SANTA ANA, CALIF. — I'm used to checking publication dates on any instructional books I buy. Who wants out-of-date information, after all? But the publication date of the text for an Internet class I recently took set the tone for the whole day. It was not just a year, as notices typically read, nor merely the month. It included the day.
For good reason. By the time we finished the course, several significant pieces of information were already in the dustbin of cyberspace history - which is being written in nanoseconds.
That lightspeed evolution is why I took the course in the first place. After years of struggling to keep pace on my own, it was time to admit defeat. Logging and slogging wasn't working. Wandering unaided through the Boolean byways of the World Wide Web or reading computer magazines was barely getting me onto the e-mail slow track.
It was time to get my anticlassroom self back to school and learn a thing or two.
I landed at Prosoft, a company based in Santa Ana, Calif., that bills itself as the nation's only Internet/Intranet training company. It has branches all over the country.
The first thing I noticed was that the day-long class - which cost $295 - was full of women, taught by a woman, in a company dominated by women. Women are usually quicker to admit they need help than men. This is not to say men don't need it. Based on my unscientific assessment, there are few adults out there who don't need some help with cyberspace complexity.
Our instructor started by dropping an Internet manual as thick as a New York phone book on her desk. "This is why most people can't get a handle on the Internet," she laughed. "Who has the time or energy to read this?"
Bingo. Any class that could cut through that manual is for me.
Next, we defined our terms of engagement. We would be navigating the Internet with the two browsers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, version 3.0, and Netscape Communicator, version 4.0. By the end of the day we would understand (and be able to use) all the major search engines, our favorite bookmarks, QuickTime, Shockwave, Power Point, and how to author Web pages, among other things.
We alternated between Explorer and Communicator throughout the class, which helped most people decide which browser they preferred. Netscape won for speed, simplicity, and compatibility with the features offered on the sites we visited.
With self-learning, your knowledge tends to be defined by your needs. Since you rarely get the overview, you're often left with a number of blank spots.
That was the case with my knowledge of the Web. For instance, what is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web? (The Web is only a section of what's available on the Internet). And what is a browser versus a search engine? (A browser gets you to the Internet and a search engine finds things once you're there).
That's how my day went, filling in all my knowledge gaps so that by the end of the day, I saw the forest (the overall function of the Internet) as well as the trees (individual Web sites that I know and love). Not to mention that I finally sorted out those pesky Boolean operators that make or break any search. A few key ones:
* Phrases go inside quotes.
* Most of the search engines allow interchangeable use of "AND," "and," or "+" to indicate the important words in a search.
* Use "NEAR" to indicate that key words must be within 10 words of each other.
*"NOT" can be used to exclude topics you don't want.
The course followed the text so that when I needed to reference all those search engines and which ones were best for a given need, I could. For instance, the two year-old Alta Vista (www.altavista.digital.com) was originally designed to index the entire Internet and is one of the most powerful search engines. You can use it to search in 25 languages.
The most useful part of the Internet is the vast amount of information available for free. For anyone who has ever entered a search request for say, small-business licensing, as we did in class, and received nearly 90,000 responses, learning how to narrow a search may be the single most important tool to master.
By the end of the class, we had narrowed our search for a small-business license in the state of Illinois; learned about the various government and commercial resources available on the Net; looked at all the various plug-ins; and written a Web page in the basic computer language needed. Not bad for one day.
While I had encountered much of the material before on my own, seeing it organized into the larger picture and learning it with my peers was invaluable. If I were in school today, I'd be learning it with the same urgency that we all took the must-have life skill of typing, back when when dinosaurs wandered the earth.
Now that I've passed the Advanced Internet Skills class, maybe next I'll take "Web Master Boot Camp," in preparation for "VRML Authoring and Interactive 3-D Modeling."