Net profit

Making a buck off Internet neophytes

Alan Bonebrake, a Dallas chiropractor, doesn't know much about the Internet, except that he wants to know more.

"People keep telling me it's the way to go," says Bonebrake (yes, that's his real name), who plans to advertise his services on the Net.

Last month, Bonebrake, like thousands of others in the Dallas area, attempted to make himself Web-literate by taking one of the dozen course offerings in the burgeoning Internet-instruction industry. "It was interesting," Bonebrake says of his $20, one-hour class, given by VIP Business Services.

Jeannette Marshall, the owner of VIP Services, says the class is "for people who have heard the word 'Internet,' but still haven't figured it out." To reach that market, she advertises her class on the marquee in front of the Richardson shopping mall where she runs her main business--secretarial and mailing services. At $20 a pop, Marshall does for her students what thousands of wired teen-agers do every week for parents and grandparents: hold the novice's hand through an hour of Internet browsing and blundering.

Marshall's course is but one in a spectrum of Internet instruction that has sprung up in the past six months. At prices ranging from $5 to $600 a day for schooling, prospective Web browsers and advertisers can learn how to use the new technology that, since its inception in 1989 in Lucerne, Switzerland, as a way for scientists to publish, has evolved into the so-called information superhighway--not to mention the hottest media event of this half-century.

Organizations as large and venerable as the American Management Association as well as small-time operations such as VIP Services are offering the courses. The subject matter discussed in these typically day-long learning sessions varies: Syllabi include how to select an Internet-access provider, how to find appropriate search tools, create your own Web site, and become a full-fledged Internet player.

Given the disparity in prices as well as course curriculi, the Web-instruction industry has come under attack as a superficial, get-rich scheme for providers at the expense of global village idiots.

"I cannot believe people are paying money for this stuff," says Charles Reuben, a Dallas Realtor who advertises his listings on the Internet. Reuben, like most people, jumped into the Web and schooled himself in Internet basics.

Even those companies offering Internet schooling recognize there can be a perception problem.

"We offered a how-to-surf course for a while," says Patti Schulze, the president of Digital Training & Designs in Dallas--which offers a wide range of professional training--"and we found people were saying, 'Hey, wait a minute, you're charging me for this?'"

Rather than teaching the basics of the Internet, as so many of instruction providers do, Schulze's company now offers more specific and advanced classes. For $210 a session, Digital Training & Designs students--a group that has included executives from EDS, J.C. Penney, and Texas Instruments--can learn all about, for example, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the code for building graphical Web sites.

But so far, the popularity of the Internet instruction courses has far outweighed any skeptical sentiments.

Digital Training's Schulze says her once-a-month classes have always reached their six-student capacity since she began offering the sessions six months ago. And Jonathon Maedche, a graphic designer at EDS who took the Digital Training course, says he knew the Internet was "obviously the hot thing," and because he had taken other graphic-design-related courses put on by the Dallas company, took this one too. "I highly recommend it," he says.

Marshall, who has not advertised her surfing instruction anywhere but on the billboard in her Richardson shopping mall, says in just a few weeks it attracted a dozen students.

The Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas packed one of its large banquet rooms several weeks ago with 150 business types for a one-day, $99 seminar, sponsored by the American Management Association. "It was the most expensive course I have taken, but the most useful," says Arthur Allen, the owner of Chess Financial Group, an equipment-leasing company. He has taken several Internet-instruction courses. "Maybe you get what you pay for."

Learning Tree International, a Reston, Virginia-based company, launched last month what it calls "Internet Professional Certification Programs," with availability in Dallas. Learning Tree students get hands-on experience developing Web sites, and guidance on best exploiting Internet resources. Nationwide, the publicly traded company claims that some 20,000 professionals are participating in its certification programs.

Meanwhile, chiropractor Bonebrake plans to go back again for more Internet instruction. He's not yet sure how much he's going to be charged, but he says an individual has promised to help him build a Web page to advertise his services.

"Now that I have stuck one foot in," Bonebrake says, "I'm ready to go further.

 
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