Learning New Skills Before the Internet

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Learning new skills and finding “life hacks” has become increasingly accessible with the sheer number of how-to videos and tutorials that populate online sites. There are different websites—uDemy, Coursera, and Skillshare, among many others— dedicated to teaching a variety of skills and encourage users to take their beginner courses to pique new interests. Popular Facebook, Instagram, and even Tik Tok tutorial accounts make finding cooking, travel, or cleaning hacks incredibly simple and generous YouTube instructors make informational videos to help sleep-deprived students to complete their coursework. Thousands of blogs from cooking to sewing have encouraged people to try their hand at DIY (do it yourself) projects. In the past few months, when internships and experiential learning have been scarce, students have turned to online sites to learn skills to pad their resumes. People instinctively use search engines to find tutorials to master new skills quickly and conveniently. In today’s world, where new information and resources are easily accessible through the internet, it is difficult to imagine how people learned new skills and before the internet.

Before we had search engines at our fingertips, people frequented libraries and utilized the wealth of information in books to learn new skills. From cookbooks to instruction manuals, libraries were the perfect place to find every piece of information one could need. Learning new baking techniques, searching how to solve a math problem, and instructions for fixing a small car issue was as easy as checking out the appropriate book from the library. Instead of smart phones, library cards were the keys to a place full of knowledge. Even though they lacked the convenience of finding instructions right away, it must have been exciting to walk through rows of shelves and visualize the numerous possibilities for learning.

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Woburn Public Library | Woburn, MA
(via Life from the Roots, Blogspot)

Besides the physical books, many libraries held (and still hold) free community and children’s classes for everything from filing taxes to first aid. Some even offered speed-dating events, parenting courses, and babysitting services, all a testament to the centrality and accessibility of the town library. These classes and events represented a sense of community where people were not alone in their desire to learn new skills, develop new interests, or meet new friends. Having one major hub for learning also represented a more equitable access to knowledge. There was less of a reliance on technology to learn new things and more of an emphasis on tapping into the collective knowledge of the community. Today, the prevalence of smart phones and computers prevent technologically challenged elderly folks or families with unreliable internet access from finding the same opportunities for online learning.

When we think of libraries on college campuses, and specifically at Hopkins, we are reminded that they are areas to sit and quietly study, but they also have designated areas for club meetings, group work, or just catching up with classmates and friends. It is interesting how a place that was traditionally tied to both personal learning and community engagement has continued to be a space to independently study or collaborate with peers. It is also notable that more undergraduates use the library as an extension of their study spaces, rather than as a place to seek new knowledge. However, beyond college campuses, libraries today are becoming more obsolete because they represent an era of learning before there was widespread access to information via the millions of books, websites, podcasts, and other media found on the internet. While public libraries are still a great resource for elderly folks and low-income families that rely on central computer access and classes, they are not frequently visited by today’s teenagers and working people who prefer to engage with media online, which has exacerbated inequalities in access to learning.

To help adolescent students learn basic life skills, many public schools in America teach classes like “home economics” and “family and consumer sciences (FCS).” They serve as preparation for students to live on their own and as a space to learn essential household and personal skills. These classes have been around in some form since the early twentieth century, but it seems as though modern students respond better to learning basic skills through online media over the content in the classes. In these FCS classes, the coursework ranges from taking care of a “baby,” sewing a pillowcase, baking muffins, and managing a budget, all things that instructors deem necessary for teenagers to be prepared for post-graduation life.

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A home economics classroom in a public high school, complete with a kitchen, washing machine, and a tool or garage area. (via Metropolis Café)

Especially for students that did not grow up learning these skills at home from parents or guardians, these classes offer an opportunity for those students to practice and master these basic life skills. These courses in schools represent the first step of growing up, as teenagers learn essential “adult” tasks for their future lives. FCS and home economics classes introduce students to a variety of different household skills, but other more personalized skills like tying shoelaces, writing a resume, and ironing clothes, among many others, are too minute to be taught, or are expected to be taught at home. This again highlights the disadvantage that students from unstable families have—skills that may seem second-nature to most are not explicitly taught to others. In those cases, one can only imagine that learning those skills means finding other trusted adults or friends with the right expertise and asking them for help. This points to an aspect of interpersonal communication that is not needed when searching for answers on the internet.

Asking others for help, attending classes either at school or at the library, and generally seeking answers from people rather technology demonstrates a need for community. Being able to search up tutorials and answers on the internet takes away the reliance on community engagement and promotes individuality and self-teaching. The difference in how we seek new information before and after the existence of the internet has two sides: one, where public libraries have lost funding and community engagement has significantly reduced, and the other, where we have incredible convenience in quickly using a search engine. Perhaps the widespread use of the internet to search for information represents the growing need for convenience and independent study over collective knowledge found in libraries or by asking others for help. However, while websites offer the appeal of quick answers, they can rarely provide the insight and tips that a face-to-face teacher, community member, or other expert can share. Maybe, some sort of combination of convenience and personal insight when learning new skills and information is necessary to successfully understand a concept. Nonetheless, it is important to note that even though the mode of seeking new information has changed, the desire to learn new skills or research has not dwindled.

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