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Student attitudes towards Web sites.

Abstract

This study addresses two questions related to the evaluative criteria used by students to make judgments about the use of Web pages. Using a survey design with college students the data shows that students tend to use Web sites that are clear to understand and do not contain too many "bells and whistles," and are relevant to their special interests and needs.

Use of the Web

There is little doubt that the use of the Web in pedagogy is becoming as ubiquitous as other teaching tools such as books and whiteboards. Consequently, the issues surrounding attitude towards the Web and the use of the Web has been addressed in recent scholarship and research about the Web. For instance, one area of enquiry involved the role of the Web in conducting research for class projects to explore how college students conduct research on the Web and made evaluations on the quality and type of research being conducted (Burton and Chadwick, 2000; Lindsay and McLaren, 2000; Scime, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). Similarly, Pascoe, Applebee, and Clayton (1996) confirmed that ease, convenience, and accessibility continue to be major factors influencing academic Internet use. Another emphasis has been on the way in which students are able to evaluate the quality of the research they conduct by using the Web. Studies have shown that students use such criteria as the appearance of the .edu and .gov Top-Level Domains to establish the trustworthiness of a web resource (O'Hanlon, 2002; Thompson, 2003). Such situations suggests that students need more training on Internet research in general, with emphasis on critical evaluation of all electronic sources and proper citation of the sources they do use. This is particularly important since it can be argued that the use of the Web for research and the way in which quality of information is judged is implicated by the way in which research on the Web is initiated (D'Esposito and Gardner, 1999; Lubans, 1998; Scime and Kerschberg, 2000, 2003). The use of the Web for research also underscores the increasing affinity for digital information such as e-books as opposed to the traditional analog information available from books in a library (Blumenstyk, 2001; Young, 2001). The University of Texas at Austin, in their significant usage of e-books, has found an important library niche for e-books irrelevant of whether students have an equal experience with them and print books alike: they can't be stolen. They found that e-books filled significant gaps in their collection caused by theft (Dillon, 2001).

Other research teams began to explore what college students were doing on the Web beyond academics. Goodson (2001) reported that almost all students used the Web to communicate with friends and family via e-mail. In some institutions where Internet access is relatively reliable and seamless, 'non-academic purposes' represents one of the key Internet usage categories. (Anderson, 2001; Jones, 2002; Mitra & Hazen, 1999). College students have even been found to engage in excessive Internet use. According to Kandell (1998), several aspects of college life can create a 'dependence' on the Internet. Dependence, coupled with easy access to technology, points toward college students spending a substantial quantity of time on the Internet. Considering the significant amount of Web use reported, the information that students encounter on the Web is an important topic to investigate. The issue here is not the validity of Internet information, which is important when doing research, nor is it a question of the legality of information as has been the case with the debates surrounding offensive information available on-line. What students encounter has more to do with information presentation and message design issues regarding the Web. With the burgeoning use of the Web and its messages, we argue that it is useful to consider how much attention has been paid to the way in which the information is presented.

Designing of Web Information

The question of Web design has primarily been a "technical" and "applied" issue where the existing literature provides ample pointers towards existing conventions of Web design. Many Web sites have been created to offer assistance to those interested in designing a Web page, whether for personal or business use (Van Horn, 2001). Among the various criteria of Web design, screen design, and frame layout in particular has received some attention (Ling & Van Schaik, 2002; McGovern, 2000; Van Schaik and Ling, 2001). In addition, perceived attractiveness positively influences perceived ease-of-use, enjoyment, and actual usage (van der Heijden, 2003).

Other design issues have focused on the technicalities of programming Web pages to produce different kinds of appearances and functionalities for Web pages (Mattocks, 1998). In many ways the usefulness of the information available on a Web page becomes connected to the specific programming strategies used to design it. The relationship between usefulness and coding strategies has led to some attention on defining what "successful" Web pages are, as well as their prevalence on the World Wide Web (D'Angelo and Little's, 1998; Turban and Gehrke, 2000). In contrast, Dalal, Quible, and Wyatt (2000) adhered to a cognitive design when testing successful Web pages. Another Web page design philosophy can be labeled "visual rhetoric." This view holds that definite distinctions exist between the rhetoric of literature and the rhetoric of Web pages. The two are different media and, thus, require separate approaches to design and composition (Sullivan, 2001; Landoni, 2000). Consequently, the question of Web page design has received significant amount of attention with particular emphasis on what constitutes a 'good' or a 'bad' page. However, as evidenced by the differing opinions of many researchers (e.g., Dalal et al., 2000; Hughes, 1997; Link & Van Schaik, 2002; Markel, 1998; Sullivan, 2001; Van Schaik & Link, 2001), there is a considerable degree of ambiguity and disagreement regarding what the standards for determining the quality of a Web page.

What remains somewhat unexplored is the way in which students use and evaluate the quality of Web pages. In particular, no specific relation is established between design criteria and student preference for specific designs. Thus two research questions are proposed here. Given the issues surrounding the use of the Web in pedagogic setting, two key questions are proposed:

RQ1: What are some of the major criteria used by students to evaluate Web sites?

