I enjoy teaching computer classes to the public. Today is the second day of a three-day class for pure beginners, and the topic is e-mail. In the past, we have found e-mail to be a difficult thing to teach. Some students have e-mail already and want to learn how to use it more efficiently. Other students do not have e-mail, but might be interested in setting up a free account. Then there are those who are good sports, sit through the hour-long class to learn about e-mail, but decide it's just not for them. Teaching a class that does not disappoint anyone is tough.
You can't just teach Yahoo mail, or Hotmail, or G-mail, or AOL. Each student might have a different kind of e-mail account, so telling them to "click here" and "click there" is not consistent across the e-mail platforms. You could offer a separate e-mail class on each platform, but now you're talking about at least four classes. At our library, getting away from the reference desk for a one-hour class is already difficult.
Our approach was always to talk about e-mail theoretically. We would open our own e-mail accounts and demonstrate Yahoo, Hotmail, and G-mail, but would say things like "look for a button that says something like 'New Message' or 'Compose' or 'New'". This got confusing for beginners and for those who didn't have e-mail at all yet. It also makes what should have been a hands-on class become more of a demonstration.
In today's e-mail class, I have a new plan. I'm going to have those with e-mail log into their e-mail account. This allows them to learn hands-on, as we promised the 3-day class would be. For those who do not have e-mail, I have set up a few "dummy" accounts in both Yahoo and Hotmail (the two most popular choices for free e-mail). I hope that the class doesn't slow down too much, but at least everyone will have an actual e-mail account to practice with. They can e-mail each other or send e-mails to me. I even sent a few messages to the dummy accounts that include an attachment so they can practice opening attachments.
We'll see how it goes!