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Copyright 1998 Duke University Library

How First-Year University Students Use and Regard Internet Resources


John Lubans, Jr.

Deputy University Librarian

Duke University

April 8, 1998 (REVISED)

A Fall 1997 research study exploring how the Internet is used and viewed by freshman students; identifying apparent patterns of information seeking behavior among male and female university library users; and, discussing the implications of these patterns for reader and library staff time saving and for improving the experience of using libraries and finding information.


"As a college student, I can hardly remember life before I was born into the world of e-mail. I use electronic mail and the World Wide Web to communicate with family and friends ..., to ask questions of professors, to gather information about current events and to learn about topics ranging from Shakespeare to strawberry Pop-Tarts." - Duke undergraduate student writing about the WEB, Spring, 1997.

This quote captures that extraordinary something occurring for the past few years in information seeking and use: the Internet. But, what is different and how students are using Internet sources are not readily apparent. On a visit to USC in Los Angeles, I made sure to tour their "computer commons" in the basement of the Leavey Library. When I asked library staff what students were doing there, the response was that no one really knew except for the observable obvious: crowds of students working unassisted at computers using the Internet, desk top "productivity" tools, and e-mail.

I admit to experiencing some dissonance when I contrast the standing-room only use at the Leavey Library against the frequent criticism about the questionable quality of Internet information and the reputed inability of users to evaluate that information. There are other disparities. I observe much independent use of the Internet and yet I am told by librarians that Internet use is difficult and most succesful when mediated by a librarian and, that student use is at an alarmingly un-informed level.

To date, differing opinions exists among librarians (and teaching faculty) on the wisdom of students' making independent use of the Internet to find information for academic purposes. What seems to be a majority, claim that there are too many unvalidated, unconventional and unstable sites on the Internet for academic purposes and that students lack the ability to discern what is good and bad on the Cyber frontier.

And, there is much suspicion that the student user will opt for ease of access, settling for a few "good enough" Internet resources, rather than doing a thorough search of resources on a topic, that includes books and journals in the stacks. While that opinion sounds remarkably similar to that raised against the first electronic periodical indexes and full text services, it nevertheless does raise concern about what we librarians are doing and whether we are moving in the right direction at a velocity sufficient to anticipate and meet the changing needs of our clients. Or will we be left behind, superseded by outsourced information services? Will the academic library begin to experience something like the Barnes & Noble bookstore phenomenon which has some public librarians genuinely concerned about the future?

Internet information seeking is proliferating in unprecedented ways. A manifestation of that change is evident in the library clones of the Leavey's computer commons (what new academic library building does NOT have one?) and to the numerous calls for partnerships with information technology, all to gain some handle on the problem and to extend access to cyberspace. At the same time, a few commercial enterprises (e.g. the Electric Library) are seeking to become answer providing services, shipping information on demand, for a fee.

In this expansionary era, libraries continue to maintain traditional library services and appear to be ignoring the implications of trends such as escalating reference costs, declining quantities of "desk" questions, and increasing reliance on electronic resources (see appendix - chart). If we are not ignoring the trends, we are, in effect, tying up scarce dollars in traditional services, so that no dollars remain for exploration.

Several years ago, the staff at Duke library made a voluntary and public commitment for providing a "seamless" interface to electronic resources (including Internet access). This was not an empty gesture - it came with a major shift in the budget towards technology, with some sacrifices in the salary and book budget lines. Considering our early commitment, it made sense, for planning and budgeting, to find out more about the nature and quality of student information use in the ever changing electronic era. We decided to ask the students themselves about what was happening by mounting an on-line questionnaire on gateway computers at one of the campus libraries from October 18 through November 3, 1997. This study received 235 responses.

Opening Page to Questionnaire  (Use link below to look at survey questions)
Text Questionnaire (Non-Web format)

The Lilly Library, the site of the study, is on Duke's East campus where all first year students reside. It is a 10 minute bus ride from the West Campus, where most upperclassmen live and where the Perkins Library, the central research library for the humanities and the social sciences, sits, adjacent to the soaring Duke Chapel. The Lilly Library holds the art and philosophy collections, but is well regarded by first year students as a starting point for research papers and for studying.

With the introduction two years ago of the "first year student campus" experience, the staff at Lilly have undertaken to make the freshman year a transitional one from high school library to university. Lilly staff work closely with the University Writing Course instructors, integrating a solid core of user education into the UWC classes for over 1000 students. Lilly features a computer equipped training facility for information literacy training.

This study explores how male and female students (all recent graduates from high school) in their first year (1997/98) at a university are using the Internet for academic purposes. We asked students to tell us about their:

· frequency of use of the WEB

· skill levels in WEB use

· learning about the WEB

· staying current about the WEB

· view of the library as a location for WEB access

· comparative use of print and digital resources

· classroom experiences/outcomes in using WEB sources

· experiences while learning in the WEB environment

· trust of the WEB


· expectations of librarians for helping them better use the WEB.

Q1. The students confirm our belief that they make frequent use of the WEB for academic/learning purposes - over 85% use it from several times a day to at least several times a week, (20% or 47 students use it more than once a day). Women are less frequent users of the WEB. Twenty-eight men categorized themselves as several times a day users versus 19 women at this level.


