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May 22, 2000 - Feedback Welcome

Study 5:

Graduate Student Internet Use


John Lubans


"(The Internet's) moved library resources to my desktop" – graduate student

In March I e-mailed questionnaires to 100 randomly selected graduate students at Duke University. Forty-one students responded.

This was the fifth study in a series dating back to 1997. (See Notes).

Many currently enrolled Graduate students represent a generation of scholars who were not "born to the Web"; rather they are a bridge between the traditional ways of scholarship and the merger of cyberspace and traditional model. So, how graduate students now use the Internet may be an intimation of the future – for publishing, for libraries, and for research and teaching.

One of the challenges in studying Internet is segregating uses for academic purposes from personal uses.

Studies 1-3 asked the students to isolate Internet use made for educational purposes.

Studies 4 and 5 asked students to consider and to report on their total use. These two studies confirm that Internet use is:

- pervasive and interwoven into the fabric of student life

- a channel for communicating and a channel for finding things out,

- a way of learning and of living.

The implications for libraries are clear from the five studies' (with over 760 participants):

The once exclusive role for the library as information gatekeeper is now shared with bookmarked news and content sites, search engines, e-texts and other Internet sources.

Because of the way the Internet is evolving -rapidly, dynamically, unpredictably –planning is difficult. While difficult, providing services, (modified and new) is still possible. Observing what students are doing can help a library make budgetary and policy decisions during what many regard as a transitional era. The underlying motive in all of these studies has been to help librarians plan in order to make the transition from what was to what will be.

What do Graduate Students do on the Internet?

(Scale: 5 ="very frequently" and 1="rarely or hardly ever".)


4.3 _Using search engines to find information.

4.3 _Using library provided Web sources (inc. the lib. cat.)

3.8 _Staying current with news.

3.7 _Communicating with faculty and classmates on course work.

3.6 _Visiting your bookmarked sites.

3.3 _Surfing.

2.4 _"Shopping" via E-commerce sites.

1.5 _Listening to music (MP3s or live).

1.1 _Chatting in "chat rooms".

Compared to the juniors in Study 4, the graduate students make more frequent use of Web resources in several of the ten categories. They chat less and listen to music less, but make significantly more use of search engines, news sources, and library provided information on the web.

The 4.3 score, indicating frequent use, for "library provided Web sources" confirms the importance of what libraries do (and have done traditionally) for students and other scholars. Because of the many irrelevant sites that come up in general Internet searches, users value gateways, like the library, that help them cut through to trustworthy resources.

Like one student put it: "If it's in the catalog, that means it is a worthwhile source".

Why the high score for surfing (3.3)?

"Entertainment and finding e-texts" - graduate student

Is surfing not an aimless and inefficient activity that results in a flood tide of raw information, much of it irrelevant and untrustworthy? Apparently not for these students.

- A dozen students explained that they surf for academic and research purposes.

- Eight look for news and general information.

- Five shop, and

- Four surf for fun.

Overall, the juxtaposition of commercial, personal, and research uses suggests a pervasive integration of the Internet into the academic setting.

What search tools do graduate students prefer?

(Scale: 5 = "very often used".)

3.6 _Yahoo

2.9 _Alta Vista

2.5 _Infoseek

2.5 _Lycos

2.2 _Excite

1.9 _Google

1.2 _DejaNews

Graduate students use a greater variety of search tools than do the undergraduates. This is evident in their lesser use of Yahoo (still #1) and their higher use of Alta Vista, Lycos, and Google. A dozen other search tools were mentioned including: GoTo, HotBot, AskJeeves, MetaCrawler, and NorthernLights.

It is reasonable to think that as information needs become less specifically driven by term paper topics, the more necessary it becomes to take a variety of approaches to the Internet. After all, the Yahoo directories have their limitations. More sophisticated users, like graduate students, probably have found that some search tools work better than others depending on the question.

While Yahoo prevails in the directory market, there remains a frontier-like atmosphere among the general purpose search engines. The engine that captures the scholarly market will consistently refresh itself with relevant links and be responsive (in precision of search results) to the vagaries of question-asking. Currently, there are only a couple that appear to be working toward this higher level.

Will graduate students' Internet use decrease over time? No.

"Journal access will be all electronic" – graduate student

Indicative of the Internet's tenacious claim on scholarly communication, over two thirds of the graduate students believe their use of the Internet will increase after graduation.

What are the most important areas of increase?

- More research information and journal access on line (17 students).

- More communication via the Internet (7).

- E-commerce (7).

- Classrooms (4).

Some of their comments on why Internet use will increase:

"Creating my own web page, as well as using the internet more in the courses that I teach".

"Collaborating on research through tools offered over the internet".

"Broadcasting my own research, directing me more efficiently to the work of others".

Generational differences?

"I didn't have email or the Net when I was an undergrad. We used to bang rocks together and sometimes someone would have a deer antler or a beartooth and we would use that" – graduate student

Over 98% of the graduate students said their use has increased since their undergraduate days. Their written comments point out the differences and reveal the apparent ease with which Internet skills can be acquired by new users:

- Twelve said there was NO Web when they were undergraduates.