RQ2: What are some of the different kinds of Web sites used by students?

Methodology

Instrumentation

Focus groups were conducted with students at a small liberal arts university. The students were recruited from across the campus and a small incentive was offered to the students for participation in the focus groups. The protocol for the focus groups included questions about the participants' level of Internet use; the categories of Web information sought; the participants' feelings about the usefulness of the Web for a variety of functions varying from shopping to academic uses; the different criteria that the participants used to make judgments about the quality of a Web page, and the participants' general opinions about the use of the Web in their everyday lives. In all, six focus groups were conducted over a span of a fortnight with a total of thirty-two students. The focus group discussions were followed by the development of the instrument that had several sections. The parts of the questionnaire that are used to answer the exploratory research questions raised here included a section with a set of statements that described different attributes of typical Web pages such as "number of links provided by the site," "textual content of the site," and the respondents were asked to indicate how important each of the criteria were. The respondents were offered a three-point scale from "Very Important" to "Not Important." Another section of the instrument contained questions about the different kinds of sites that students use when they visit the Web. This section included a series of items developed on the basis of the focus groups and included items such as "news sites," "chat sites," etc. The respondents were offered a three-point scale from "Frequently" to "Never."

Subjects and Intervention

The subjects for the study were recruited from the undergraduate students at the university. The participants were offered a small incentive to participate in the completion of a short Web based task. The participants were asked to complete the task of locating what they considered the best Web site about women from Afghanistan. The participants were then asked to list that Web site and answer the questionnaire developed for the study. There were a total of 92 participants in the study with 45% men; 36% of the participants were between the ages of 17 and 22 years old (with 64% at or above 23 years of age); 13% claimed to be in the natural science and 87% in the social sciences, art and humanities.

Results

Research Question 1: Criteria to evaluate Web sites The data suggests that the "fit" of the information on the Web site is considered to be the most important criteria for evaluating the value of a Web site. The relevance of the information on the Web site is followed by the textual content of the Web site. Those sites that seem to have appropriate textual content are considered to be most valuable. On the other hand, elements such as animated graphics and sounds used are considered to be relatively unimportant. Table 1 shows the relative importance of the various criteria. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/spr2004.htm>

Research question 2: Categories of Web sites visited by students The data suggests that other than search engines, the Web sites that are used most frequently need to have some direct relevance for the students' work--either class work or their special interest. On the other hand, Web sites such as chat sites and gaming sites are used less often. It is important to note that there is a difference in the reported level of use of special interest sites that provide political information and those sites that cater to the special interest of the student. The latter is ranked second highest in frequency of use. Table 2 shows the relative levels of use of various kinds of Web sites. See issue's website <http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/spr2004.htm>

Discussion

The data demonstrate a need to better understand what categories of Web sites are used by the population represented in this study as well as a better evaluation of the criteria used by students to judge the "quality" of Web sites. It appears to be the case that there could be a tension between what Web designers would consider to the "state-of-the-art" applications in Web design and what the users would consider to be attractive. As pointed out earlier, the emphasis on visual rhetoric with a focus on the bells and whistles of web design particularly in terms of the use of elements such as streaming video, audio and pop-up screens are precisely the elements that students do not find to be particularly attractive. Specifically in the academic setting where a functional use of the web appears to be central it remains more important that the web sites emphasize what the contents are rather than how the contents are presented (Turban & Gehrke, 2000).

The data also demonstrates that the use of Web sites is dictated more by interest and the perceived functionality of the Web page. This finding is congruent with the argument suggested by Pacey (1983) that the quality of a technology may well be measured by its "practice" value than its pure technological value. This is demonstrated in the finding that the study participants reported sites such as search engines and news sites as being visited more often than gaming sites and chat sites. This finding is important to note in the way in which the Web could be used in pedagogy. There is clearly less use of special interest sites whereas there is a greater use of sites that are of interest to the users. As a preliminary study, the objective of the project was to do some exploration of the existing modes of use of Web sites. As in other past studies, this one also begins to open up important questions about the usefulness of the Web in teaching and its appropriate use for specific population sub-groups represented among undergraduate students. Clearly, further exploration is required to evaluate the differences between what the designer would call "attractive" and what the student user would find "functional." Eventually, there needs to be a matching of these constructs so that the web becomes a more effective pedagogic tool.

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Ananda Mitra, Wake Forest University, NC Jennifer Willyard, Wake Forest University, NC Carrie Anne Platt, Wake Forest University, NC Michael Parsons, Wake Forest University, NC

Mitra, Ph.D., is associate professor in communication and his research is focused on understanding the role of technology in society. Willyard, Platt and Parsons are graduate students in the Department of Communication working on the project that was funded by an Social and Behavioral Science Research grant of Wake Forest University.
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Author:Parsons, Michael
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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