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New York New Media Association
Education Special Interest Group
December 2, 1999
6:00PM - 8:00PM
Bell Atlantic Auditorium
23rd Floor
1095 Avenue of the Americas
New York
When Students Hit the Surf: What Do Kids Really Do on the Internet and What Are the Implications for Web Design?


John Lubans, Jr.

Thank you for having me back. I am pleased to return, especially since some of the questions raised at last year’s talk helped me with the next study

Among the curious things about rural North Carolina are the signs some churches put out front. One that I ran across still puzzles me:

"The tongue is the dipstick of the Heart".

I am not sure of its exact meaning for that Church, but I thought it might serve as a lead in to my talk on where the net is going educationally. This is a topic more talked about than experienced.

Over 600 students have taken part in my three studies since 1997. The users in my studies are of the generation of young people who are determining the future of the Internet.

The most recent study was this May with 146 freshmen in their second semester. In this same study, (I call it Study 3) 55 older students also gave me feedback.

Tonight, I will try to answer these questions:

What do students do on the Internet?

How do they choose and trust sites? What is the role of search engines?

Are there design clues for us in how students approach and regard educational sites?

I expect to gain some insights about the Net and education from our two other panelists, Judy Breck of HomeworkCentral and Catherine Davis of Yahooligans.

And if we have time, I have an activity about site "stickiness" that will ask you in the audience to share your very best ideas with all of us.

Before I begin, you should know that I believe that it is better to be wrong than to be vague! Of course, since we are talking about the Internet I will have plenty of company in my hyperbole!

And, this is a powerpoint-free presentation! Please do refer to the handout.

Well, what have I learned from my studies?

Many students prove the marketing adage: "technology never sells, benefits sell!" Real and/or perceived benefits are why students use the Internet. 

Over two thirds of the freshmen students in Study 3, like in the earlier studies, said the Net helped them find more sources.

For over half it’s a time saver and

over a third claim they write better and

Also, 25% claim they get better grades!

However, capturing any part of the educational market is no longer easy. Back in the pre-historic days of Mosaic and Gopher, any useful site, even if all text, would get attention. Now, users discriminate among the many offerings.

Choices are many and customers will go to those sites that benefit them the most.  It seems a return visit has to be earned every time the user enters your site.

E-commerce sites that try to stifle competition, to trap users, or make users endure poor interfaces, quickly realize that customers click away. Worse, if you frustrate someone enough, they’ll get even by putting up a competing sucks.com site to vent their anger.

Our users relish their newfound independence and the freedom to choose and they want more of it. Choice, That’s a constant.

In Study 3 I asked students about their future use of the Internet.

Five years out, 70 percent see an increase in their dependence on the Web for information resources. Interestingly, of the older students 60 percent of the males and 78% of the females see an increase.

Over half of the freshmen students think their use of print resources will remain at current levels, but over a quarter believe their reliance on print will diminish.

Forty percent of the students in Study 3 have a personal web page. And, unlike the pre-college students in study 2, the gender difference has evaporated. Equal numbers of men and women own Web pages.

But, men still rate themselves as better navigators than women. You see, we males have to believe that we are better navigators since we don’t ask for directions!


What, exactly, do they do on the Internet? Here in ranked order are the top six things students do. These first three got the highest rankings:

E-mail (4.7)  was the hands-down winner for all students).

Next, they visit their favorite sites (i.e. preselected or bookmarked) (3.65).

This high ranking supports the view that the web is constricting. That is more and more traffic is going to fewer and fewer sites.

And, third is using library-based guides and databases. (3.5)

This finding suggests the great value placed by students on the library’s selecting and providing electronic databases. The older students were stronger in this than the freshmen.

Because of the many irrelevant sites that come up in general searches, users value portals that help them cut through to the good stuff.

Like one student put it: "A library based Web link is always OK". What these students told me repeatedly is they want someone, like the library, to be validating sites for them.

Surfing was fourth, well below the top three, but well above gaming and chatting.(2.7)

(Eleven percent of the men and 24% of the women said they rarely or never surfed. The older students were slightly less inclined to surf.

Gaming was ranked low (1.75). Sixty percent stated they rarely or never played games on the Web. For older students gaming approaches zero.

Chatting was rated at even lower (1.45). 56 percent claim they rarely or never chat. For the older students chatting is even more negligible.

How do students avoid being shipwrecked in the cyber surf? How do the students recognize the "good stuff" from the flotsam?

One strategy I heard about was that students avoid sites that use a lot of exclamation points.

