DRAFT January 15, 1999
Revised March 5, 1999

...Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom...

Key Findings
on Internet Use among Students


John Lubans
Duke University

For more information on this topic, see the sidebar.

This summarizes the results of a computerized study of the use of the Internet for academic purposes by 226 7-10th graders. These students, coming from a 16-state region, lived on Duke University's East Campus while taking college level coursework during parts of July and August, 1998.

Forty-two percent of the students completed a questionnaire that asked them to reflect about their use of the Internet for academic purposes, "as part of your school work at Duke and elsewhere". And we asked they not limit their responses to the summer experience.

The ratio of boys to girls in the study was nearly identical to the overall population on campus, (64% boys, 36% girls). The Lilly Library, the location of the survey computers, is on the East Campus. It is used heavily by these summer students as their home-base library.

In addition, we conducted a focus group with 9 of these students. Some of those findings are included in this report.

Of particular interest are the comparisons between the 7-10th graders and 235 Duke freshmen who participated in a similar study in the Fall, 1997

  • The Web is used for academic/learning purposes by a majority of respondents from several times a week to often. However, boys tend to use the Web significantly more often than girls.
  • As a group, freshmen claim significantly more use of the Web than do the 7-10th graders.
    While a small number (n=67) in the 7-10th grade group have personal Web pages, many more of the boys (n=54) have personal web pages that do the girls (n=13)).
    Another indicator of some technological gender disparity is that the course of study chosen by these summer students, responding to the survey, reveals no girls choosing computer classes (n=27).

    While student Internet use is heavy, it is not un-informed. Suggestive of students' discernment and caution, the focus group revealed concerns about the Internet, specifically:

  • A majority of the 7-10th graders rated their expertise in using the Web at good or above. The "best" rating was claimed solely by males. There are strong statistically significant gender differences. And, the younger students rated themselves more able than did the freshmen.
  • These students, in general, have learned to find and use Web based information resources on their own and from classmates. (A footnote: 17 students mentioned the teaching role of parents--fathers were singled out by 10 students, mothers by 3)
  • Most students (freshmen and 7-10th graders) find new sites by using a search engine or directories and by surfing.

  • The 7-10th graders confirmed what elements (links, page ownership, email link, etc.,) make for a trustworthy site. Both boys and girls chose "links to other selected good sites (from the page)" and "authoritative ownership" as the top two indicators of a good site.

    We intend, in a follow up survey, (March, 1999) to assay the depths of the student's understanding of how to evaluate Web sites. In the meantime, Kelly McCollum's interpretation of this study's results suggest something more than a superficial understanding: "...most of the younger students correctly identified factors, such as site ownership and recommendations from other sites, that can help students evaluate the legitimacy of a source." (Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec 4, 1998, p. A25.)

  • Many students said they were helped greatly in completing required papers by the number of resources found via the Web. The 7-10th graders say they were more helped in this regard than did the freshmen.
  • Other significant differences between the two groups: 7-10th graders believe their grades for papers are better because of the Web.
    And similarly, were helped significantly by the Web in the quality of their written work.
    While both groups have a pragmatic view about the utility of the Internet, the 7-10th graders have statistically significant higher ratings about the Internet's accuracy, timeliness, and authoritativeness, for their purposes.
  • Contrary to some Internet trend spotters, a majority of students only occasionally, rarely or never engage in collaborative work on the Internet with other students.
  • Again going against the popular view that teachers distrust Internet sources, this group of 7-10th graders are in general encouraged by their teachers on using the Web to find information. Only about 10% feel they are discouraged from using the Web for school purposes.
  • Do they learn while using the Web? Almost all the 7-10th graders claim that they do indeed learn via the Web. No gender differences.
  • As for being frustrated while using the Web, most students rated this as an infrequent experience, but girls claimed more frustration than boys. This is a statistically significant gender difference. Freshmen were more apt to feel frustrated.
  • A majority of students indicate they have fun while using the Web, but 7-10th graders have significantly more fun than the freshmen.

