Thisted, Denmark, 9.1.2000 Copyright: Peter Gorm Larsen.

Please do not publish it without permission from the author. 

NB: Artiklen er blevet godkendt og skal fremlægges på en konference i London, marts måned år 2000.

The Presentation in London in PowerPoint, Wednesday 22 March, Web-based trainig and teaching, Track j

The presentation as a PowerPoint zip file.

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Forget IT. You can’t teach people how to use the Internet


 You can’t teach people how to use the Internet. The speed of change on the Internet is too fast for any curriculum. Traditional courses are waste of time. As a teacher you shouldn’t pretend that you are a master of the new technology. This approach to teaching is more or less outdated. Instead of teaching in a subject which is called Internet you should make projects, create values and a sense of mission. The paper provides a case and tries to make some general suggestions for education and organisations.       

This paper is written to the conference: “Internet Librarian International 2000”, 19-23 March 2000, Olympia 2, London.

Written by:

Consultant, Master in Political Science,

Peter Gorm Larsen.



Work: The Consultancy Department, Royal School of Library and Information Science, Denmark. Website:


Forget IT. You can’t teach people how to use the Internet


My main thesis in this article is that you can not teach people how to use and work with the Internet. I will explain why I have this opinion and give you some cases from my own career as a teacher at a college of education. I will show you how difficult it is to develop a curriculum for lectures regarding the Internet and more general Information Technology. I will suggest a new approach where the pupils, students, adult learners, employees, and the teachers work together in interdisciplinary projects. My main theoretical point of departure will be the French psychologist Piaget, who is the farther of Constructivism. I am also indebted to Seymour Papert and his Constructionism where he explicitly deals with the way children learn to use computers. Regarding the thesis for this article it is sufficient here to say that both authors emphasise the importance of hands-on experience.


The Internet is a stormy ocean

When you want to teach other people you need at least to consider two aspects before you start. First of all, you need to have a theory and hopefully some experiences in how people learn. Secondly, you need to know something about the subject you want to teach in. Traditionally, we expect that the teacher has a profound knowledge on the subject. Teaching is more or less a question of how the teacher transfers his deep knowledge to his pupils or students. Shortly, you create a teacher if you give him some pedagogical, didactic, and psychological theory blended with knowledge of one or two subjects. After this education, the person is now able to be a teacher for the rest of his life.

The invention and the penetration of computers and the Internet in the whole society will erode this old approach to teaching.

Try to compare the Internet with a stormy ocean. Imagine you are a painter and want to make a picture of the ocean. Where will you sit? On the shore or in a boat?  The wind and the waves will do it very difficult for you to handle your gears. And how do you get a snapshot of the ocean, which is changing all the time. When you just have put a line of your paper, the line in the real world has disappeared. Where will you start and finish? What part of the ocean should be within your frame? The solution of the task requires an artist, who can make a mental picture of the ocean. A person who can extract the basic lines of the rough ocean. Can you teach other people in this skill?

This changing surface of the stormy ocean can also be applied to the Internet and in general the new Information Technology. You always get new browsers with new features, new editors for HTML, new languages (JAVA, VRML), new formats, new and better hardware, faster connections, new websites and so on. When you have first invested a lot of time in learning the languages of HTML – you have put the line on your paper – you suddenly experience that the environment has changed. Now you can get an easy to use WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor. In the start you try to compete with the new editors because you have invested a lot of time in HTML-codes. After a while you surrender.     


Waste of time?

How do you teach people to use the Internet in such an environment? Can we have a subject in the school, which we call “Internet”? How do you make a curriculum for your pupils, students or adult learners? How do organisations train their employees in the use of Internet and Information Technology?  

First of all, what should the learners learn about the Internet? Lets start with the beginning.  How do you use a Browser? But which Browser should you choose? I started to learn Mosaic and later Netscape. Today I use Explorer. Mosaic has now disappeared. I spend a lot of time learning my students how to make Bookmarks in Netscape. In the good old days it was not an easy task. After a couple of releases it is now much easier. But what do you call the procedure today? Making Bookmarks (Netscape) or Favourites (Explorer)?

Should you make a more advanced course? I have made such a course. I put four lectures in the project. The students want to learn how to download files from the Internet. Many files on the Internet are compressed. We used a small program by the name Pkunzip.

We did not have the program Winzip on the computers and it was not yet the standard. The students were forced to go out of the windows (Windows) and into the dark (DOS). It was not easy to decompress files.  They did not understand the commands nor did they know how to navigate in this dark DOS area. The course was a failure. Should I have made a course about DOS? A few weeks later we got Winzip on our computers and it took only seconds to decompress a file.

