By Melissa Mitchell "The Net is a dangerous place to send naive students. You may as well send them to the nearest Laundromat to learn about quantum mechanics. They might get lucky, but they're more likely to return as members of a new church." -Vernon Schryver, Silicon Graphics employee and network consultant UI students hitching a ride on the Internet may find the road a bit bumpy at times. They may become frustrated by occasional detours and dead-ends. And sometimes they will get lost. But the instructors who send them on their electronic journeys are convinced that along the way, students are picking up invaluable skills that prepare them to compete in an information-technology-intensive world. That's why more and more faculty members and teaching assistants in a wide range of disciplines - not just in engineering and technical areas, but in everything from anthropology to veterinary medicine - are helping students make the connection that computer networking skills can be used to enhance learning in almost any field. And, the instructors who do this best are the ones who make a point of equipping their students with the equivalent of road maps, operating manuals, flashlights, flares and tire jacks before telling them to hit the road. Andrew Wadsworth, a teaching assistant responsible for a curriculum-and-instruction course on secondary education in the United States, held a technology day in each of C&I 229/240's discussion sections to familiarize students with electronic mail, bulletin boards or news groups, and other network forums and tools. After receiving hand-outs, as well as hands-on instruction, students learned how to use a news group - set up specifically for the class - to share their fieldwork experience in area schools with each other and with the teaching assistants. Wadsworth said that while many students enrolled in the course already had e-mail accounts, they didn't necessarily have a great deal of experience using the Internet. In fact, he said, C&I 229/240 students included a fair number of technophobes. Wadsworth thinks it's important that teachers-to-be learn as much as they can about the technology here and now, so they will be better equipped to use it to their advantage when they encounter it later in their own school classrooms. "Our belief is if they're going to be professionals in the field, they need to get over these fears and get prepared for the 21st century," he said. "I tell them, 'Do you realize what you have access to? And you have it here for free ... get familiar with it.' " At the same time, Wadsworth said, "it's not something I just left them hanging with." In addition to holding a technology day, he monitors student feedback in the class news group and is available to assist anyone having problems using the technology. While reading or posting messages in the news group isn't a requirement of the course, a number of students take advantage of the forum on a regular basis. Wadsworth said the news group serves students in this course particularly well because the structure of the course limits the amount of time available for in-class discussion. "In that we have a lecture and guest speakers, we seldom have a lot of time to discuss fully what our individual viewpoints were," he said. "This is a forum that allows students to come back and reflect and share after thinking about the subject for a while." Wadsworth said he "encourages students to go out on a limb" in their news-group discussions. "I want them to say, 'Hey, I could not believe this teacher said such and such.' One incident often will spawn 15 to 20 responses," he added, noting that since anyone with access to UI news groups can read the forum, he instructs students to change names of teachers and schools to keep things anonymous. The following is an example of a typical exchange that took place between two students in the news group this semester. The first student writes: "Last week when I was observing, my cooperating teacher left me in charge of her class while she went to file a report ... The students would not listen to me, and they would not do their work. One student even threw another student's watch out the window. The students don't see me the same way they see their teacher. How do I get them to do their work when their teacher is out of the room? My cooperating teacher said I should pick up their books and say "let me see what you are doing," but I tried stuff like that and it didn't work. Any help will be appreciated." In short order, another student responds: "I'll throw in my $0.02. In my limited experience, you have to have the students' respect _before_ you get into a situation like that, or else there really isn't anything you can do. If they don't see you as an authority figure, anything you do will either be ineffective or counterproductive. Being 'reasonable' doesn't work, and 'threatening' them with names written down for their regular teacher or whatever will likely make them further rebel against you. I faced this situation, with a slightly different tinge, last semester when I was teaching. Once I lost them, I never got them back." While students seek and receive feedback from peers in class news groups, teaching assistants and professors often monitor the groups as well and offer suggestions or help on- line. The obvious advantage for students is that they can have their questions answered quickly, without waiting until the next class period or making a trip to the instructor's office. Anthropology professor Frederic Lehman also finds other benefits to news-group communication with members of his Anthropology 370 class. "I think it's a grand thing," Lehman said. "I find it useful as a means of finding out what the lectures and readings have left unclear or requiring elaboration, which is then easy for me to insert." Unfortunately, he added, his experience with news groups has not been as successful as he would have hoped. "Too few of the students in the class have seen fit to use it or feel comfortable accessing the news-group system yet. Basically, from what they tell me in class, too few of the students - even now - feel comfortable using a computer for anything more than an expensive typewriter." Speech communication professor Barbara O'Keefe reports having better luck using class news groups in two classes she currently teaches, Speech Communication 199-2 (Introduction to Communication Technology) and Speech Communication 437 (Analysis of Interpersonal Interaction). "Electronic conferencing has never been unsuccessful for me, although some classes have used it better than others. Some students are anxious about posting to a news group - they aren't used to such a public context for learning," said O'Keefe, who has been using news groups for the past several years, first in a course team-taught with Chip Bruce for the Center for Writing Studies. Once everyone gets past their initial anxiety, the system serves instructor and students well, O'Keefe maintains. "One thing electronic conferencing has done is to make communication between faculty and students and among students much easier," she said. "I don't have to rely on face-to-face class meetings to provide information; I can send out messages at any time. Similarly, the students can get in touch with me much more easily. So, the overall effect is to create a much closer and responsive relationship between students and faculty. "Using electronic conferencing also gives students more control over their own learning and greater access to resources, whether those resources are on-line course materials, instructor input or discussion with other students. This promotes a more active approach to learning and greater involvement with the course material."