Tutorials give the low-tech a boost

Aid: Web sites help those less than comfortable with the Internet get their feet wet -- by having them jump right in.

April 23, 2001|By Bonnie Rothman Morris | Bonnie Rothman Morris,New York Times News Service

When Patricia Adkinson Murphy retired five years ago as a church secretary in Pittsburgh, she had just learned how to use a word processor. Frankly, her experience with new technology so late in her career had not been a pleasant one.

"I said to my sons, `I don't ever want to see another computer again as long as I live,' " said Murphy, 77. "It caused me a great deal of grief."

Her four sons did not listen. Three years ago, they bought her a computer. Now, Murphy says she is so comfortable with it that she even "empties her cache" of cookies left from her Web wanderings.

What changed her attitude and improved her computing skills was the thing she most feared: a Web site.

The site, www.netforbeginners.about.com, from A bout.com, coached her through the basics and set her loose.

"It was like having somebody sit alongside me saying, `Hey, this is the way we do this,' " said Murphy, who is learning how to chat online by participating in semiweekly chats held by the site's Web mistress, Gwen Schertl.

Internet for Beginners and other sites, such as Internet 101 and Learn the Net, help visitors through the often intimidating prospect of going online. They are a kind of Internet kindergarten, places to learn the ABC's, to ask questions and, just as kindergartners do, to learn to behave in groups.

The sites feature articles, tutorials and glossaries of new, sometimes confusing, computer terms. They often provide weekly newsletters by e-mail and, perhaps best of all, e-mail access to a real person. Some, including Internet for Beginners, feature weekly chats that are intended for answering computer questions but evolve, as many forums do, into much more.

There also are discussion boards, like those run by the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org/comptech), and at iVillage.com (www.ivillage.com/topics/computing), where the Web-weary can post questions and have them answered by anyone.

Newbies, as computer newcomers are sometimes called, generally find their way to the sites by word of mouth. Often they have tried computing books and have found them barely more comprehensible than the keyboard's row of function keys. "Look at `Internet for Dummies,'" Murphy said. "I thought they needed to write a book before that to explain to the dummies what they're even talking about."

Many newcomers eventually realize that going online is the only way to learn.

"If you want to learn how to drive, you get behind the wheel," said Scott Cottingham, who runs Internet 101 (www2.famvid.com/i101). "You can only learn so much in a driver's ed class." At Internet 101, the main attraction is Cottingham himself. He says he responds to every e-mail note he receives from site visitors, who may be frustrated by search engines, e-mail, downloading files and other computer problems.

The best of these sites offer ease of use and specificity of detail, said Michael Lerner, founder of Learn the Net (www.learnthenet.com), which has been teaching Internet skills since 1996 and is popular worldwide.

Most important, they are written in language that Lerner said helped seniors.

"Older people who did not grow up with technology are nonplussed by the technological nature of the content that they encounter," Lerner said.

So computing newbies appreciate sites that are easy to navigate and not too crowded with text, said Matt Ketchum, an Americorps Vista volunteer who teaches free computer training classes in Modesto, Calif. Many of his students have never used a mouse. For their first lesson, Ketchum has them practice by taking the tutorial at the Web site of the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, Pa. (www.albright.org/Albright/Computer(unde rscore)Lab/tutorials/mouse).

Tutorials are popular. Internet for Beginners features a six-week series delivered by e-mail. The AARP site offers interactive lessons on topics like Web and browser basics and how to find information. There also are bulletin boards for further discussion (www.aarp.org/expedition).

As users learn to download files, attach a file to an e-mail note, shop securely and protect their computers from viruses, the sites act like a tow rope, encouraging users to skim beyond the wake and explore the wider world of the Web.

For Annette Shaver, 72, of Southfield, Mich., who got her first computer about two years ago, Learn the Net's newsletter is what opened up her world.

So far, Shaver, a retired police department administrator who had never used a computer, said she had visited - via Internet - the Supreme Court and taken a video tour; enjoyed the work of her favorite artists, Christo and Andy Warhol; and visited the Louvre. Her husband, she said, "thinks I've deserted him because I'm in here with this."

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