Teaching the Internet Better

Kurtis Heimerl
uwcse-ictd
Published in
8 min readJan 5, 2022

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By Hannah Bi, Rafia Khatri, Dominick Ta

Paired video

Initial student responses to the question ‘What is the Internet?’

Introduction

As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives, it is becoming more essential for Internet users, that is, most people, to understand the basics of how the Internet works. We use it for attending classes, scheduling COVID-19 shots, attending doctor’s appointments, banking and finances, and more. Not only that, technology has become more integrated into K-12 education, and the Internet is now a concept that every student should learn.

However, there is a gap in educational resources available for learning about the Internet. Several of the educational resources about the Internet that we’ve encountered are too technical, narrow, broad, or shallow. We found that in order to gain a holistic understanding of the Internet from a variety of perspectives (e.g. spatial, technical, social), one would have to dive into several resources to get the whole picture.

We’ve developed lesson plans and resources to fill in this gap in Internet education. Our project aims to expand Internet education and make it more accessible. We hope that educators across the globe will be able to take advantage of the resources we’ve developed over the past several weeks.

Background

The lessons developed from this project were specifically designed for a local organization, but can be easily adapted to other audiences as well. Seattle Community Network (SCN) is an organization dedicated to improving Internet accessibility in Seattle, which “aims to directly address the digital divide here in the Puget Sound, by focusing on bringing high-speed, affordable connectivity to lower-income neighborhoods and people in the face of rising inequality in our city”. SCN sets up infrastructure for community networks to provide Internet service at a low cost to community networks. In tandem, they educate and empower communities with knowledge about networking and the Internet, focusing on community-building throughout the whole process. See this blog post for more details on SCN.

  1. SCN’s first LTE deployment in Tacoma
  2. Wi-Fi setup in a Katharine’s Place apartment, connected to backhaul site in Filipino Community Center

As part of their goal in involving the community in their work, SCN created the Digital Stewards program to educate community members and provide the skills they need to set-up, install, maintain, and grow these community networks. They have had their first cohort of adult Digital Stewards, who go through an online course to develop the necessary skills for working on community networks. In an effort to involve more youth, they’ve developed a Youth Digital Stewards (YDS) curriculum. YDS is an online course for high school students from systemically underserved areas in Seattle who are interested in empowering their communities by getting involved in SCN. The first iteration is ongoing and will run for about 12 weeks, starting in November 2021.

For our project, we taught the Internet workshop portion of Youth Digital Stewards, which encompassed the first technical content students were introduced to in the course.

Our Design

As a starting point, we designed our lesson based on the original Digital Stewards curriculum on how the Internet works. However, we knew that major revisions had to be made as these slides were intended to teach adults for a 2 hour class, while we were teaching high school students in a 90 minute class. We decided on three goals at the very beginning to create focus for how we should alter our material.

Goal 1: Teach how the Internet works

These students will eventually be going out into the real world and surveying for sites, installing cell towers, base stations, routers and computers, and maintaining these set-ups. Therefore, it was important to us that our lessons were also practical and gave these skills the knowledge they needed to do their job.

Goal 2: Interest students in STEM, Internet, and Community Networks

For this lesson, we wanted to prioritize the enjoyment of the students. This meant that our lesson would have to be engaging, intuitive to understand, and exciting. Our target audience was high school students and we wanted to give these students a great impression of how fun the STEM field can be and how it can intersect with other fields.

Goal 3: Expand the perception of who can learn about the Internet and other technology related topics.

In an effort to improve the accessibility of internet-related topics, we focused on engaging our high school students with examples they could personally relate to and took time to discuss questions that involved communities like their own.

We also had an additional constraint, as these Youth Digital Stewards classes were held virtually via Zoom. As students ourselves who have taken college courses via Zoom, we understand that it can be easy to lose focus or have little engagement. We had to keep these things in mind, especially when trying to achieve goal 2. This impacted the kinds of interactive activities we chose, how we interacted with students, and the ability to have natural discussions. For example, we used a Google Jamboard to adapt a drawing/writing discussion exercise for our virtual classroom environment.

Our Approach

In the first iteration of our design, we made some major changes based on our personal assumptions & feedback from our friends:

  • We cut down on a lot of content we considered to be overly technical/not useful for our introductory lesson, such as IP address subnetting and routing tables.
  • We added an analogy of a mailing system throughout the entire lesson to help build intuition for how the Internet works.
  • We created technical interactive activities that corresponded with most of the major topics covered in our lessons.

At this point, we had a polished presentation that we felt satisfied with. However, after attending one of the actual Youth Digital Stewards class sessions, we found that it was very discussion-heavy, with little technical content. We realized it was important to get feedback from our actual target audience (high school students, Youth Digital Stewards students), rather than those we assume would have good ideas about the target audience (e.g. ourselves, teachers, college students).

This led us to restructure our lesson into two separate lessons, with the first lesson focusing on providing a good baseline intuition of the Internet with more discussion-based topics, and the second lesson focusing on the technical details.

Additionally, to better meet the goal of learning more about community networks and expanding the perception of who can learn about the Internet (Goals 2 & 3), we introduced the work SCN is currently doing earlier on in the presentation (with lots of pictures).

All of these edits resulted in a hugely changed lesson, and it was difficult to cut out so much of the previous lesson that we were proud of. However, since there were two Internet lessons in the course, the technical material was still covered on the second day. We also realized that our original lecture-based, more technical agenda would still be a great workshop for a different age group: adults/college students.

Reflection

While our decision to change the course material reduced the amount of technical content covered in our first lesson, we believe this ended up being the right decision. During our class with the students, the students were very interactive and enthusiastic about the course content. They were also eager to talk about their own experiences and tie them to internet-related concepts. Although timing ended up being tighter than expected, we were able to establish a rapport with the students and lay the groundwork for the more technical future lessons.

Looking back, some advice we would have given ourselves at the beginning of the project would be to start working with both high school students and YDS instructors/students earlier. This would have helped us adjust our content to better fit our audience from the start. This would have taken a lot more effort to do, but would have helped improve our presentation.

Overall, we’re super happy with everything that we’ve created and we had a great time learning about teaching high school students and Internet education. The resources we’ve created are unique in that they offer a centralized resource for people without any pre-existing knowledge to learn what networks are, what the Internet is, what the Internet looks like in the real world, and the details of how it works under the hood.

What’s Next?

Since the content of our presentation was unique to high-school students, we wanted to expand our curriculum to be available to the general public. We created a separate presentation that goes into more detail for an adult audience, as well as a lesson plan for teachers to teach the material to their own students.

It’s important to note that the materials we’ve developed are not a complete solution to the original problem we were trying to solve: there is no public educational resource about the Internet that is both in-depth and covers all aspects about the Internet that are important to understand.

These resources could be expanded further to cover the history of the creation of the Internet, and historical and current political issues ongoing with the Internet such as net neutrality. Additionally, having more resources on the technical details of the core of the Internet (e.g. BGP, cellular network protocols, practical limitations for expanding networks) would be useful as it would empower the public to expand the accessibility of the Internet and develop their own community networks.

If you’re interested in our curriculum or learning more about educating others about the Internet, we’ve made our lesson slides and teaching plan available in the resources section below.

References

This project was completed as part of the Community Networking capstone course at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Project members include Hannah Bi, Rafia Khatri, and Dominick Ta. This project was advised by Professor Kurtis Heimerl, Esther Jang, and Matt Johnson. Thank you to Seattle Community Network and the Youth Digital Stewards educators and students.

Resources

Lesson materials for high school students:

Lesson materials for college students or adults:

Information on Seattle Community Network:

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