Internet Insights: How Academics Are Using the Internet

Article excerpt

The Internet has been described variously as "the premier network of networks," as "Everyone's Computers, Connected," or, most graphically, as an "unmanaged web of computer plasma."(1,2,3) Its lack of definition is its most defining characteristic. It is conjectured to be the world's largest network, but its amorphous design makes it impossible to measure this claim with precision.

Planet-wide, at least 4.5 million people connect over the Internet for personal and group communication, file transfer, and log-in to databases on remote computers.(4) According to most estimates, more than one million people will "Net"work each day from over two million host computers.(5,6,7) But no one really knows how correct these statistics are. Another approach is to think about the Internet as a network's network, linking approximately 11,000 international, national, and regional networks sponsored by universities, colleges, corporations, public institutions, and individuals.

It is estimated that traffic on this information interstate will rise by 11 percent, or one million users each month.(8,9) If the current rate of growth continues, there could be 300 million users by 1999, 750 million by 2000, and 1.5 billion by 2001.(10)

Academic Use

Today's Internet is an outgrowth of the Department of Defense's ARPAnet begun in 1969 to enable researchers to share major hardware and software resources located at remote computer centers. ARPA became DARPA, which became known as the DARPA Internet, which was later shortened to "the Internet." During the 1970s and 1980s, other telecommunications networks developed, and they were linked to the Internet to facilitate resource sharing. One of the most important of these was NSFNET under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. By 1990, ARPANET had been superseded by the NSFNET, which now operates as a high-speed "backbone" for the Internet."(11)

Academics were among the first to take the Cyberspace walk. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports 100 percent penetration of the Internet in U.S. universities. Globally, universities are connecting to the Net in growing numbers. Universities in more than forty countries provide full Internet participation. Many others access only the e-mail function.(12) Given this high rate of participation in Net activities by the academic community, it is surprising to learn that little has been written which profiles Internet users and investigates the functions of the Net they use most. Tillman and Ladner conducted a survey of how s special librarians use the Internet because there was a similar lack of published research addressing this issue.(13) In the commercial sector, the Rohm and Haas Company conducted a survey to gather information about current and potential Internet usage in the chemical industry.(14)

Study Rationale

This study of academic uses of the Internet was conducted because of:

1. A lack of available literature in this area.

2. The novelty of the methodology, since few "formal" surveys have been conducted on the Internet.

3. The potential for a higher response rate than from the traditional survey methodology due to a large universe of potential responders.

4. The cost to distribute the survey being the same for many respondents as for a few.

The primary considerations in designing the questionnaire were to make it amenable to electronic response and convenient to analyze using a statistical software package. The statistical software selected was StatView. This package was chosen for its ability to accommodate the large amount of data to be generated, for ease of use for data input, and for its graphics capability in displaying results.

Methodology

Although the above literature review revealed the potential power of the Internet and its associated resources, there appeared to be very little concrete data concerning the actual use of the Internet by professionals in various types of organizations. The authors, therefore, designed and developed a survey concerning the utilization of the Internet among users in higher education in order to better understand its utilization by various professionals.

The survey itself consisted of fourteen specific content areas, including general questions about computer expertise, frequency of e-mail utilization, access to various telnet sites, frequency of connections to a variety of Internet sources, access to several file transfer protocol (FTP) locations, use of various navigational aids (Gopher, etc.), as well as open-ended questions covering the importance and use of the Internet to the survey respondents. Several questions concerning institutional affiliation and research interests for each respondent were also included.

Since the survey focused on the utilization of the Internet, it was determined early in the development process that the most efficient method for distributing the survey and collecting the responses would be to actually use the Internet as the distribution method. This procedure would help to increase the number of appropriate recipients for the survey as well as remove the need for paper copies, envelopes, stamps, and other materials that may negatively affect survey response rates.

Locating specific groups of users on the Internet, however, is somewhat difficult since there is no single listing of all network users. Because of this constraint, the authors decided to use electronic discussion groups (also known as Listservs) that exist on the Internet to serve various groups with specific interests. When electronic mail is sent to each of these Listservs, it is electronically distributed to each of the members within the group.

Based on this structure, the survey was sent to 231 randomly chosen discussion groups from a list of Scholarly Electronic Conferences assembled by Diane K. Kovacs and her Directory Team at Kent State University Libraries. The specific number of members in each group was not available, but was assumed to vary in size from small groups under twenty to large groups composed of several hundred members.

Although many of the discussion groups were electronically open and automatically sent the survey to all group members, others had some degree of censorship in place, often holding the survey in a queue until a human moderator could examine the request to distribute the survey. Some discussion groups were also electronically unavailable, either because they had been disbanded or because they had changed their electronic address. Of the 231 Listservs originally contacted, eighty-eight were at least temporarily unavailable for the above reasons.

