June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW4

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Teaching Consumers to Use the Internet to Make Consumer Decisions

The Internet is increasingly being used by Americans to gather information necessary to make consumer decisions (e.g., shopping, investing, travel, use of credit, retirement planning). This article describes a class that was developed to increase the familiarity of Extension clientele with online resources. The class has been taught to several hundred people and resulted in planned action to visit one or more new Web sites.

Barbara O'Neill
Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
Newton, New Jersey
Internet Address: oneill@aesop.rutgers.edu

The growth rate in Internet use is phenomenal. An estimated 62 million people in the United States use the Internet, 25% of whom were newcomers in 1997. This figure represents about 30% of U.S. residents age 16 and older and 23% of U.S. households (Weber, 1998). In less than a decade, the Internet has evolved from an obscure networking tool used primarily in military and academic circles to a communications medium for the masses (Ziegler, 1996). Some have noted that the Internet could have the same impact on information exchange as did the Gutenberg Press. In the history of mankind, it is the fourth major communications medium after word of mouth, the printed word, and broadcast media. The information and communication abilities that the Internet offers for education, research, commerce, and entertainment are seemingly endless.

An increasing number of consumers are using the Internet to gather information and transact business online. An estimated 27% of Internet users, for example, have made online purchases in the past twelve months ("Reality Bytes," 1997). Two commodities showing explosive online growth are travel and financial services, especially online investing. In 1997, $827 million of travel business was booked online, up from $276 million in 1996. The bulk of this business was for airline tickets ("Internet Services," 1998). About 14 million online investment accounts are expected by 2002, up from an estimated 1.5 million in 1997 and 621,000 in 1994 ("Reality Bytes," 1997).

Extension clientele can benefit tremendously from a familiarity with online resources that provide information to inform consumer decisions. Increasingly, information that is free online will become more difficult or expensive to obtain by other methods. Examples of this already exist, such as a free online list of low-rate credit cards that costs $5 by mail ("CardTrak Online," 1998). Not everyone has time to search for Web sites, however, and, even if they do, the most thorough search engines manage to find only about a third of the estimated 320 million pages on the World Wide Web (Weber, 1998a). For this reason, a two-hour class was developed for adult consumers to discuss Web sites that provide helpful information related to everyday consumer decisions (for example, travel, shopping, investing, retirement planning, mortgages, taxes, credit).

The class can be taught with overhead transparencies, a laptop computer, and LCD projector, or in a hands-on format in a computer lab. Although it may seem odd to teach a technology class with transparencies, they are inexpensive (compared to projection equipment that can cost several hundred dollars to rent) and eliminate the "wait time" that inevitably occurs when dozens of Web sites are loaded via a live phone connection. The class begins with an introduction about Internet use and terminology. During the remainder of the session, features of specific Web sites (e.g., Motley Fool, Money Magazine) are discussed. Privacy issues and tips for "parenting the Internet" are also covered.

A handout with over a hundred Internet addresses is periodically updated and distributed to participants. A copy of this list can also be downloaded from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension MONEY 2000 Web site: www.rce.rutgers.edu/programs/money2000/.

"Using the Internet to Make Consumer Decisions" has been taught to several hundred people, including several large groups of New Jersey teachers. Follow-up evaluations to date indicate participants' gratitude for receiving a time-saving list of Web sites and action taken or planned to visit one or more of the home pages that were discussed in class. Some participants also reported that their confidence in the use of Internet technology also improved.

The Internet is rapidly becoming a part of the communications infrastructure of American life (Parrish, 1997). Thus, it behooves Extension professionals to learn how to use it and to teach their clients to do the same. Since only about one in four households is wired for the Internet, compared to 98% with televisions and 67% with cable television service (Weber, 1998), the Internet is still far from mainstream, especially among minority and limited-resource households (Quick, 1998). Nevertheless, its growth rate has been nothing short of awesome and this trend is expected to continue. While adult schools frequently teach the mechanics of Internet use (e.g., how to use browser software like Netscape), a need also exists to teach consumers how to use the Internet as a tool for making everyday consumer decisions.


Cardtrak online: Cardtrak's low rate survey (1998). Frederick (MD): RAM Research, Inc.

Internet services take off (1998, April 15). Newton, NJ The New Jersey Herald, p.1.

Parrish, M. (1997). The Internet in 2002. Worth, 68, 42-47.

Quick, R. (1998, April 17). Internet contains a racial divide on access and use, study shows. The Wall Street Journal, p. B10.

Reality bytes (1997, Winter). Fidelity Focus, 7.

Weber, T. (1998, April 16). Who, what, where: Putting the Internet in perspective. The Wall Street Journal, p. B12.

Weber, T. (1998a, April 3). Web's vastness fails even best search engines. The Wall Street Journal, p. B1, B5.

Ziegler, B. (1996, Aug. 23). Slow crawl on the Internet. The Wall Street Journal, p. B1.