SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

This study addresses three questions related to the evaluative criteria used by men and women to make judgments about Web pages. What are the major criteria used by students to evaluate Web sites? What are the different kinds of Web sites used by students? Is there a difference in Web site preference and use based on gender? Using a survey design with college students, we show that students tend to use Web sites that are clearly understandable, do not contain too many “bells and whistles,” and are relevant to their special interests and needs. Furthermore, significant gender differences emerge with respect to evaluative criteria and use patterns, with men liking some of the “bells and whistles” and women using academic Web sites more.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

Access to the Internet is becoming ubiquitous in institutions of higher education. This has been particularly true of the countries in the developed world and is becoming true of developing countries as well. Most colleges and universities in developed countries make access to the World Wide Web (Web) almost as easy and transparent as access to phone lines. Furthermore, students coming out of the high school systems in those countries are increasingly aware of the opportunities offered by the Web, and are often already frequent Web users prior to entering a university. Much like the way in which educational television led to questions about the efficacy of the use of television and video in education, the increasing ubiquity of the Web within the realm of education and pedagogy leads to questions about the ways in which the Web is used by students and what makes, or can make, the Web an appropriate, attractive and efficient pedagogic tool. This study addresses questions related to the evaluative criteria used by men and women to make judgments about the use of Web pages. To begin with, however, it is useful to examine some of the key issues surrounding the use of the Web by students.

Use of the Web

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

Student Web use has been addressed extensively in recent scholarship and research. One area of inquiry involves the role of the Web in conducting research for class projects. For instance, Lindsay and McLaren (2000) studied how college students conduct research on the Web, and made evaluations on the quality and type of research being conducted. In a similar fashion, Burton and Chadwick (2000) examined the Internet research habits of students and found that although some did depend solely on Internet resources in writing research papers, a majority of the students in the study used a combination of library and online resources. This did not, however, mean that students were necessarily choosing the best or most pertinent sources relating to their topics. Instead, as emphasized by Burton and Chadwick, students depended upon “access, access, access,” giving the most positive ratings to sources that were “easy to understand…easy to find” and “available” (Burton & Chadwick, 2000, p. 321). Pascoe, Applebee, and Clayton (1996) also found that ease, convenience, and accessibility were major factors influencing academic Internet use.

Another emphasis has been on students' ability to evaluate the quality of the sources they encounter when conducting research by using the Web. O'Hanlon (2002) tested college freshmen's Internet proficiency and found that only 19% of students received a passing grade (70% or higher) on questions relating to “evaluation of Web sources, source selection and research strategy, and citing sources” (p. 62). In addition, 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 (Thompson, 2003). This lack of critical thinking skill in regard to Web source evaluation is often attributed to academic handbooks focusing predominantly on the mechanics of the search process and the format for electronic sources, rather than offering evaluative criteria for students to utilize. Even with such handbooks, students scored especially low when answering questions regarding the citation of electronic sources (O'Hanlon, 2002). This situation suggests that students need more training on how to conduct Internet research in general, with emphasis on critical evaluation of all electronic sources and proper citation of the sources they do use.

It can be argued that the use of the Web for research and the ways in which quality of information is judged are implicated by the manner in which research on the Web is initiated. For instance, focus groups conducted by D'Esposito and Gardner (1999) found that “[w]hen approaching research on the Internet, both for their assignments and in general, participants used search engines such as Yahoo!, WebCrawler, and Infoseek” instead of library pages (p. 458). These popular resources are used even though students express doubt about the accuracy and authority of Internet sources (Lubans, 1998).

