www: turning readers, viewers, and users into learners


Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

In what other job would I be able to enjoy an eight month paid vacation? But that's what I've been enjoying-a sabbatical leave from my university. I told a friend that a sabbatical feels like every day of the week is Saturday. "So what is Saturday like," she asked. "Sort of like a Tuesday."

A sabbatical leave is traditionally given to professors every seven years of their tenure in order for them to rest and study. And fortunately I've been able to enjoy about equal measures of both. I recently returned from a month-long, 4,500-mile drive that took me north to San Francisco, northeast to a visual literacy conference in Cheyenne, Wyoming, northwest to Montana, west to Seattle, and back home again.

There are many words and pictures to tell from this trip, but I wanted to share three stories that have demonstrated to me that we all need to think more carefully about how we create and use this marvelous World Wide Web.

Col. "Buffalo Bill" Cody helped found the town named in his honor at the foothills of Yellowstone National Park. After I checked into his hotel named "The Irma" after his daughter and built in 1902, I sat around the little bar that faces the main street in town. It was Sunday and the Indianapolis Colts were losing on TV. I've discovered that you can't order a Sam Adams or a Heineken and expect to talk with the locals. So after my third longneck Bud the fellas next to me started to ask me questions. To my right was a rancher and to my left was an older man who worked for the State. Next to him was a jeweler who worked exclusively in gold. I imagined that such professional demographics, along with a schoolteacher from California, would have easily been common in this bar at the turn of the century. "Are you a hunter," one asked. "Sort of," I vaguely replied. When I told them who I was and what I did I happened to mention a topic that stopped all conversation at the bar. Their eyes got wide. They turned down the TV set. They all wanted to know everything I knew about this subject. I have subsequently asked classes on several campuses and friends what they thought the topic might be that so riveted this cowboy hat and boot crowd. Guesses include the O.J. trial and the presidential election. But the answer was the World Wide Web. Yep. In this smoky little bar in this isolated little town, we were making plans of how my students in Fullerton could set up Web pages for these boys in Wyoming. So I encourage you to bring up this topic wherever you happen to be drinking a longneck Bud and see what happens. They might even buy you a beer.

Another stop along my sabbatical route was as a guest of Microsoft's MSNBC online news network and long conversations with Sandra Eisert and Brian Storm. No need to explain the Web to these brilliant folks or the others I happened to meet who worked there. I sat for an hour at the picture desk with multimedia (not picture) editor Robert Hood. The workstation looked for all the world like any picture desk in any newspaper. Robert's main job was to find pictures for stories from a variety of sources and crop and fit them into pages. Only these pages were online frames and sometimes the images came from moving video and included audio. Storm, an online news zealot in the best possible sense of the word, explained how still photographers need to learn moving image production and editing. Multimedia editors need to look at moving image coverage that tell stories, don't shake, and include clear, crisp audio. From that stock, a still picture will be selected to stand with the story. And for me, that was a key-the single, still moment is by far the best way for a reader, viewer, or user to be introduced to an online news story. But it made me a little uneasy that this new, so-called revolutionary medium looked so much like a printed newspaper with occasional attributes from television.

I took that queasiness with me to a brown bag meeting of graduate students and faculty members to the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. Our hour-long discussion quickly focused on one question: How can the World Wide Web be truly revolutionary when we use the same terms to describe newspapers and television? One answer, I think, is that other media have a longer history that gives us time to analyze their social importance. Although newspapers have been around since the late 16th century and television has been with us for about three generations we're still arguing about their social impact. The Web came to us in 1992-not even a hint of a blink of the eye. No wonder we are still dazzled and a little fearful of the medium's sleight-of-hand tricks. Another answer is that it is enormously difficult to create a brand new way of presenting words and pictures that doesn't use the lessons learned from past media and that readers or viewers are comfortable with using.

But on this trip around a little corner of the world, I learned that such creativity is vital simply because with all the opportunities on the Web and all the competition, there is no way any single online newspaper will be successful. With all the international sources available to Web users for news, for example, why would anyone go to one particular site? I can read about the Malibu fires from the online versions of the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Cowboys from the Dallas Morning News, and the troubles in Northern Ireland from the Belfast Telegraph. Wouldn't the local perspective give me much more information than a generalized compilation of sources? Yes, most of the time.

It used to be thought that the Web will turn passive readers and couch-potato viewers into active users. And that is true. But more importantly for the future growth of this new medium, we must think of those who use the Web as learners. We must somehow come up with ways to present news stories with words-both written and heard-and with pictures-both still and moving-that facilitate learning. A compelling, thought-provoking, and mind-expanding display of information will be entertaining and educational to online learners and will assure that they return to your Web site for more.

If we create new ways to tell old stories with networked interactive multimedia, cowboys in a Cody bar will already be on the Web, the MSNBC news service will be the most popular source of information in the world, and theories and analysis of the new medium from graduate students and faculty members will begin to use new terms and ideas that will help shape the future of communication for all of us.