Information-Age Web 'Netizens' In the Making

Courses teach young entrepreneurs and grandparents the art of the World Wide Web

Why would a gentle quiltmaker from Baton Rouge, La., want to become a Web master? Just ask Valerie Guidry-Porter, who forked over $800 this month to spend 64 hours at California State University at Long Beach (CSULB), learning to design a home page on the World Wide Web.

''I want to sell my quilts,'' she smiles. ''My husband says it's the place to be right now.''

Ms. Guidry-Porter is not alone. Nearly all the 40 students in the class (which has an equally large waiting list) are here for similar reasons. Over the course of eight weeks, the aspiring cyber-entrepreneurs will learn how to create graphics, video, and audio as well as specialized design for a home page. They will learn to edit and write HTML (the special language of Web pages) and how to design a corporate page. Finally, and possibly most importantly, students will learn how to launch, market, and maintain the page.

A quick ice-breaking question from the instructor elicits a scattershot of financial motivations for being here: ''Want to make some money.'' ''Career change.'' ''My company wants a home page to sell their cars.'' ''It's where the action is, I want to be there, too.''

The Web, known for its user-friendly graphics, is the fastest-growing portion of the Internet, (also known as the Net, the worldwide network of computers). Reliable figures are hard to come by, but Network Solutions, which coordinates addresses on the Web, processes as many as 3,000 applications for addresses a day. And the number of Web hosts is expected to grow from 2.2 million in 1993 to more than 100 million in the next five years.

In many cases, the bottom line is driving the explosion: Many people are simply looking for ways to make money, says Stuart Volkow, a co-instructor of the first segment. As a result, every aspect of business, especially marketing, advertising, and direct sales, is going to change radically, he says.

And that spells opportunity, says course organizer and instructor Adrienne Parks. ''Once you have a presence on the Web ... no one knows how big or small you really are, whether you are working out of the garage or the penthouse.'' She calls the Web the ''great equalizer.''

Recent history has shown that such inexpensive, direct communication can break down centuries-old hierarchies. Chinese dissidents in the Tiananmen Square rebellion credit the fax machine for allowing their revolution to spread. And Russian President Boris Yeltsin says he wouldn't have had the courage to persevere against the old Soviet regime had television news crews not apprised him of the full support he had outside Moscow.

But the explosion of users also makes the Web more difficult to pin down and ''teach'' in any conventional sense, Mr. Volkow cautions. He set the tone in his opening comments: ''Anything you learn here will be outdated by the time you walk out that door.''

In fact, the week the course began, events overtook some key information in course materials, which had been assembled only weeks, or in some cases, days before the class began:

* Congress passed the telecommunications law that paved the way for new and increased competition on the Net.

* Visa and Mastercard came to an agreement over standards for monetary exchanges over the Net.

* A new, more powerful technology for navigating the Net became available.

And that's just in one week.

But the future ''Web masters,'' ranging from fresh-faced college grads to grandfatherly figures, appeared undaunted as Volkow pointed to a larger-than-life projection of an actual-time Web page to explain and analyze the elements of both good and bad Web pages.

Volkow's favorite target was ''The Spot,'' the first Web soap opera, which he used to show the importance of graphics that pull viewers in as well as the glaring need for substance to back up the graphics.

But no matter what material these budding masters launch on their home page, the skills themselves may be worth it. A graphically rich Web site with a wealth of links and moving videos can cost anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000, including the staff required to support such a page. Web masters who can do most of the work themselves can produce a low-budget Web site for $1,000 to $10,000.

Hence the appeal of the class to a wide variety of students. Zeki Abed, a young landscape architect in the class, is looking for a career change, saying, ''I want to keep up with the world.'' Unfazed by what he calls his total lack of knowledge about computers, he hopes to market himself as a ''Web master,'' selling his ability to launch others into cyberspace by the end of the course.

Doug Eslinger had already made a career change from restaurateur to real estate broker and hopes to promote his houses on his home page.

If all of this seems too far out in cyberspace for you, think again. Those who have taken the plunge say we'll all be ''Netizens'' sooner rather than later. ''The curve on these trends is getting shorter and shorter,'' Volkow says. He insists we'll all have a home page on the Web within the next 18 months.

After that, having your own Web page will seem as natural as, well, coming home.

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