While this may be disturbing to academicians, the students in D'Esposito and Gardner's study also stated that “[t]hey felt the sites of highest quality and reliability were those produced by the government, educational institutions, and reputable businesses and corporations” (p. 458). Participants in the focus groups generally agreed that sources found on the Internet alone were never acceptable for research papers. Instead, the groups found a combination of Internet and library resources, as O'Hanlon (2002) concluded, to be most useful (D'Esposito & Gardner, 1999). According to a study conducted by Lubans in 1998, half of the college students surveyed said that 20% of the resources they used were Web-based, while 80% were traditional library sources. But by 2002, Jones reported that over 70% of college students depended upon the Internet more than the library when conducting research, while only 9% depended on the library more than the Internet. In only four years, the trend had reversed, suggesting an exponential growth of Internet use in college student life. Similar trends were also observed by Mathew and Varagoor (2001), where students expressed an increasing affinity to use the Internet for research.

The use of the Web for research also underscores the increasing affinity for digital information. An example of this increasing acceptance and embracing of the digital can be found in the case of adoption of e-books. According to Blumenstyk (2001), in institutions where e-books were being used, “[s]tudents complained about having to scroll to find sections, about how long it took to scroll, and about the problems of reading from a laptop” (p. A35). Students have also reported that the smaller screen of an e-book reader, designed for just this application, makes the books more difficult to read, as the “tiny screens made the texts seem more fragmented” (Young, 2001, p. 39). Students did find the search feature of an e-textbook to be more convenient than the index of a paper textbook, but these same students still used the traditional textbook more than the e-book (Blumenstyk, 2001). The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that college students are not yet willing to replace textbooks with e-books. In fact, many of those interviewed expressed the view that e-books “adversely affected the amount of information that they absorbed” (2002, p. A33).

The University of Texas at Austin, which makes significant usage of e-books, has found an important library niche for e-books irrespective of whether students have an equal experience with them and print books: they can't be stolen. UT found that e-books filled significant gaps in their collection caused by theft (Dillon, 2001). However, the same study stated that “we may live in digital times, but it's still an analog world” (p. 122). Continuing research in this area will be needed as the technology of e-textbooks continues to improve.

These studies, although valuable, are relatively narrow in focus and do not examine the hows and whys of general student Internet use. Other research teams have begun to explore what college students are doing on the Web beyond academics. Goodson (2001) reported that almost all students use 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 (Mitra & Hazen, 1999). Jones (2002) stated that 72% of students check their e-mail at least once a day and that e-mail is the most popular online communication method used by students, although instant messaging was another popular choice. Anderson's (2001) survey of students' Internet activities indicated that students spent an average of 100 minutes per day online, thirty-five of which were spent e-mailing. A Harris Poll conducted for Northeastern Mutual Life Insurance found that more than half of the students they surveyed (54%) reported using the Internet as a career tool to look for jobs after graduation. Finally, O'Hanlon's (2002) study, which so negatively revealed students' research proficiency, showed that students are much more adept at navigating their e-mail accounts. Out of six questions, only one involving e-mail was found to confuse students. On the other five questions, 70% of students indicated a correct response.

The socio-technological environment of colleges that began emerging in the late 1990s has led to increasing dependence on the Internet, which has only grown as many students enjoy free access 24 hours a day on college campuses (e.g., Kandell, 1998). Some have used this access to their educational advantage, as in the case of virtual office hours where Internet-steeped students met with faculty in cyberspace, leading to a more effective use of the “office” hour (Meyers, 2003). Additional studies have documented a state of technological dependence among college Internet users, ranging from eight to thirteen percent of the student population (Anderson, 2001; Scherer, 1997; Welsh, 1999). Dependence, coupled with easy access to technology, points toward college students spending a substantial quantity of time on the Internet (Hall & Parsons, 2001).

Designing Web Information

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

The question of Web design has primarily been a technical and applied issue, and the existing literature provides ample pointers to current 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). Other Web sites, such as http://www.useit.com, maintain lists of dos and don'ts for general Web design. While there are a large number of popular and semi-technical books about the design of Web sites, there is somewhat of a paucity of recent research on the best practices of Web site design for pedagogic and training purposes. The assumption seems to be that what the popular guides suggest can be translated for academic Web sites.