I once made a course for teachers in the primary school. They should learn how to make a website in their last session. I got a small HTML-editor from the Internet. The teachers should learn how to make simple HTML-codes. Only a few succeeded. The teachers thought it was too complicated, illogical, and narrowed for teachers in the primary school. Today you can make a text in your Word Processor and with a few easy clicks on your mouse change the text to a beautiful website. Did I lose the teachers time?

When you are a teacher you want to have some general principles, which can structure your lectures. But where are the general principles in the HTML-codes? Can you deduce from “IMG ALT” to “USEMAP” to “A HREF” on the blackboard? I can’t. So you can not use the deductive approach to learning. Can you go the other way around and use the inductive approach to learning? I am not too sure. For instance, some codes function well when using Netscape, but not in Explorer and the other way around. It even depends of the version of Netscape or Explorer you use. Can you make a general principle of that for your students or employees? Only that the world of Internet is chaotic. 

After a while you may decide that specific software and programs should not be the basic for the curriculum of your courses. You will take the point of departure from the resources on the Internet. But remember the painter and the huge stormy ocean. What should be within or outside the frame of the picture? Should you try to make the students familiar with art resources, music resources, literature resources, political resources, statistical resources, health resources, news resources etc. on the Internet? Should you constrain the resources to be only local, regional or national instead of global? As you know, every day websites change addresses (URLs) or disappear. In the same vein, we experience an enormously growth in new websites. You and your students will be drowned if you make a curriculum on the base of websites on the Internet. Even if you only focus on the good websites.  

The final solution for the content of the curriculum may be Search strategies and the use of Search Engines on the Internet. You can make a speech about Boolean operators and then show the students some Search Engines. I am sorry to admit that some Search Engines do not provide advanced search possibilities. You will see that Search Engines use different layouts and that they always change or even disappear. You need to tell the students that Search Engines only search about a third of the websites on the Internet so they definitely need to use more than one Search Engine. You need to tell them, that Search Engines are not up to date with the newest websites, and some of the links they give are old. The worst case for you as a teacher is, if a student ask you, how Search Engines works. You need to acknowledge that you do not know even when you have tried to do your homework.

Pupils, students, adult learners, and employees may demand books about Internet. Normally, when you have a subject you can find books written by authoritative persons. For instance, professors who have an overview of the subject. Often the subject has a long history and you can find some classical works. But who has an overview of a stormy ocean?  

You need to forget the books. It is waste of paper and money. The books are seldom up to date with the development of the Internet. They are often very expensive and very fast to old for any use. Especially older learners want to have it on paper. It is difficult for them to accept the changing nature of computers, software and the Internet. They are not yet fully adapted to our new chaotic world. What is right today is not necessary right tomorrow. No reason to have it on paper. 

Many times I have seen how older people try to write down how they shall use a Browser or another program. Often they get lost in their papers and start to complain. Okay, you could make a reader or create your own teaching materials and copy it, but still you invest a lot of time in producing stuff, which will be outdated very fast.

Some people read manuals from A to Z, before they switch on the computer. They also often get lost. A few years ago you could not buy a program without a huge manual which looks like a book. Today you buy and download programmes from the Internet without any manuals at all. But how can people use these programs? By the way how did you learn to swim or ride a bicycle? It is very complicated, but did you use manuals?               

On this stage it is my conclusion, that it is nearly impossible to make a curriculum for teaching in a subject with the name Internet. Do we need to admit that we can not calm and paint a stormy ocean? Despite of all deficiencies with Internet and the new Information Technology many people excel in the use of the technology. Even very young and uneducated boys. Why?


How do organisations adapt to a stormy ocean?

It is genuine for organisations that they do not like ever-changing environments. By nature organisations try to stabilise internal and external environments. One way is to produce a lot of manuals with all kinds of standard operating procedures. What shall they do with the Internet and the new Information Technology? How do people in the organisations obtain the necessary skills?

In relation to what I have already outlined above about the Internet, the organisations are in a catch-22 situation.

One solution will be to try to forget the Internet and the new Information Technology. It is just as impossible to make a curriculum as it is to get an overview of a stormy ocean. There will be no courses in Internet or Information Technology for pupils, students, adult learners or employees. It is their own business, if people want to paint or swim in a stormy ocean. If the environment is competitive such organisations will not survive for long. Some public institutions may succeed for a while, but in the long run they can not resist the pressure from the outside world. Clients, customers, pupils, parents, students, employers and even the employees will make demands for the introduction of the Internet and the new Information Technology in the organisation.

The other solution to the catch-22 situation is that organisations try to adapt to the Internet and the new Information Technology. But the stability is lost forever and a Pandora box is open.  I will provide you with some more or less trivial examples.