- There is now more access to information of all kinds. (11)

- Use it now for research purposes. (8)

- Rely on it now for communicating. (5)

- Increased use in their classes. (3)

The increase is dramatic. There is an opportunity here for partnering by librarians with users in helping them to further develop and update Internet use skills. I did not ask the graduate students how they learned to use the Internet, but if they are like the students in the other studies, they did it on their own. I am not proposing a crash course in information literacy; rather I suggest the collaborative development of a highly tailored (and networked) and subject specific means for helping move users beyond their current levels of use. The more immediate the benefit to the users the better.

Selected comments on why the increase:

"A lot more access and also more information pertinent to my work is available".

"Moved library resources to my desktop."

"It has increased mainly because of the speed of the connection I have available now. A slow access to the internet keeps you out of it."

Gender differences?

All five of the studies have shown some gender differences. Here are the most striking differences among the graduate students:

Women surf more than men, (3.6 vs. 2.9).

Women use search engines more, (4.5 vs. 3.9).

Men use Alta Vista more, (3.4 vs. 2.6).

Women use InfoSeek more, (2.7 vs. 1.9).

Men have more personal web pages, (44% vs. 29%)

It is worth noting that over the course of the five studies, gender differences are becoming less pronounced.

How do graduate students use the Internet in the classes they teach?

(5 = "very often used". 22 graduate students responding).

4.6 - class-specific E-mail to and from students

3.2 - course syllabus on web page

3.0 - class web page

2.5 - web page has links to full text reserve readings

2.2 - web page has link(s) to library resources

2.1 - links to external Internet resources from web page

1.9 - collaborative discussion among groups of students (e.g. class "chat")

1.7 - posting of student papers for discussion/feedback by class

There is much opportunity for collaboratively developing Internet applications for classroom teaching, especially in making links from the class web page to external resources of all kinds. I surmise that a librarian's proactive help in developing these uses would be welcomed by an instructor. Librarians could help develop class web pages, make links to reserve readings, and identify content-specific links to library and external resources.

In a follow up question to the 22 graduate students, I asked about the effect of the Internet on student papers. Seventeen (or 77%) responded. Here is the extent to which they believe there is a positive or beneficial influence in the:

- Number of sources found (65%).

- Quality of the student's written work (18%)

(47% claimed there was "no difference" and 24% did not know.)

- Use of time (53%)

(35% checked "do not know").

- Grade assigned (24%)

(35% claimed "no difference" and 35% indicated not knowing).

Compared to the students who answered this question in the first three surveys, the graduate student teachers are far more reluctant to grant a sweeping pedagogical benediction of the Internet. Rather they exhibit a pragmatic perspective about the blessings and curses in Internet use. An analysis of their extensive written comments is in process and will appear as an appendix to this paper.

What more should the library/university be doing?

"The library should do what it has always done – be a depository of knowledge which can be accessed as efficiently as possible." - student

Here is a tally of the graduate student strongest preferences as expressed in response to the open-ended question:

11 – all journals online!

10 - improve infrastructure (off-campus access, quality of IT help in departments, faster printers, etc)

7 – kudos and encouragement for the library.

5 – classes on web design and use

4 – greater access to individual records and information

3 – information literacy classes for undergraduates

Selected quotes:

"Better off campus access for research!"

"I would like to see all journal articles available electronically".

"I like being able to get full text journal articles!!! Please maintain/increase subscriptions to journals accessible on the web. It is much easier than retrieving/photocopying articles".

"More online databases, also for humanities and social sciences, more historical primary sources online, more online journals in humanities and social sciences, offer classes in computing and history/humanities/social sciences."

"Giving more classes on building websites; training undergrads on internet research skills, helping them distinguish "good" from "bad" information and sites, etc."

"Organization!!!!!!! – make it easier to locate the needed information…".


Notes on the Internet studies:

"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.

In "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 Study 3 in their September, 1999 back-to-school issue: www.slj.com/articles/articles/articlesindex.asp

The first three studies asked students who came into the library to complete an on-line questionnaire on computers located in the Lilly Library lobby. Lilly is the library on Duke's East campus where first year students live. In the summer, East Campus is where the pre-college students live.

"Study 4". E-mail questionnaires (see Lubans web site) were sent to 177 randomly selected juniors.

Fifty-nine (or 33%) responded to my call and the promise of a Class of 2001 picture taken during their freshmen year in front of the Lilly Library on Duke's East Campus.

Of the 59 responding, 25 are males and 34 are females. Ten percent declared themselves Arts & Humanities majors; 40% said they were Social Sciences majors; 40% indicated they were majoring in Science and Engineering; and, 10% claimed the "other" category, including 3 with double majors.

"Study 5". Graduate student random sample. N=41 or 41%. Contacted by e-mail. While similar to Study 4, this study does ask the graduate students about how they use the Internet in courses they teach. Three fifths of the students were female, 37% were male. Of these students, 37% have a web page and 53% teach classes. Their areas of graduate study:

.29% _Arts & Humanities

.22% _Social Sciences

.46% _Science & Engineering

* Biographical note *

John Lubans writes and consults on Internet use and (not unrelatedly) interesting organizations, like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Duke Women's Basketball team.

He serves as Evaluation Consultant to the Electronic Publications Initiative at Columbia (EPIC) for Columbia University. He is conducting a formative evaluation of the new online earth sciences publication: Earthscape.

At Duke University since 1982, he is currently the Deputy University Librarian, a senior management position.