Within the existing scholarship, among the various criteria for Web design, screen design and frame layout have received particular attention. For instance, Van Schaik and Ling (2001) found that most participants who viewed a model Web page preferred frames at either the bottom or top of the page, especially the top left of the page. This frame layout had significant positive effects on the accuracy and speed of visual searches of Web pages. The team also studied background color of homepages and found that background and text colors that showed high levels of contrast (e.g., blue and white, yellow and blue) improved performance of visual searches of Web pages as compared to pairs of low contrast such as green and red (Ling & Van Schaik, 2002). Research has shown that there is a relationship between perceived attractiveness of a given Web site and perceived usefulness. In addition, perceived attractiveness positively influences perceived ease-of-use, enjoyment, and actual usage (van der Heijden, 2003). McGovern (2000) notes that the shape and appearance of the text on a Web page is of importance to the viewer as well. He suggests keeping paragraphs short and documents simple, because a Web designer should “assume that the online reader is always about to leave” (p. 58).

Other design issues have focused on the technicalities of programming Web pages to produce different kinds of appearances and functionalities. Some of the traditional ideas presented at the “dawn” of the Web remain true now. For instance, Maddux (1998) in The WWW: Some Simple Solutions to Common Design Problems provides the following suggestions: always use the meta tag, provide identification of the page sponsor, provide links back to a home page, provide page titles, display a paragraph describing the purpose of the page, avoid the use of frames and publishing pages that are “under construction,” carefully check language and mechanics, and make sure pages are up-to-date. These specific suggestions are offered to produce what could eventually become an effective and useful Web page from which users can easily glean relevant and appropriate information. 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. In the earlier days of the Web, D'Angelo and Little's (1998) article, “Successful Web Pages: What Are They and Do They Exist?” established a research-based set of guidelines for Web design. Some of the desired characteristics of a successful site included: the ability to communicate ideas effectively, simplicity rather than artistry and complexity, explicitly informing patrons of a document map, fewer layers, easy return to the starting place, and icons rooted in Western culture (pp. 73-75). Turban and Gehrke (2000) note that there is a changing trend in what constitutes a successful Web page, and that the trend is now towards simplicity. Gone are the days of “revolving wingdings, flashing banner ads, [and] grotesque background colors” (p. 117).

In contrast, Dalal, Quible, and Wyatt (2000) adhered to a cognitive design when testing successful Web pages. They placed emphasis on comprehension through coherence, the connectedness and feel of the homepage and subpages of a Web page, and the notion of cognitive overload, the extra concentration required when multitasking, to guide Web page design that minimized disorientation. The factors that most increased comprehension and coherence and decreased cognitive overload and disorientation were broken down into five guidelines: (1) Use icons or words to link corresponding pages; (2) Use headings that are of equal size and larger than subsequent text or use shapes to indicate categories of information; (3) Preserve overall context to increase continuity and reduce fragmenting; (4) Unite information in the document into higher-order segments; and (5) Provide a graphical map displaying the important sections of the Web page and their relationships to one another (Dalal et al., 2000). Such specific directions indicate the emphasis that is placed on the details of Web design; the value and eventual use of the information is deemed to depend on the way that the information is presented. Similar instructions are provided about the balance between generic and customized Web sites for different students with different learning levels (Kaltenbach, 2001).

Another Web page design philosophy can be labeled “visual rhetoric” (Sullivan, 2001). 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. According to Sullivan (2001), print rhetoric, while difficult to produce, is stable over time. In contrast, the visual rhetoric of the Web is contained on a changeable “viewing platform,” which means that ”1. not everyone sees the graphics, the animation, the fonts, the video; 2. text doesn't stay aligned; 3. colors don't stay stable; 4. not everyone views on similar and appropriate devices” (Sullivan, 2001, p. 111). Indeed, this changeable platform may be the opposite of what readers expect for their content. Readers expect that e-texts will have a certain level of readability, and this is related to page dimensions, character size, and typesetting (Landoni, 2000). Instead of looking upon these facts with dismay, Sullivan sees this constant flux as an opportunity because “there exists no clear arbiter of what constitutes good or safe visual rhetoric on the Web and therefore those of us in writing have the option to make our own decisions about quality visual rhetoric online” (Sullivan, 2001, p. 117).