Which computers and programs should the organisation buy? Should it be state of the art hard- and software with many features or more basic equipment? Does the organisation need to hire new and expensive people? The answer to that question requires a highly elaborated and knowledgeable decision making structure.

Should you make some formal courses for your employees and staff in how they use the computers, programs and the Internet? Should people be threatened or forced to participate in such courses? In that regard remember what I have just outlined above about the Internet and curricula for such courses. It is wasting of time.

When I make courses in the Internet and Information Technology I am sometimes suffering from old programs on the computers. I am aware of a program that can do the job smarter, but shall I tell the students or learners? Sometimes I am not aware of smarter programs, but bright students tell me about them. Should the organisations always use the latest version of a Browser or a mail program? Is it okay to teach people how to use an old program? Should it be allowed that the front runners download the smarter programs and use them on the computers of the organisation? Clearly it would be nice if you could go to someone and say that you want this specific program - the newest version of Explorer. But in a normal hierarchic organisation it takes time. Organisations are by nature not created to navigate on a stormy and ever changing ocean.

By the way, front runners and bright people are quite annoying for organisations. They are demanding and take time. Imagine being a teacher for such people? They are smarter than you. Often they deconstruct the whole structure of your lecture.  The slow learners are also a problem, because they guarantee that your course will be a fiasco. Why can't you teach them anything? As a teacher you may have based your course on the average performing people. The top and bottom is not your problem. You can also choose to focus on the lowest common denominator for you teaching.  The majorities get bored and are wasting their time. Your organisation is loosing money and energy.     

Should all the people in the organisation have free access to the Internet? How much surfing on the Internet is allowed? Is it okay to spend time on websites, which is not related to the main tasks in the organisation? What about all theses emails? Does an email have the same authority and status as a formal letter? Should the organisation save all these emails in an archive? Should the organisation put a website up on then Internet? Who can make it? What about the design and the maintenance of the site?

What about copyright? For instance is it legal that I am teaching my students of how to copy pictures from the Internet or how to play and make MP3 files?

If you agree with me that it is nearly impossible to make a curriculum for teaching in Internet and Information Technology, should you then leave it to people themselves in educational institutions and other organisations to acquire the necessary skills? As we all know humans are very unequal by nature. By internal drive some will acquire the skills to paint or swim in a stormy ocean other will give it up or not even try to do it. Especially students and employees have the opinion that if they are not offered a course or a training program they are not obliged to learn new stuff. When they have been on a course and passed the examination they think they have finished the learning process. Regarding the Internet and the new Information Technology you will never be finished.    

There is a tendency that it is getting even worse if you send the people away on an external course. It is expensive and the teachers do not know the computers, programs and the problems in your organisation. The critics of the new Information Technology can put even more fuel on the fire.

Regarding organisations the situation will be really chaotic, if the organisations do not have any strategy for the use of Internet and the new technology. Envy, bad feelings and conflicts will be the order of the day.


The bright use of the Internet requires no courses or curricula, but strategies, values, and projects.

Let me start with an example. As I have shown you, many Internet and Computer courses did not really succeed. I have abolished the idea of Internet courses and curricula. Do not try to manage or calm a stormy ocean. It is better to use the energy of the sea and ride on the top of the waves. When you get old you can paint the stormy ocean. Never again will I teach in Internet or Information Technology. No more keyboard-courses. For me the new buzzword is projects.

You make a project and explore what use you can have of the Internet and the new Information Technology. My students and I made a project, where we tried to integrate a new textbook in political science with the political resources on the Internet. We had a month and decided to make a website and a CD-ROM connected to the textbook. No general boring computer courses will be provided. No ordinary schedule with 45 minutes lectures in boring classrooms. Projects require more time and space. Only ad hoc teaching were provided, when needed. Task groups were formed. Every group got a chapter in the book, which they should transform to a colourful website. They should make questions to the text and find resources on the Internet. All Task groups got deadlines so it was possible to integrate it all. A Steering group and a Designing group gave the broad guidelines to the programming and the designing of the websites. It was up to people themselves to chose which programs they want to use for the work.

I had thrown the students out in a stormy ocean. I did not provide any life belts or lifeboats. They were forced to learn to swim very fast. No time for a curriculum and manuals. No time for boring courses and clever teachers. No problems with the smart guys and the slower learners. The students focused on the deadlines and were forced to help each other. It did not matter which programs and versions they used, because they only required that the programs could do the job. They considered additional and advanced program features as waste of time. They did not ask for any new programs because they found small and simple programs on the Internet.

