Independence on the Internet

July 04, 2002 12:00 am
Gene Wall teaches people how to use the Internet and e-mail. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Gene Wall teaches people how to use the Internet and e-mail. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

"Life, liberty — and the pursuit of Web sites?"

You won't find those last two words in the Declaration of Independence.

But the man who has trained more than 300 area seniors how to open up the world of the Internet and how to correspond with grandchildren via e-mail says that the freedom that's available with a few keystrokes and mouse clicks has enhanced the lives of scores of people he's taught.

"I wish there was some way I could say to some of these older guys, ‘Get over it,' " said 73-year-old Gene Wall, who teaches a six-week course in computer basics at the Baker County Library. "Come in and open your mind. See what marvels await you."

Since he began teaching his course almost two years ago, Wall has heard many success stories: the woman whose friend, an artist, is confined to her bed, but has learned to pay virtual visits to the world's great art galleries. Another student impressed her classmates by learning to play Solitaire on her computer before she'd taken her second lesson — just by reading ahead in the textbook.

If that's not motivation enough for area seniors, consider how the Internet can save people money — lots of it.

Before he moved to Baker City, Wall was in charge of customer service at the largest auto dealership in Nevada. During a visit there last week, he read an article in the Reno Gazette-Journal about his former boss, who was lamenting the fact that so many prospective car buyers now research on-line to find out how much mark-up dealers tack on to new cars.

"That article quoted my former boss as saying that selling cars is harder than it used to be," Wall said. "So many people who used to get taken to the cleaners are now saying, ‘I will give you a $500 profit on this new car — and not one dime more.'"

During his six-week course, Wall spends the first three weeks teaching Windows, the basic operating system of 94 percent of the nation's computers. Then he spends two weeks on the Internet, with the last week devoted to learning to send e-mail.

"E-mail is a beautiful thing," he said. "You can write a letter to the editor in any state of dress or undress, then put it on his desk from your own home. It's extraordinarily simple."

To make things even easier, a handful of companies, such as Hotmail, have set up free e-mail accounts. Five area companies offer Internet access for a monthly fee; see "Internet Access Providers" in the Yellow Pages.

Wall found the textbook he uses for his class — "Windows 98 Simplified" — at a garage sale for 75 cents. The book, also available at Betty's Books and at the library, uses cartoons and simple, step-by-step instructions to help people learn the basics of using their computer and connecting to the Web.

Wall, who surfs the Internet about two hours every day, said one of his favorite activities is to go to the Google search engine (www.google.com) and plug in any idea that comes to his mind. One day he typed in, "What is the meaning of life?"

"Back to me came a whole bunch of stuff, including a book that was written 6,000 years ago," he said. "Where else can you get that kind of information without spending hours searching in a library?"

Assert your independence

"Independence" is also the word that Baker Middle School computer teacher Kathy Taylor uses to describe the positive impact that access to the Internet has had on her students.

"It's allowed kids to get more excited about the things they're studying," she said. "All the additional information they now have access to allows them to constantly improve and revise the work that they've done. The more motivated students will keep adding more to their projects until the very last minute. Sometimes it's a little tough to get them to stop."

While teachers used to rely more on term papers for students to demonstrate that they'd grasped the material, more and more educators now require a PowerPoint presentation that requires the cooperative, dedicated efforts of a small group of students.

"The outcome of their research might be a presentation, a brochure, or even a Web page," Taylor said. "When they work in small groups together, each student has to hold up their part of the bargain."

Taylor has used a grant from Intel to teach nearly 60 of her colleagues how to make better use of computers in the classroom.

"A lot of them have changed the way they teach now," she said. "Fourth-graders aren't too young to learn PowerPoint. At the high school, everything now must be typed, and the best way to do that is at a computer. We're only limited by the number of terminals available."

For Wall, the only limiting factors are time and his own imagination. After all, with 20 billion Websites available, just about every topic that can be imagined has its own site to visit.

"I have an extraordinary curiosity about the world I live in," he said. "Until I came across the Internet, everything for me was limited. It's nothing short of the accumulated knowledge of mankind at your fingertips."