Consequently, the question of Web page design has received a significant amount of attention with particular emphasis on what constitutes a good or a bad page. 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 should be. One of the ways in which the question of quality has traditionally been addressed is by the development of measurement metrics that can be used to evaluate how well Web pages function, according to their content and intended purpose (Lindroth, 1997). In most cases, these scales attempt to apply criteria of measurement to the content in order to evaluate the quality of Web pages. One example is the Bakken Aloia Internet Rating Scale, developed as an evaluation tool for assessing the quality of Web sites. This scale, developed in the pioneering days of the Web, addresses six key areas of educational Web page design: content, completeness, clarity, connections, corroboration or credibility, and currency (Bakken & Aloia, 1998), all of which remain important factors in Web design even now.

As indicated in this brief review, there has been some discussion about the way in which Web design can be accomplished to make a Web page attractive and useful. It is important to add to this that the end user is not a monolithic construct but is naturally composed of a variety of users diverging on many different demographic and technographic axes (e.g., Mitra & Hullett, 1997). Among the various diversifying forces, one that has received significant examination is the difference in the use of computers and attitudes towards computers between men and women. While the general question about the user of computers has been explored, the fact that the nature of use is constantly changing provides justification to continue to examine possible gender-based differences in different kinds of computer use-in this case the utilization of Web pages by students.

Gender and Web Use

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

Recent literature on technology presents a complicated picture of the relationship between gender and Web use. While most scholars agree that the gender gap in Internet use has narrowed significantly in the college age group (Goodson, McCormick, & Evans, 2001; Odell, Korgen, Schumacher, & Delucchi, 2000) as well as the general population (Brenner, 1997; Jackson, Ervin, Gardner, & Schmitt, 2001; Newburger, 1999; Ono & Zovodny, 2003), some gender differences have been found in attitudes toward technology, intensity of Internet use, online applications preferred, and experience in cyberspace. Investigations of college student Web use have proven especially insightful, as research on this group allows for an examination of gender differences within an institution in which men and women generally have equal access to the Internet (Odell et al., 2000). The scholarship on gender and Web use is contradictory at times, demonstrating the dynamic nature of the interaction, as well as the need for continued investigation.

In a study of college students' attitudes toward technology, Smith and Necessary (1996) found that males had significantly more positive attitudes toward computers than females did. Jackson et al. (2001) also found that females in general reported less favorable computer attitudes. Other literature, however, contradicts these findings. Several investigations have reported that gender had no significant effect on any of the dimensions of computer attitude studied (Jennings & Onwuegbuzie, 2001; Shaw & Gant, 2002), and one found female college students to possess more positive attitudes than their male peers (Zhang, 2002). The inconsistency in these findings might be attributed to differences in methodology, or might reveal how the increasing number of female Internet users is altering women's attitudes regarding computers and the Web. It is noteworthy that the studies are separated by nearly half a decade. Within that time, with greater adoption of technology by women, the differences observed in the earlier studies could disappear in the latter studies.

Bimber (2000) argued that the gender gap in the Internet is larger where more intensive Web use is concerned. Women are substantially less likely to be frequent users, equally likely to be infrequent users, and more likely to be intermediate users. In short, females are less intensive Internet users than males. Bimber attributes this finding to a combination of gendered technology embodying male values, content that favors men, sex differences in cognition and/or communication, and socioeconomic differences. Ono and Zovodny (2003) also found women to be less frequent and less intense users of the Internet. Concern about gender inequality has now shifted from access to intensity.

The most pronounced gender difference in Web use is found in the online applications used by males and female. Male college students are more likely than their female counterparts to use the Internet for recreational purposes (e.g., playing games online, visiting adult-only sites, gambling, accessing news groups and discussion forums, staying abreast of news developments, and seeking information for personal use), while females are more likely to use the Internet to talk to family and friends (Goodson, McCormick, & Evans, 2001; Jackson et al., 2001; Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 1997; Odell et al., 2000; Scealy, Phillips, & Stevenson, 2002). These findings appear to reinforce the widespread assumption that men prefer to use the Web for information gathering and entertainment and women prefer to use the Internet for communication (Shaw & Gant, 2002).

