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This interview with Jill Foster of Netskills took place during the Development Workshop organised in the framework of INET'97, the annual Internet Society conference which was held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Jill Foster is Director of Netskills and led the 3rd Track of the Development Workshop.

The Internet Society's annual Development Workshop traditionally takes place the week before INET. The focus of the workshop is to "assist countries either not yet connected to the Internet or in the process of developing and enhancing an initial national Internet". The workshop is divide into four separate tracks:
  1. Host-based internetworking technology
  2. Backbone internetworking technology
  3. Network navigation and services
  4. National network management

Spreading network skills

Jill, this is the fourth year you've led the 3rd of the four tracks of the Internet Society's Development Workshop. Can you tell us something about this track?

The aim of Track 3 is to train people who will go back and develop quality information services for their country or region. At the start of the week, we made it quite clear that they weren't to be gatekeepers, they weren't to go back and be the expert in their region but rather they were to pass on that knowledge to people through training workshops and to build on the workshop by setting up national information services with pointers to the information sources within their region.

Providing information needs to be a two way thing. In the past some participants tended to think in terms of access to information elsewhere, particularly the US, whereas we have tried to tell them that they have important resources within their country and that the rest of the world is interested in the information they have.

One of the reasons for NATO putting money into the Internet Society workshops is that they see networking and the free flow of information as reducing the risk of conflicts and that by getting people to work together in a multinational situation and providing free flow of information not just across boarders but also within countries really empowers the people. It's a peace keeping activity.

The state of the content industry has changed enormously over the last four or five years, how has that changed the course?

At the time of the first workshop we were involved in which was in Prague, providing information on the network was limited to creating a few web pages. The course was more geared to finding information. Although we used the web, we actually worked with a gopher service. A large number of participants in Track 3 at the time were librarians or user support staff. We got them to author one or two pages, but they didn't set up an information service themselves. Since then, the course has evolved a lot. Every year we have dropped more and more of the introductory modules because people already had that information. And moved more and more to setting up information services and maintaining them. Over the years, that has become easier because it's almost possible to find information services off the shelf.As a result, it maybe that, in the future, the course will swing back and once again we can have less technical people attending.

Talking about the evolution of the workshop, will there not come a time when dealing with the questions of connectivity that are treated by other tracks cease to be necessary whereas handling the provision of quality content will become increasingly important?

There is still a lot of work to be done in Tracks 1 and 2. It is going to be quite some time before some areas of the world have a good networking infrastructure for a whole variety of reasons. Track 1, for example, deals with host-based services, a lot of which is based on dial-up access to a particular host. Quite a few of the NGOs rely heavily on those services. Track 2 involves putting the IP networking infrastructure into place on a regional and national level. Africa is probably the part of the world most in need of better connectivity, but there are communities within other countries that need that as well. There maybe an embryonic academic network, but there isn't much networking for other parts of the country.

When desktop publishing first came out, everyone felt they could do it. So learning how to do such work was seen as relatively unimportant. The net result of this was a considerable decrease in the quality of printed material. Do you think there is a similar attitude to on-line services?

That might be true. What does happen is that the technical people set up the web site server and put up some information. Unfortunately, there is often quite a difference between what the technical person wants to say and what the user really wants. There is a whole range of issues as far as setting up a quality service is concerned: consistency of style, ease of navigation in finding the information, thinking about how a variety of people can access it,...

Do you have any suggestions about improving the relationship between those working on the technical aspects and those working on the content?

We explain the importance of the various roles: the webmaster who is concerned with the technical side of the service, who monitors the logs, the person who manages the information and looks at the information structure. And then there will be various people responsible for the provision of information. In practice this may be the same person because of staff shortages. During the course, we put people into teams and they divide up the responsibilities.

What was the profile of the participants this year?

There was a considerable variety. The minimum requirement was a good understanding of a whole range of Internet services as a user. We set up a mailing list for the students before the course so they could introduce themselves to each other. Some were quite experienced information providers and technical people. By the end of the week they had all set up their own information service and worked as part of a team on the group web server as well.

What experience did they have in training during the workshop?

A recurring subject throughout the workshop was their role was as trainers. The theme of the last day was training. We looked at Netskills as an example. Participants developed some material themselves. In addition we gave them the workshop material. Although it is copyrighted, they can use it to train, but the idea is that they produce their own material - they will want to do that in their own language anyway - and make that material available on a web server for other people to use. During the course, we looked at setting up a regional workshop. There was a session on developing a powerpoint presentation and participants presented their project to whole track using powerpoint.

What have previous students done subsequent to the course?

Twice a year, I use the mailing list to ask past student what they have been doing. Quite a few of last years students had gone on to put up information services in their country. For example, one group of South Americans put together a very nice web site called "Web Latino" which was about countries within Latin America. They've gone on to develop that and have opened a mirror site in Spain as there have been so many access from Spain. There are also a lot of training initiatives going on. The Croatians, for example, have taken our course and structured their own course around it and have given a whole series of training courses.

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Kuala Lumpur

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey, info@connected.org
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Created: August 22nd, 1997 - Last up-dated: August 22nd, 1997