My studies consistently find that many students exhibit "surf smarts" in identifying what is good or bad about Web sites. They display solid strategies for sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Here is a ranked list of factors students’ use in trusting a site and deciding to go to and come back to it. (The question I asked was: "What in your opinion makes for a trustworthy Web site?")

Most importantly, the site is based on a respected print source. (4.1 mean)

The stampede to the Britannica on line a few weeks ago suggests there is substance to this view. I think this works two ways, at least. One is that in contrast to the unvetted Net the print world is well regarded. And, while we are moving away from print, maintaining book-like features and aspects might be a wise thing.

I am always looking for a good place to work in an allusion to Johannes Trithemius. He was one of the first publishers using Gutenberg’s technology, but he also administered a large scriptorium and bemoaned the loss of this sacred way of communication. His book, In Praise of Scribes, published in 1492, speaks to those of us in a similar transition away from one technology to another. Johannes was a bibliophile, an avid collector of manuscripts.

The second trust measure (after respectable print source) is referrals to site by peers or teachers. (3.8)

(For this reason, strive to be the easiest to find site imaginable from anywhere. Word of mouth is the best advertising on the Internet. The contrarian James Cramer of TheStreet.com says this: "E-mail word of mouth among satisfied customers is the most effective way to build traffic …"

Third, page "ownership" is explicit (3.65) Remember what the imprint information in books was all about?

Fourth and fifth was a tie. That the URL has org. or edu. in it.(3.5) tied with lots of links. To quote Cramer again, "Nobody surfs the Web for URLs" – in other words a clever URL has no impact whatsoever on traffic.

Having links on the page that lead to other good sites was ranked equally to "edu" or "org" in the URL. (3.5)

Therefore, link liberally. Links are the Web. Linking adds value to your site and to the Web.

Sixth, the site displays a recent date (3.45). What’s the number? A third of all web sites have not been updated in over 6 months or a year?

Seven and eight have a similar score: An E-mail link to owner. (3.15) This one showed a gender bias: significantly more women saw this as an important factor.

Site looks "professional". (3.15) This was less important for older students.

The students put modest value on having "lots of pictures" – this was a question I put in to see if they were paying attention, they were; (2.1). I did not probe if this low rating was the result partly of slow down-load times for graphics.

Along, with their low regard for "lots of pictures", students did not place much value on

Best of the Web awards (2.15)


collections of "best" Web sites (2.1). The older students showed even less regard for these ways of claiming quality for a site. Neither approach has the cachet, say, of the New York Times Best Seller list.

How do students find new Web sites? I asked the students to pick their top two "sources" for finding new sites.

In order of importance, they chose:

Search engines – 37%

Surfing - 31%

Using a directory -16%

If you combine the directory result with the search engine result, you see that a guided approach is taken by students 53% of the time.

Reading about sites and Help from classmates each garnered 16%

And Library staff came in at 9%

What search tools do students use?

Yahoo rules (for now.) Yahoo is the student’s top search tool, with over 53% claiming it as their most used.

Why Yahoo? My librarian colleagues tell me:

It’s been the introductory tool for learning to use the Internet.

It’s easy to use because of its hierarchical categories

Students come to know that "Subject directories (like Yahoo)have less hits, but more relevancy", and that Search engines, (like AltaVista)have more hits, but less relevancy.

Yahoo (4.15) is followed, in descending order, by Excite (3.0) and

Alta Vista (2.75). For the older students, Alta Vista was rated a close second to Yahoo.

In the middle of the pack are

Infoseek (2.55) and  

Lycos (2.3). Least used were

LookSmart (1.45),

HotBot (1.75), and, my favorite

Google (1.3). I’ve been impressed ever since I typed in my last name and clicked on the "I feel lucky" button. It took me straight to my web site!

In conclusion:

While my studies show that many students have better sense than we give them credit for, I still think there are things we can do to help users find and assess relevant sites. How can we impart or integrate the searching concepts like structure, process and selection?

Why should this matter? Well, for one thing, Yahoo, the most popular tool for finding web sites covers just short of seven and a half percent of the 800 million searchable pages. The search engine with the broadest coverage, Northern Light, comes in at 16%.

Consider also the August, 1999 study that suggests the Web is consolidating even while the number of sites continues to grow exponentially.

Visits to the top 100 sites increased in one year by 6%, up to 39 percent and time spent at the top 50 sites went up by 6% and time spent at the top ten went up by 3%.

Among educational sites, this same study claims that: "…the large majority of visits to education Web sites are made to 5% of such sites."

What about the other 95%? There are bound to be some gems in that vast field. How do we, as a minimum, enlarge the regularly visited pool, say, 20%?