Each discussion group member who chose to participate in the study completed the survey electronically and returned it via e-mail through the Internet. A total of 1,536 surveys were completed and returned to the authors for analysis in this study.

Survey Results

As indicated in Table 1, the respondents to this survey were very competent computer users, with a mean of nearly thirteen years of computer experience. The respondents were also generally experienced with electronic mail utilization, with a mean of 5.77 years of e-mail use. These users also indicated some past experience with the Internet, with an average of 3.39 years of Internet usage.

Table 1. Cell means and standard deviations for various computer experience
indicators.

                                          Mean                 SD

Years of computer experience              12.82                6.70
Years of e-mail experience                 5.77                4.26
Years of Internet experience               3.39                3.03

The differences between these last two answers indicate a relatively consistent number of years of experience for those using e-mail, but a strong lack of Internet experience until approximately six years ago. This is consistent with the rapid spread of Internet utilization over the past five or six years and the relatively small number of users before that time.

Table 2 shows that the majority (87 percent) of the survey respondents were from educational domains on the Internet, as was the authors' intent. The survey was also quite international in scope, as shown in Table 3, which shows the country of origin for most of the survey respondents. Nearly 65 percent of the respondents, however, were from the United States, with the United Kingdom as the home country for nearly 12 percent.

Table 2. Number and percentage of respondents from selected Internet domain.

                                          Number       Percentage

Commercial (.com)                           84            7.43
Education (.edu)                           984           87.00
Government (.gov)                           29            2.56
Non-profit organization (.org)              22            1.95
U.S. military (.mil)                        11             .97

Table 3. Number and percentage of
respondents from selected countries.

                          Number         Percentage
Australia                  59              4.88
Brazil                      9               .74
Canada                     53              4.38
Denmark                     6               .50
Finland                     7               .58
France                      9               .74
Germany                    24              1.99
Israel                      8               .66
Italy                       9               .74
Japan                       7               .58
Netherlands                16              1.32
New Zealand                 8               .66
Norway                      6               .50
South Africa                7               .58
Sweden                     11               .91
United Kingdom            143             11.83
United States             772             63.85

Table 4 indicates the frequency of use for various Internet communication resources as shown by respondent answers to the survey. As can readily be seen, personal e-mail is utilized extremely often (more than once a week by nearly 90 percent of the respondents), which supports the data from Table 1 concerning the large amount of previous experience with electronic mail. Discussion groups (Listservs) are also accessed frequently (more than once a week by nearly 75 percent of the respondents), as would be expected since the survey was actually sent out through various discussion groups on the Internet. Netnews (often called Usenet News) and various electronic journals were accessed far less frequently, typically once a month or less.

Table 4. Combined data showing percentage of respondents using various Internet
communication resources.

                     Once a Month    Several Times    More Than
                     or Less         Per Month        Once a Week

Personal e-mail        5.19            7.08             87.73
Discussion groups     16.18           10.87             72.95
Netnews               48.38           14.45             37.16
Electronic journals   57.41           19.96             22.62

As shown in Table 5, survey respondents did not frequently access various Telnet resources available on the Internet. Although library catalogs and specialized databases were occasionally utilized several times a month or more, games and simulations were almost never accessed through the Internet network.

Table 5. Combined data showing percentage of respondents using various Internet
telnet resources.

                       Once a Month   Several Times    More Than
                       or Less        per Month        Once a Week

Games / simulations     91.85          4.25              3.90
Library catalogs        52.59         29.05             18.36
Specialized databases   58.91         24.68             16.40

Table 6 indicates some of the more popular information sources on the Internet as indicated by the survey. As can be seen from this table, none of these information sources was accessed extremely often, although the CARL information system was utilized several times per month or more by approximately 10 percent of the survey respondents.

Table 6. Combined data showing percentage of respondents using selected
information sources.

                       Once a Month   Several Times    More Than
                       or Less        per Month        Once a Week

CARL                     88.34           9.11             2.54
Cleveland Freenet        94.82           3.60             1.58
Dialog                   94.91           2.58             2.50
ERIC                     93.19           5.31             1.50
Geographic Name Server   97.77           1.44              .81
Netfind                  94.37           4.11             1.52
OCLC                     93.43           2.39             4.17
RLIN                     96.89           1.33             1.78
SpaceLink                98.03           1.52              .45
STIS                     98.11           1.53              .36
Weather Underground      90.71           5.49             3.81
Webster Dictionary       95.72           2.49             1.78

File transfer protocol (ftp) sites indicated on the survey were also not extremely popular, as shown in Table 7. Although these were the most popular of the ftp sites listed on the survey instrument, they are still accessed relatively infrequently, with approximately 5 percent of respondents indicating usage several times a month or more even on the most common of the locations.

Table 7. Combined data showing percentage of respondents using selected
Internet ftp archive sites.

