Thursday, April 29, 2004

Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School (by Steve)

SIENA (#47)

Yesterday I addressed the 4th year English students of Professor Medaglini.  I had two objectives. First, I wanted to have a very American style discussion about the Internet.  But in addition, I decided I was going to develop the conversation as an example of why English is so important to learn.  I am pretty sure that most of them got the first message.  Some of them might have understood the second. And I had a blast.

Before starting, I had written my name on the board.  As I was writing, I overheard them talking about the spelling and the pronunciation of ‘Stephen’.  “It’s just like Stephen King,” one of them said in Italian to the others.

Benvenuti, Ragazzi

So I started my talk with an introduction and a discussion of my name.  “It’s just like Stephen King,” I said. They looked at each other, kind of surprised that I had understood them. I warned them that although I would be speaking only English, I could speak Italian as well. I told them about the archaic Greek spelling of ‘Stephen’ and said that I was sorry that English was so hard to spell, that I had personal experience, scars even, but that it was quite a bit older than modern Italian. I mentioned the Neapolitan origins of ‘Quatrano,’ and very briefly talked about having lived in Oregon, our home in Lexington, and my work at Cisco Systems.

No one knew what Cisco Systems did. And they were puzzled that something American could possibly be older than their anything Italian. But our spelling is definitely older. I believe it is even older than the British spelling! That's us: even more archaic than the Brits!

In order to engage them better, I was moving throughout the classroom, just like Professor Rassias taught me, and moved rapidly into the “audience participation segment” of the talk. There were about 20 students probably around 18 years old, more girls than boys.

Taking a Poll

“Who uses the Internet?” I asked.

Some of them, uncertain of the question, were hesitant. I repeated the question in various ways and waited. Eventually they all raised their hands. Good. All of them had used the Internet and about five or six of them used it every day.

“What do you use it for?” I wanted to know, trying to get them to talk more.

“To find music,” several of them said.

“American music.” “Rock and Roll.” “Arrowsmith,” Others added.

When asked, they explained that they do NOT pay for the music, of course. We all laughed, perhaps a little nervously.

“What else?” I prodded.

One boy named Luca added that he regularly used email and chat. From the way the others kidded him I realized that he was technically savvy and probably on the Internet frequently. One girl mentioned that once and a while she might use it to do research for school.

But What is the Internet, Anyway?

“OK, that’s pretty good,” I encouraged them, “Can anyone define the Internet?”  With a smile and my index finger raised and over my pursed lips, I indicated to Luca that he should remain silent. Several students volunteered definitions of the Internet as a vast system for retrieving documents. As you might expect of users who only read the data there, there was no mention of authoring, storage or distribution of information, only retrieval. And there was certainly no talk of peer-to-peer communication. Then I asked Luca. As I expected, he defined it as a “packet network connecting computers.”

The others looked puzzled.

I spend the next few minutes describing the differences between the Internet as public infrastructure and the applications built on that infrastructure.

“The network of autostrade in Italy, for example, are independent of the applications built on top of them like the Post Office or the inter-city bus system,” I said. “The autostrade can carry anything and has no idea what it’s for.”

We talked about IM and email protocols and addressing schemes (very superficially) in order to emphasize how the Internet is used for people to communicate with one another synchronously and asynchronously.

The World Wide Web is an Internet Application?

Then we turned to the Web. Several of them knew the meaning of a Universal Resource Locator (URL). I explained that, in the same way that an email address is used to route an email to a user, a URL was used to route an HTTP request to a web server.  We examined a URL in more detail. I wrote this on the board:

We examined each of the parts of the URL. First, "quatrano dot com" is a domain. Think of it as a name associated with one or more related computers that I own or rent. Anyone can have one – a small one like ours – for as little as $60/year. Then, ‘www’ is a convention that identifies a specific computer by name within that domain and ‘index.html’ is the name of a document or program on my server. And finally, HTTP is the name of a protocol, just one of the protocols used to make the web.

One of them volunteered that it stood for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Excellent. Once the Internet routes the HTTP request to the right server, it also routes the response back to the requesting browser.

