OF WHAT USE THE INTERNET?
Catherine S. Fichten, Dawson College, Montreal
So things electronic don't get along well with you and your computer beeps at you for no good reason. And "double clicking" is truly beyond you. Given all that, is the Internet really for you? Absolutely!
Ignore the hype about, "cutting edge," "electronic age," "efficiency," "computer literate," "up-to-date" and the like. Nor is the Internet necessarily "fun." No. These are not the right reasons for using the Internet for mere mortals like you and me.
The reason you should get on the Internet is because it will allow you to do the things you need to do more easily, because it will allow you to do things you want to do but which are too difficult without it, and because it will allow you to do things that are not possible without it.
Let me explain. Here I am at Dawson College, a large cegep in Montreal. I teach Psychology. I also do research - a common activity for psychologists. I am not a technological wizard and I do not get my kicks from booting up my computer and gazing into its single electronic eye with love. The Internet, for me, is a tool to get things done.
I was going to say, "get things done more efficiently." But, in truth, I really do not think I am more efficient because of the Internet. I do, however, know that I can do new things - things I wanted to do that would not have been possible without it. Admittedly, the computer and the Internet can be - and often are - unruly tools with minds of their own! Reliability is not wonderful either. But when things work, the Internet is truly "magic!"
Without a doubt, for many of us the most important feature is e-mail. E-mail has allowed me to do collaborative research with Japanese, Australian and Israeli psychologists - exciting opportunities which would not have been possible without the Internet! My students can also send me notes, queries, and assignments - a real boon to students with disabilities. Of course, I can also keep in touch with friends who have moved and with retired colleagues who are now enjoying warmer climes. More mundane but equally important, e-mail has allowed me to leave messages for people who are really hard to reach by phone, but who are "hooked up" and check their e-mail 5 times a day.
What e-mail allows me to do is to work with others who are not in the same building or who are not working on the same time frame - like the Australians, Israelis, and Japanese! We convey questionnaire data, and jointly write manuscripts, analyze data, and prepare talks and presentations. For this, it can be fabulous! For example, in my e-mail I have recently received tabulated data for a huge questionnaire we administered in Japan last summer. I have also received a totally completed "poster" conference presentation from Australia - all I had to do was attend the conference and hang it on the poster board! Just to make sure that you know that it works in both directions - I recently sent a series of graphs I made using a statistical program (SPSS) to the Israeli contingent; these, too, were sent as "attachments" via e-mail.
I write a lot, and need someone to do much of my typing. But the person who types for me is not located at Dawson. So this is how we work. I fax her my handwritten manuscript. She types it, and sends it back to me as an e-mail attachment. We both use the same word processor, so all I have to do is click on the icon, and presto - my typed document, complete with bold, underline and italics, is ready for printing!
Well... yes, you are right, I had to "double-click" the icon. But you'll be happy to know that for all "single clickers," there is a "workaround" (jargon for, "you can fake it").
We also write articles using e-mail. For example, I am presently writing 3 manuscripts with several colleagues in Montreal who are not located at Dawson. The way we work is as follows. One of us does a first draft and gives it to the others for changes and revisions. Changes are returned to the originator, who then makes corrections and re-distributes it to everyone again... and so on. We used to have to get together to exchange drafts. Now, we simply e-mail attachments where changes are highlighted in various colors. The colors are particularly helpful, as they allow us to see where changes were made or where material was deleted. Colours are also good for highlighting questions. Of course, this would not have been feasible using the old "manual" method, as photocopies are black and white.
The World Wide Web
Also known as the World Wide Wait, because pretty pictures take so long to materialize, the Web can be used for many, many things. The Web tells me that it will rain this weekend, that my stocks have become worthless, and that it is flooding in the west. It also tells me what movies are on this week in Montreal.
OK. Maybe I don't really want to know all that! And if I did... yes, I could buy a newspaper and get the same information in the conventional "low tech" manner.
But what neither I nor my students can do easily without the Internet is to carry out literature searches on topics of interest. Not only can I "search the web," for all manner of electronic information, but I can also have excellent access to conventional scholarship. For example, I can browse the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) database which houses over 700,000 citations and abstracts in the field of education. I can also look up MEDLINE, a database which incorporates 8.7 million citations in medicine and health care. So... If I have a burning question, no matter what time of day, I can simply connect to the Internet and check out the references I need. A real time saver that has attracted flocks of friends and colleagues to my computer. Of course, this is not necessarily an advantage, as now I get to wait to type my memos and assignments because my colleagues and students, "need to be on for just 5 more minutes." Sure!
In the past, I have used the Web to find out where the next psychology conference will be held. I have also located interesting laboratory exercises for my students, obtained the mailing address for a university, and found the street address of a long lost friend. Because all North American telephone books and "Yellow Pages" are available in a combined form on line (think of a single giant North American telephone book), I have also used the Web to get the addresses and telephone numbers for companies whose whereabouts were unknown. For example, I used the Internet to locate the firm that makes GOOP - the non-toxic American product used to remove oil from the feathers of birds caught in oil slick disasters. "Why do I need to know this?" you may ask. Well, the GOOP helped me get the tar off my none too smart cat, who seems to specialize in getting into trouble in bizarre and exotic ways!
I also subscribe to a variety of listservs - these involve messages by people such as you and me asking questions and providing information. Listservs are really useful for keeping up-to-date and for getting answers fast. You ask a question, and lots of helpful folks try to provide answers. It generally works out fairly well! The listservs send these messages via e-mail to all "subscribers." So you read the messages when you want to. Or, if you are busy, not at all.
A Final Word
But... here I sit at midnight, planning how to collaborate with a Dawson colleague to demonstrate a virtual classroom at my cegep's annual Open House. We have already spent 10 hours tweaking the computers and getting the connections ready (well - he did it and I watched in awe). I suspect we have another 20 hours to go before it is ready. And then, the big question. "Will it work or will it crash?"
So... The last word on the Internet. More efficiency? I don't think so. More diversity, scope, novelty, opportunity and creativity? Definitely!