MH Chi Square Probability = .023

Chi Square = .039

Q2. What do students think of their ability to use the WEB? Overall, the students view their skill level from "good" (29%) to "better" (23%) to "best" (7%). Once again, there are statistically significant gender differences. Ten percent of the men rate themselves as among the "best", while 4% of the women believe they are at this level. Similarly, 31% of the men score themselves as "better" while 17% of the women do so. These results belie any evidence of a widespread arrogance; rather, many users are not overly confident about their ability to navigate in cyberspace - clearly, most see their skill at less than the best and in need of improvement, and this probably suggests some opportunities for libraries. While much has been written about WEB abuse through unintelligent use, these students are aware of their limitations.


MH Chi Square Probability = .001

Q3. While the library has great opportunity to help students understand the WEB, for these students the library is not the primary way for learning about the WEB. Rather, top sources of learning are fellow classmates (44%) and surfing, at 88%, the top spot. Library staff were mentioned by 36% of the respondents as among their top two most important influences.


Other ways of learning about the WEB include, in order of frequency: school (teachers/library classes), family members, one's job in a library, and from the media.

Q4. How do students find new WEB sites? Search engines (75%) and surfing (65%) are the two top sources/means to identify new sites. Other ways of learning about new web sites include, in order of frequency, the media, friends, school, library, and luck.


Q5. Why were the students using the library's gateway machines, when they could be surfing from their room or from computer clusters. I asked this because some campus planners believe that library-as-place is an antiquated model, a construct from the past that can be eliminated - librarians should be telling students: "don't come in, save a trip and visit us on the net from the "comfort(?)" of your dorm room". Advocates of distance learning, when they are asked about library resources, often refer to a "digital library", one that is still under construction. The following response, strongly supports the idea of the library building as a place one goes to to get resources and help.

The Duke students, many of whom arrive on campus with fully connected personal computers, state that they are in the library because they'll need supplemental resources inside the library (75%) and because they like working in the library (36%); specifically, 35% indicated their liking of the user friendly Lilly Library. Other reasons to be in the library are for using library computers, convenience and proximity of Lilly for residents of the East Campus, quicker connect times, and that they work in Lilly.


Q6. How WEB-dependent are students? The results show a mixed or balanced model for how students find and use electronic and print information. Half of the students claim a ratio of 20% WEB use to 80% use of traditional library resources (including library databases). A not insignificant 26% say their ratio is at 50/50 between WEB and print. And 14% use the WEB 80% of the time to find resources and rely 20% of the time on traditional library resources. The WEB is clearly a rich resource, one that students are using and coming back to increasingly for their information needs.

Based on these survey results, it appears that user independence has been given a quantum boost by technology and yet, for these first year students, the use of WEB resources is almost always in tandem with the use of traditional sources.


Chi Square Probability = .463

Q7. Does the WEB influence student paper quality? Students were asked to respond to this question using a scale of from "5 = helped greatly" to "1 = made no difference".

· Sixty percent of the respondents believe using the WEB helps in the number of sources found. A third of the respondents scored this at a five or "helped greatly" and 27% gave a positive 4.


Scale:  5= helped greatly, 1 = made no difference

· Some students (N=45 or 20%) believe the Internet has positive influence on the quality of their written work. Twice that number, 91 or 40% believe that the WEB "made no difference" in the quality of their written work.


Scale:  5 = helped greatly, 1 = made no difference

· Is using the WEB a time saver when looking for information? Yes; over half believe that the WEB has this positive effect on the use of their time. 21% (49) think the WEB has helped greatly.


Scale:  5 = helped greatly, 1 = made no difference

· However, WEB use is thought to have only a modest influence on grades. Many (73) or 33% believe it "made no difference in the grades given. Another 17% responded with a negative 2. The remainder believe there is some influence from mild to strong. If we take the midpoint on the scale (3) as neutral, 30% put themselves in this category. Only six or 2.7% believe WEB use has "helped greatly" to get their grade. However, 39 marked the 4 showing they think that some positive influence has occurred.


Scale:  5 = helped greatly, 1 = made no difference

Q8. Learning on the WEB - an oxymoron?: Some suggest that a good experience in navigating the WEB produces a "flow" (an optimal experience) effect. (NOTE 1) That is, to create a "playful" climate for increased learning, an exploration mindset and ability to navigate on one's own with a clear desire to make more use of the resource another time. Our question sought to find out if "flow" occurs while using academic sites or is "flow" relevant only to the pleasurable experiences for some users of clicking on the hot buttons in the M&M candy store (www.m-ms.com/colorworks/index.html) or surfing in the endlessly quirky and bizarre environs of cyberland. If the answer was positive for academic surfing, then there might be reason to explore applying WEB design concepts to our user education efforts.

Characteristics of a flow experience, as adapted on the questionnaire, were engaged, learning, curious, having fun, bored, and frustrated.

We asked students to rate their academic WEB experiences on a five point Likert scale. from "5 = very frequent" to "1 = rarely or hardly ever".

· Most are engaged; 26% say this experience is "very frequent". Another 35% marked the 4 for a positive total of 61%. Women believe themselves to be more engaged by this medium than do men. The statistical difference is strong. For example, of those rating a 5 (very frequent), women represent 31% with men at 19%. Forty percent of the women chose a 4 while 28% of the men did so.


Scale:  5 = very frequent
        1 = rarely or hardly ever

MH Chi Square Probability = .001

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