So then we returned to the definition of the Internet. “Is the computer with the document really part of the Internet? Or is it just connected to the Internet?” I asked, pausing for effect. They thought. I could actually see their thinking actually change in front of me. Cool.

I helped them along. The Internet is used to deliver the request and the response but actually, the server hosting the document is at the edge of the Internet. It is private. Somebody owns it and pays for its maintenance. Similarly, search engines are computers at the edge of the Internet. We perceive them to be part of the Internet because we use it to access Web documents. But they are private property.

Building on the Base

Now we had the foundation and I could start to direct the conversation towards the second objective: demonstrating the importance of English and foreign languages. “What is the definition of a protocol?” I asked.

Someone suggested that a protocol was a set of rules to communicate. Perfect.

I walked over to one of the boys who had not talked yet. “What is your name?” I asked.

“Stefano, “ he answered.

“Oh really?” I asked with raised eyebrows. “I think I can remember that,” I added over the laughter. “My name is Stefano too. Nice to meet you,” I said.

Stefano obliged saying, “Nice to meet you.”

“That is a protocol,” I said. “It’s more than just vocabulary and syntax. It also includes conventions including what is said and in what order.”  I decided to avoid the protocol for exchanging qualifiers or more precise addresses to disambiguate the common name ‘stefano.’

I pointed out that there was another protocol as well although it may not be so obvious. The other Stefano might have responded to my initial question, “Io non parlo inglese.” Or perhaps, “Parla italiano Lei? Deutch?” How do we decide what language to use if each speaker is capable of more than one? In other words, implicit in my question was a request that we speak English: a meta-protocol, of course! That is just like the ‘HTTP’ prefix in a URL that helps make the web self-describing, open, and extensible.

What’s the Matter with the Web?

Then I facilitated a brainstorming session on the problems with the web. First we had to define ‘brainstorm,’ a classic Anglo-Saxon term for a classic American concept.  Then no one would volunteer. I tried irony. “So you mean the web is perfect? No problems?”

The kids were great: they generated all of the problems I expected to find as well as a few that I did not really anticipate from them.
  • too much information 
  • not enough good information 
  • too hard to find what you are looking for and it takes too long 
  • how to avoid advertisements and pop-ups 
  • how to protect copyright and privacy 
  • how to avoid viruses and secure your computer 
  • how to know if what you read is true
Impressive.  This was the same list that any web user would generate. The only thing they left out– and I suspect it was because they were being polite–was how to make money on the Internet. And I want to know that too!

I could only address the top few issues in the remaining time, however, so I decided to emphasize learning more about search engines. I suggested that although the search engines get better all the time, technology alone was probably not the most important answer to these deficiencies of the web. In fact, they needed to develop their own skills. They could become much better users by watching more experienced searchers work and learning their techniques. They needed to understand how search engines work, especially how they rank results based on links or cross-references with other sites. They should look for portals and communities on-line that have similar interests and values that they do. And I urged them to think about the authors and publishers of information they receive on the web as they might critically read print media or watch TV.

There was so much more I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about the potential of trusted portal sites that organize, filter and validate information, much the way a publisher would. I wondered if they would pay for it? How much of the cable TV pie would be left for web content services? And how would they pay? And we never even came close to the really important questions regarding culture, autonomy, identity and globalization. Will these kids mange to filter and digest the vast cultural stew brewing on the web or will they be overcome by the slop? Would they become authors too? Or will Internet connectivity turn these eager, curious, creative and quite distinct Sienese into generic, jaded consumer junkies in a global marketplace? Will their market support portals of their own, some of which might maintain a distinctly Sienese sensibility? Or will they flock to the slick corporate mega-sites? What is Berlusconi doing about this?

Arrivaderci, Ragazzi

My time was up. I concluded the hour by confessing that I had a hidden agenda. I told them that I had hoped that they would appreciate information and skills that I had shared with them. And then I asserted that there were lots of people like me and many of them know substantially more than I do about this, and an overwhelming majority of them speak English. In English, in other words, such information was relatively easy to come by although it was quite rare in Italian. Hey, geeks are more likely to speak English. What can I say?

