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Few technology-oriented undergraduates have not heard of the information superhighway. From what they read and hear, students believe that taking the wheel is simple. They are frequently unprepared for the complexities of the network, the difficulties with equipment and connections, and the overwhelming amount of relatively unorganized information. Students, particularly those with little computer experience, may run off the road quickly due to sheer frustration despite their competing desire to be an Internet cruiser. Librarians and faculty members who are having students use Internet resources are still grappling with the best way to assist them. This article will describe activities which may assist student learning.
Using the Internet involves several types of activities (Abernathy, 1993) including electronic mail (e-mail), obtaining text or software from online libraries (FTP), real-time roundtable chats (IRC), mail groups (listserv, usenet groups, newsnet), and browsing gophers or World Wide Web (WWW) pages to find specific information resources and searchable databases. It is this latter activity in particular--finding useful information on the WWW--which has expanded academic libraries beyond their physical walls and rapidly drawn librarians into teaching students Internet skills.
Although students may have used e-mail or played games on the WWW, these activities do not prepare them for using the Internet to meet specific information needs. The Internet operates by very different rules from other electronic information systems which students may have previously used. The Internet has no physical shape or boundaries. Unlike a printed resource, it is not static but constantly grows, and the speed of these changes can be instantaneous. Although a resource present today may disappear the next day, students do not realize that the information keeps changing.
Currently, the Internet is a common resource where there is an egalitarian spirit and an attitude that anything goes. Information added to the Internet is not reviewed by a publisher or a librarian as printed articles and books may be. Students, unaware of these invisible filters of the information they find in libraries, may not realize what is missing on the Internet. Instead, they view the Internet as just a bigger and better library and a way of avoiding the apparent complexities of modern libraries.
Undergraduates have made the transition from card catalogs and printed indexes to online public access catalogs (OPACs) and CD-ROM periodical indexes relatively quickly due to the media hype of the need to adopt the new technologies. Having seen automatic teller machines (ATMs) replace bank tellers, and computer games replace board games, they view OPACs and CD-ROM indexes as just bigger and better electronic versions of card catalogs and the Reader's Guide. Despite the efforts of bibliographic instruction librarians, few students have learned the intricacies of keyword searching and Boolean logic or understand the reasons for evaluating the information found. After all, putting a simple topic into a computerized resource results in large quantities of information, and one can find what is needed within that group of information. For most undergraduates, these crude research methods have sufficed for their needs until they try to transfer their simple skills and mental model to the Internet. The difficulties of quantity, and the varying quality, of information, together with the problems of connecting and finding information, have become obstacles for undergraduates.
Gates (1993) offers the example of a Professor Jones who wants to make a document available. jones does not need to clear this with any regional, national, or international organization. In fact, he does not need to tell anyone it is there. With the appropriate computer knowledge, anyone with an Internet connection can, and does, add to this information pool. The ease with which information can be added also makes changing or correcting online information easy. Simply trusting that an Internet document is accurate may not provide the complete story. For example, on February 11, 1994, the Associated Press reported that the electronic version of a widely circulated White House press release criticizing a scholar's article on the Clinton health care plan had bee, altered. The initial press release used the word "lie" four times while the electronic version did not. The White House explained that they reserved the right to edit as all online authors can (Associated Press, 19!)4).
If anyone with an Internet connection can make almost anything available, sorting good (useful, relevant, reliable) information from bad (unreliable, false, extraneous) also becomes a problem. At a time when both education and business are emphasizing productivity, spending hours determining the reliability of information is not profitable.
Trying to find specific and useful information is complicated by the vast quantity of information on the Internet. If Jones had published his document as a book, he would probably have been asked to provide an index for the manuscript. …