In this project I have got a more secure role. Instead of the teacher who should know all about the Internet and the new Information Technology I was now a member of a Steering group. I could still excel in this environment. I admit that there were students who were better than I to use the new technology. But in terms of my age and my education, I had compiled social skills. I could motivate, inspire, be an energiser and give the students the values behind the project. I could create a sense of mission more than narrow computer skills. Nevertheless, I also worked as a computer consultant for the students.

In my assessment this project was a success. The job was done and we were proud of the product. The students acquired the necessary skills to make a website and learned to navigate on the Internet without any curriculum and courses. In accordance with Piaget they worked as small scientists and constructed their knowledge themselves. Stated shortly: Learning by doing.

The product was not too fancy – no programming in Java – but you also need to stress the good process and the whole presentation of the project. They learned to present a product. Beside computer skills they even got other more durable skills as the ability to learn by themselves, learn to work together with other people, learn to co-ordinate and organise and learn to be responsible for deadlines. The creation of the website also demanded aesthetic abilities.

The project required an interdisciplinary approach, which is more in accordance with reality.  When you are on a stormy ocean you can not see any subjects. Subjects belong to traditional schools and universities plus compartment thinkers.                 


How can you use my points in your teaching and your organisation?

Forget the courses, curricula, the software, and the computers. Make it clear for the pupils, students, adult learners, and employees that in your organisation your emphasise very much the use of the Internet and the new Information Technology. Make it clear, that you stress creativity, curiosity, innovation, and learning. Make it clear, that people are responsible for there own learning and that they should not expect that somebody will come an tell them how they should do it.  Make a strategic public paper, where people can see the mission of the organisation and find the catchwords. Create an explorative culture. Provide the basic hardware and software. Be a good example and let the people explore the Internet and the new Information Technology. Trust them and do not try to supervise them. 

Launch projects where you expect that people use the new Information Technology. Put people in task groups and make some deadlines. Forget all about the traditional titles and hierarchy in your organisation. Admit that you are not God (the teacher) and that you need to corporate with other people. Make an Intranet and force people to share their knowledge. Efficient learning requires other people with different backgrounds and points of view. Learning is a social process (Vygotsky – a Russian psychologist). One of the new pedagogical catchwords is collaborative learning. If you want to be good to use the Internet and the complex and ever changing technology you need to have daily small hints and tips from the people around you. Openness is perhaps one of the most important precondition for learning. Forbid closed classrooms and office buildings with closed desks. The openness of the Internet is the main explanation of the success of the Internet. What would have happened, if people tried to hide their websites and the codes they used?    

Do not buy a course where there is a straight curriculum and the point of departure is a specific program. Buy courses where people will see the possibilities in the Internet and the new Information Technology. They need inspiration and motivation more than a course in Word95, Word97 or Word2000. They need to learn how to learn. They need values that stress curiosity, creativity and innovation.     

My arguments and my case seem to verify my thesis that you can’t teach people in how to use and work with the Internet. Instead you need to make projects and create values in your organisation, which motivate people to use the Internet and the new technology. Reinforce the process by public papers and statements. Remember to reward the achievers.

The Internet and the new technology will reinforce the pedagogy of project work in education and in other organisations. Hands-on experience will be the order of the day.

You will no longer try to calm and paint a stormy ocean, but instead you will ride on powerful waves with other people. In time you may get a mental picture of the ocean. You can paint it, when you get old!

Suggestions to further reading:

Atkinson, Rita L et al. (1993): Introduction to Psychology, Eleventh Edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.

Downes, Larry; Mui, Chunka, (1998): Unleashing the Killer App – digital strategies for market dominance, Harvard Business School Press.

Dyson, Esther (1998): Release 2.1 – A design for living in the Digital Age, Penguin Books.

Gates, Bill (1999): Business @ The Speed of Thought, Using a digital nervous system, Penguin Books.

Labinowicz, Ed (1980): The Piaget Primer : Thinking, Learning, Teaching, Addison-Wesley Pub Co.

Mintzberg, Henry, Quinn, James Brian (1996): The Strategic Process, Concepts, Contexts, Cases, Third Edition, Prentice Hall International.

Moll, Luis C. (Editor) (1992 - reprint): Vygotsky and Education : Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology, Cambridge University Print.

Negroponte, Nicholas (1995): Being Digital, Alfred A. Knopf.

Papert, Seymour (1994 – reprint): The Children's Machine : Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, Basic Books.

Starkey, Ken (Editor) (1996): How Organisations Learn, International Thomson Business Press.

Written by:

Consultant, Master in Political Science

Peter Gorm Larsen



Work: The Consultancy Department, Royal School of Library and Information Science, Denmark.