In addition, I wanted them to think about the format of the discussion: the informality and especially the brainstorming – not at all like a lecture. This was harder, of course. I hope that some day they will appreciate what we talked about and how we talked about it, though. The tremendous democratic nature of the web, where small companies and individuals can have the same reach as vast publishing empires, where every reader can be an author, where every page is (potentially) equal to every other page, and where the most valuable pages are those referred to by the most other pages is something profoundly disturbing to plenty of people, including some Americans I know. But these were elements of American culture are much more readily observed speaking English than Italian.

“So learning English is important,” I concluded. “You will never have more time, more energy and better teachers than you do right now so LEARN ENGLISH. And then, learn from English speakers but ALWAYS BE ITALIAN!”

What a blast.

I realize, of course, that teaching every day cannot be like this. Professor Medaglini cautioned me of this himself at the very beginning of the hour when he reminded me that, although I was just starting at 3:00 that afternoon, he had been in the building since 7:30. And then, as if he could read my mind, he noted that had been teaching English for about 40 years. The implicit message was clear: the problem is how to sustain this kind of excitement. He’s the real deal: a professional. But I couldn’t help think how much fun it was being in the classroom, surrounded by such young, energetic and hopeful individuals instead of a bunch of crusty, old engineers and business people like myself. Maybe it’s time to go back to school…

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-05-06 05:11:35 BubbieBarbi
Re: Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School
How come you never explained the Internet to me that way?  I speak English quite well, thank you very much!

Your Mom

PS  Your description of the excitement of one hour of energized teaching is exactly the emotion I used to feel after having a class of kids for an hour tour in the art museum.  It is good, isn't it!

2004-05-07 20:51:5947 Barbara
Re: Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School
Barbi (and Steve),
My son, also a Steve, explained the routing work that he does for Juniper Systems as being similar to an interstate highway system.  That image I could understand, and I see it is one similar to what Steve used in his excellent explanation.

Steve, you show yourself as a person who understands and appreciates the overlapping realms of linguistics, technology, philosophy, and pedagogy.  Great job

2004-05-10 12:56:21 BarbaraandDick
Re: Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School
We love reading all your adventures.  You have been impacting not only your immediate family but those natives surrounding you as well.  Your students that afternoon will long remember the lesson you taught them.

Best regards,
Barbara and Dick

2004-05-18 18:05:01 david
Re: Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School (by Steve)
Hey, who are you calling crusty and old.  I dare say I am neither.  And once upon a time, say early to mid 1997 I was much like the young energetic ones learning from you, I am sure you must have realized.

2004-08-22 01:52:26 bobdale
Re: Talking About the Internet at Sarah's School (by Steve)
steve:  while i would never discount the potential of the internet, nor diminish the efforts of its architects, authors and true believers, the real lesson you taught these students is that nothing will ever replace face-to-face communication.



stefanoq said...

Upon reposting this ten years after it was originally shared, I was moved by all the comments. We take this for granted now, but keep in mind that this was before Facebook. This kind of sharing of content was pretty rare and it made us feel not only connected, but also like we were doing something really, really special in Italy as a family BECAUSE we were sharing it with our friends at home.

bob dale said...

Stefano: Thanks again for sharing and re-sharing. A reminder that once something is launched in the www it remains there forever. I was nervous to see what embarrassing comment I may have penned 10 years ago, but on reflection I stick with it. Hope we can communicate face-to-face soon. Bob

stefanoq said...

Yeah, Bob, I know what you mean. I am also reposting my science blog, How Do We Know, and finding that some of my comments are not very clear, not very interesting, or BOTH. But after ten years, they kind of become interesting again as a document of what I was going through. You know what I mean? Now I can ask myself, "What was I THINKING?" and find it a little embarrassing but kind of significant record of how much progress I have made.

Remember Chris' plan for succeeding academically at Dartmouth. Plan 'A' was to blow the professor away with the first comments in class and the first paper. Plan 'B' was to show real progress... and make sure that the professor knew they were an essential part of your intellectual development.