    The above qualities of learning, being frustrated and having fun when joined by those of being engaged, curious, and bored relate to the Flow concept- a state of being in which one is open to learning because challenges are there enough to arouse interest and yet not too high to promote excessive frustration. The 7-10th graders have a statistically significant greater positive FLOW experience than do the freshmen.
  • Nothing but Net? What is the mix of library use to Internet use for information sources? The 7-10th graders are relying more on the Internet than are the freshmen. The difference is statistically significant: 51% of first year students say "20% or less Web" while only 33% of the pre college students say this. Conversely, 14% of the freshmen say "80% Web" as compared to 24% of pre-college students. Nearly a third of the 7-10th graders claim a ratio of 50:50.
  • In this regard the focus group observed:

  • Statistically, freshmen tend to want more help from the library in learning about the Internet. Both groups identify a clear role for the library.

    The top two vote getters for how the library can help were: "Develop finding aids (lists of best web sites)" and "Live links from catalog to Web).

  • And, a majority wants the library to e-mail them about new sites and books. When asked about e-mail notification, the focus group specified it be:
  • How should libraries deploy terminals for Internet access? The distributed and centralized models were both well regarded. The third ranked preference, "a cluster with Web savvy librarians" reveals girls preferring this model significantly more than boys.

    Least favored was the "Bring-Your-Own" model of "hook up" facilities.

  • Finally, a motivating influence in this research has been the quantifiable and observable drop in reference desk interactions between librarians and students.

    In 1997/98, the Duke trend (charted since 1991/92) continued downward, while the cost of answering each question climbed.

    I believe this decline parallels new levels of user independence encouraged by improved interfaces to many electronic reference sources. And, many users tell us, they use the Web because of a genuine and timely ease of finding and using worthwhile sources.

  • Library efforts in teaching Internet access and libraries' gathering, organizing and linking to data bases have helped users gain some navigational proficiency. Our ability to organize information, be it on our shelves, in our catalogs, at information desks, or by our using HTML, adds considerable value to the information seeking and finding process. Users look to us for added services in this transitional information era because we have helped them in the current one.

    The hypertext proximity between sources and users, between producers and consumers, and especially among sources on the Internet offers up its own challenges. We are cheek to jowl on the Internet, a landscape that has no distance but that between point and click. This immediacy of use and feedback promises to open the door to new applications. Communities of users and partnerships between producers and consumers will follow*. The librarian's intermediary role will change, but the core task will still be that of helping connect users to the information they need when they need it.


    Sharron Bortz helped develop the questionnaire and was instrumental in mounting the study and keeping it on track through careful coordination - no small responsibility! And, she collected the data so that it could be statistically analyzed.

    Robbin Ernest once again provided enthusiastic and creative support for the study and had much to do with our gaining a good response rate. She also facilitated the focus group.

    The staff of the Lilly Library (especially Kelley Lawton and Tracy Hull) deserve great thanks for their participation in the study. Without their help and openness to working with their student clientele, this type of survey would have little opportunity for success.

    Dr. Bercedis Peterson, statistician par excelence, ran the numerical analyses and made the comparisons between the two studies. Rose Bornes helped add clarity to this study by graphing the results.

    * Note: Books like Net Gain: Expanding Markets through Virtual Communities, by John Hagel and Arthur G. Armstrong, and Frances Cairncross's The Death of Distance: How the Communication Revolution Will Change Our Lives, both from Harvard Business School Press, 1997, suggest some of the opportunities for libraries on the Internet frontier. More recently, The Invisible Computer by Donald A. Norman, and Interactive Excellence by Edwin Schlossberg suggest the role of user experience in making systems work better.

    John Lubans, Jr.
    E-mail: John_Lubans@valkyrie.oit.duke.edu
    Phone: 919 660 5800 (work)
    Fax: 919 660 5923
    Web: http://www.lib.duke.edu/staff/orgnztn/lubans/john.html

    Web Page Author: Sarah Baptist