versions of Veronica on the web, which you can find using Yahoo or Alta Vista, naturally.
With the emergence of these indexes, finding information on the internet has become easier, but it is still not trivial. In the end, the most effective way of finding information on the web is to ask your friends and colleagues for pointers, to keep your eyes open as you browse around, and to keep a note of every useful resource you stumble across.
Although it has often been presented that way, the internet is not just a vast lucky-dip of information. Just as fundamental as the resources that are on the internet, are the resources that are accessible through the internet: the people at the other end of the wire.
These human resources can be reached through Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC), a term which includes e-mail distribution lists, network newsgroups (also referred to as Usenet), and other proprietary means of allowing possibly widely spread participants to communicate by sharing access to a growing pool of messages.
As I have described it here, CMC is essentially text-based and asynchronous, with participants reading and responding to individual messages at any time. This `classic' definition can be expanded to include other communications technologies I won't discuss, such as videoconferencing, and real-time text-based interactions such as MOOs (of which more later) and Internet Relay Chat. They have advantages, but the first needs special equipment and fast communication lines, and the second is rather clumsy, and is useful only for special purposes. Also, both lack the special features of CMC, such as asynchronicity, that I want to focus on below.
First of all, communications are quick and cheap, and truly international. E-mail messages usually arrive at their destination within minutes of being sent, though network congestion and the like can occasionally delay them substantially. This is true no matter where on Earth the message's destination is - in fact, it can sometimes take longer for a message to travel to the next office, than for it to move across the globe. Also, there is no difference in cost between sending a message to your next-door neighbour, and sending it to, say, Tokyo. This means that it is as natural to talk with, advise, and empathise with someone on the other side of the world, as it is to do so with your neighbour. Once you have overcome barriers of language and timezones, e-mail is as far from being parochial as you can get.
The second novel feature of CMC is that it is both easy and as natural to address a group. Face-to-face, we know that we require different social skills when we address a group, from those we require in conversation. We require novel skills when communicating through CMC (there is no need for turn-taking cues, for example, but instead a routine need to establish context), but these skills are exactly the same whether we are talking to one person or a thousand.
This in turn makes working in a group much more natural on-line, than it is face-to-face. Moreover, since CMC is not encumbered by the usual notions of distance, these groups can easily span the globe, casually crossing oceans and time zones.
An e-mail distribution list - in which a message sent to the list address is redistributed to all those people who are subscribed - can therefore be an ideal way to collaborate with a group of people who are geographically scattered. Depending on your computer system, they may or may not be easy to set up.
As well as groups formed for a specific purpose, there are many general-access discussion groups, covering a vast range of topics. These are either mailing lists or usenet newsgroups. There are hundreds of public lists: many UK-based ones are described on the web pages at Mailbase, which also has links to descriptions of many other worldwide lists, and guidance on how to subscribe. Usenet is similar in many respects, but uses specialised software, rather than working through e-mail; it can be very useful, but its structure makes it almost inevitably chaotic.
Electronic communication can radically change the dynamics of a discussion in ways which, when they are appropriate, can be very helpful.
CMC naturally also has disadvantages. It is slower (making it clumsy if there are only a couple of folk concerned in a minor decision), has few social cues (so you are likely to be misunderstood more often, and be unable to tell how a tricky negotiation is being received), and folk will speak up (`Yes, you said that last time. And the time before that...'). A final potentially relevant point is that CMC is not by default secure, so that confidential matters should not be discussed without taking extra precautions.
In the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Glasgow University, we are working on a pilot project which uses the internet to deliver credit-bearing courses to rural areas. We will be delivering these courses through a mixture of mail-based CMC, pages on the World Wide Web, and a MOO. This is a good example of what CMC can do.
If all goes well, we aim to offer courses in the West of Scotland, starting in Autumn 1996. All the teaching will be on-line, giving folk in isolated areas access to higher education, without leaving their communities.
The principal advantages of CMC for us, are that it gives access to part-time higher education for a group who might otherwise have been excluded from it, and the asynchronicity allows that access, moreover, at times which are convenient to both the students and the tutors. In addition, CMC has aspects which are educationally valuable even without the distance element, in that the asynchronicity gives folk the ability to take organisational control of their own learning, and the written nature of the medium encourages them to reflect on what they have learned, and express it cogently to their peers.
The MOO adds an important final element. This is a system which allows its participants to wander through a landscape described in words, interacting in real time with the other folk present, through rapidly typed `conversations'. This is a clumsy substitute for a real conversation, but the whole experience is more vivid than you might imagine. We hope it will allow our remote students to interact sufficiently naturally that it will build a sense of community on-line, whilst they are using it to resolve minor administrative or academic problems.
Text-based communication is one of the oldest and simplest of the technologies on the internet. Surprisingly, however, it has not been displaced as the primary means of internet communications by any of the more spectacular technologies which have followed it. CMC has novel features which make it ideal for collaborative work, no matter how far, or in what sense, the participants are scattered. It has an important and continuing role to play in the way we work on-line.