Finally, some of what I have said may provide clues on how to engage the market. But, while I may have captured what is happening for students at this time, I think it foolhardy for any of us to really believe we can develop a scheme that will somehow manage the Web to our exclusive advantage.

The most we can do is to try to shape the revolution. My cartoon image has us on top of a billowing cloud, trying to smooth it into some familiar shape. I think we should, but we’re not in charge, the ‘Net is.

New York New Media Association
Education Special Interest Group
December 2, 1999

Supplemental information for: When Students Hit the Surf: What Do Kids Really Do on the Internet and What Are the Implications for Web Design?


John Lubans, Jr.
2507 Sevier Street
Durham, NC 27705 USA
E-mail: Lubans1@nc.rr.com
Phone & FAX: 919 493 4979

A. What do students do on the Internet? In ranked order, the top six pursuits, with 5 = "frequently":

1. E-mail (4.7)
2. Visiting favorite sites (3.65).
3. Using library-based guides and databases. (3.5)
4. Surfing (2.7) (11% men and 24% women said "rarely or never".
5. Gaming (1.75), for 60%, "rarely or never"
6. Chatting (1.45) 56% claimed "rarely or never".

B. Surf smarts: "What in your opinion makes for a trustworthy Web site?" Arran ged in order by average score where 5 = "essential":

1. Site is based on a respected print source. (4.1)
2. Referrals (3.8) to site by peers or teachers
3. Page "ownership" is explicit (3.65)
4. URL has org. or edu. in it.(3.5)
5. Links on page that lead to other sites (3.5)
6. Site displays a recent date (3.45).
7. E-mail link to owner. (3.15) Significantly more important for women.
8. Site looks "professional". (3.15)
9. Lots of pictures; (2.1)
10. Best of the Web awards (2.15)
11. Collections of "best" Web sites (2.1).

C. How do students find new Web sites? Students top two "sources" for finding new sites:

1. Search engines 37%
2. Surfing 31%
3. Using a directory 16%
4. Reading about sites 16%
5. Help from classmates 16%
6. Library staff 9%

D. What search tools do students use? In order by average score on 5 point scale with 5 = to "most used":

1. Yahoo (4.15) Yahoo rules! Over 53% claimed it as their most used.
2. Excite (3.0)
3. Alta Vista (2.75).
4. Infoseek (2.55)
5. Lycos (2.3)
6. HotBot (1.75)
7. LookSmart (1.45)
8. Google (1.3)

E. How did you learn to find and use Web based information resources? Top two sources:

From my classmates 20%
On my own by surfing around 55%
Library staff guidance 15%
From a family member 7%
Other 3%

Bibliographic note:
Trithemius, Johannes (1462-1516), In praise of scribes: De laude scriptorum (1492), translated by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie; edited with an introd. by Michael S. Batts. Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1977.

Background: This reports on John’s most recent study of student Internet use at Duke University ("Study 3"). Two hundred and one students shared how they use the Internet for academic purposes during the 1999 Spring semester in Duke University’s Lilly Library.

The majority (146) of these students were freshmen at Duke University. Fifty-five older students presented a slightly more mature, but strongly similar, response to this study.

School Library Journal carried a summary of this study in their September, 1999 back-to-school issue: www.slj.com/articles/articles/articlesindex.asp

"Study 1" on the Internet phenomenon was conducted during the Fall 1997 semester, reaching 235 college freshmen at Duke.

"Study 2" was of 226 seventh - tenth grade school children who spent the 1998 summer on the Duke campus.

John Lubans is on leave from a senior management position, as Deputy University Librarian, at Duke University.

He serves on the advisory board of the Electronic Publications Initiative at Columbia (EPIC) at Columbia University Press.

He writes and consults on Internet use and interesting organizations, most recently the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Duke Women’s Basketball team.

When Students Hit the Surf: Creative Stickiness: An Interactive Exercise
By John Lubans
A. Reflect, silently, on the challenge of getting your educational Internet site noticed, visited AND returned to by users – the "stickiness" challenge. Your sought-after audience is children (and their parents) in middle school to freshmen year in college. Consider ways to be the easiest to find site imaginable from anywhere.

B. What can you do to promote being noticed on the Web and to generate return visits? List out, in two or three minutes, the 3 most important steps:

1. ____________________________________

2. ____________________________________

3. ____________________________________

C. Discuss your list with the 7 or 8 people seated closest to you and choose the top five ways, in your group, to become a "sticky" site. Ten minutes.

D. Reporting out: Report ONLY items not already mentioned by another group. Te n minutes. Reporters please hand in your working lists to the panel.

Thanks for playing! We’ll put up all the recorded results on the NYNMA Ed-SIG site, soon.