                      Once a Month    Several Times    More Than
                      or Less         per Month        Once a Week

Computers and
Academic Freedom        96.80            1.83            1.37
NASA                    97.09            2.10             .82
Online Libraries
Directory               94.28            3.81            1.91
Science Education       97.71            1.74             .55
SIMTEL20                89.87            6.96            3.17
SUMEX-AIM               91.15            6.11            2.74
Washington University
Public Domain Archives  90.03            6.40            3.56

The utilization of various navigational aids for accessing the Internet indicates frequency of usage for some of the most popular navigational software. As can be seen, Gopher is by far the most frequently used (cited as being utilized more than once a week by nearly 30 percent of survey respondents), with various campus-wide information systems also cited as being heavily used. Archie, Veronica, and WAIS (Wide-area Information Servers) were also used frequently, with approximately 20 to 25 percent of respondents reporting utilization of these navigational aids several times per month or more.

As the authors had expected, the open-ended questions provided the potential for the greatest Internet insights.

Reactions to the Survey

Responses on the methodology from colleagues surveyed varied wildly from enthusiasm for the project to outrage at our abuse of the Internet. We had not anticipated the high level of interaction generated with the Net. By far, the comments were supportive of this project and enthusiastic about receiving the survey results. We received several offers from leading computer and education journals to publish the results. Many respondents helpfully pointed out an error in our return address line. Others asked for results of our survey because they would be useful in their own research. The core of the negative comments we received centered on using the Internet for unsolicited mass mailings which some "Netters" consider a strong breach of network etiquette. One respondent (who had received similar criticism for a survey conducted on the Net) suggested that we conduct the survey on a Usenet (more of a network news service) where people could select the items they wanted to read instead of a Listserv where mail goes directly to an individual's address.

Conclusion

The Internet is currently a popular method for academics with computer experience to "do business." That business is primarily communication among individuals or discussion groups using e-mail. They tend to Gopher through the Internet for database access and, to a lesser extent, transfer files from popular sites like NASA.

The Net has the advantage over other resources for being extremely fast, easily accessible, global, and truly interactive. It overcomes the barriers of time and distance for the distribution of highly specialized resources. It is democratic, breaking down barriers of status and gender.

The Net also has several disadvantages. Specialized knowledge is required to access and use the Internet. Once online, there is no security for network communications. In traveling the Net, users often face "heavy traffic" in connecting with popular remote sites. And not everyone you want to reach may be on the Internet. Many academics are still not aware of its resources and possibilities, and not all foreign countries have access. Connectivity costs are an issue for those outside major universities. Frustrating to almost everyone is the lack of a central directory to network resources (particularly by subject).

Whatever its defects, the results of this large-scale survey suggest that the Internet will only grow in importance to its millions of current and potential users. Our respondents variously decree it "the best source" of information in their field, "absolutely essential" for daily communication, "crucial" for access to research results, and, for a large number, "essential to my job." For increasing numbers of people, the Internet is their job - as trainers, network administrators, researchers, information professionals, and consultants.

Notes

(1). Cronin, Mary J. Doing Business on the Internet: How the electronic highway is transforming American companies (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993), 4.

(2.) Gleick, James. "The Information Future: Out of control," The New York Times Magazine, Sunday, 1 May 1994,54-57.

(3.) Kanaley, Reid. "People are talking-via computer," Philadelphia Inquirer (May 1993), 46.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Haynes, Elizabeth. "Using the Internet in the K-12 Environment," School Library Media Quarterly, 21:3 (Spring 1993): 187. (6.) Naisbett, John. Global Paradox: The bigger world economy (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 46-47.

(7.) Internet Index [electronic journal], 2 [cited August 2, 1994] available by subscribing to internet-index-request@openmarket.com.

(8.) Estimates from: Lazzareschi, Carla, "Forget the Fax: The Internet has gone corporate," Philadelphia Inquirer (August 1993), C1.

(9.) Polly, Jean Armour. "Surfing the Internet: An Introduction," Wilson Library Bulletin, 66:10 (june 1992): 38.

(10.) Naisbett, Global Paradox, 47.

(11.) Dyrli, Odvard Egil. "The Internet: Bringing Global Resources to the Classroom," Technology and Learning, 14:2 (October 1993): 51.

(12.) Tenopir, Carol. "Online Searching with Internet," Library Journal, 117:12 (December 1992): 102.

(13.) Tillman, Hope N. and Sharyn J. Ladner, "Special Librarians and the Internet," Special Libraries, 83:2 (Spring 1992): 127-131.

(14.) "Internet User Survey Results," The Internet Business journal, 1:1 (1993): 23.

Communications about this article may be addressed to the authors: Adele E Bane (afb@psulias.psu.edu), Head Librarian; and/or William D. Milheim (wdm2@psu.edu), Coordinator, Instructional Systems, Penn State Great Valley, 30 East Swedesford Road, Malvern, PA 19355.

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