According to Media Report for Women (2000), females are using e-mail to enrich their interpersonal relationships and enlarge their social networks. It has been argued that female Internet users' affinity for electronic mail replicates preexisting gender differences, considering the fit between women's expressive styles and the features of e-mail (Boneva, Kraut, & Frohlich, 2001). Whatever the reason, women have reported electronic mail messaging as the most important function of the Internet (Wilson, 2000) and have been found to use e-mail more than do males (Boneva et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2001). Instant messaging has been equally used by both males and females, though female users of the ICQ (‘I seek you’) instant messenger reported chatting longer, more frequently, and more for reasons of sociality than for entertainment or information (Leung, 2001).

The online experience itself may be very different for males and females. Bimber (2000) contends that the Internet is biased toward men, dominated with male-oriented pornography, and filled with online sexual harassment toward women. Not surprisingly, male college students are significantly more likely to have accessed sexually explicit materials online, while more female users reported sexual harassment on the Internet (Goodson et al., 2001). The sexuality of the online environment is bound to affect how both sexes feel about the Internet in general and the specific Web sites encountered.

In sum, for those who have more or less equal access to computing technology, there still might be some gender-based differences in attitudes, usage patterns, favorite applications, and the environment itself, implying that Web preferences and criteria used to evaluate the sites encountered will be impacted by the gender of the Internet user. The dynamic nature of the Web also begs for investigations of Web preferences and criteria. As the gender balance continues to shift, differences among users may be impacted.

Research Questions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

First, there is evidence to suggest that college students nowadays apply certain decision trees and evaluative criteria when deciding what Web pages to use. The process of “surfing” is being replaced by a more functional use of the Web, particularly for the slightly experienced user. Second, given increasingly functional use, Web designers are probably more aware of the need to produce a functional page that is user-friendly and fulfills the needs of the user who came to the page by choice and not by an accident of surfing. There is thus a greater need to find the connection among modalities of use, the factors that make a Web page useful, and user diversity. For the current purpose we have chosen to consider gender as the primary axis of difference relating to the user. Given the issues surrounding the use of the Web in pedagogic settings, three 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?

RQ3: Is there a difference in Web site preference and use based on gender?

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

Instrumentation

It was determined that a specific instrument was needed to measure the constructs suggested in the three research questions. A number of different kinds of measurement instruments are available for assessing the effectiveness of computer use in pedagogy, along with instruments that can be used to measure general attitudes towards computers among students (see, e.g., the review presented in Mitra, 2002). Typically the instruments are either very broad and general or very precise and specific to a particular study and context. Furthermore, many of the instruments that are available are designed primarily to assess attitudes towards computers and computing as generalized constructs without specific reference to the design of Web sites. Some studies have attempted to focus on the specifics of measuring the attractiveness of Web sites based on the psychological parameters of attractiveness and its relation to the Web interface. For instance, Sutcliffe (2002) used nine students to develop a model for measuring the attractiveness of three Web sites using criteria such as the typical design criteria used by Web designers. What has been elusive, however, is a reliable metric/instrument to explore the kinds of questions posed in this study. Thus, it was decided to develop an instrument for the study by beginning with a set of focus group discussions so as to gain an in-depth understanding of the criteria used by students as they decide on using specific Web sites.

Focus groups were conducted with students at a small liberal arts university. The students were recruited from across the campus and were offered a small incentive for participating 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 32 students.

The focus group discussions were followed by the development of a survey instrument to answer the exploratory research questions raised here. The questionnaire 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,” and “textual content of the site;” the respondents were asked to indicate the importance of each of the criteria on a three-point scale ranging 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. to be rated on a three-point scale from “Frequently” to “Never.” (See the Appendix.)

Subjects and Intervention

The subjects for the study were recruited from the undergraduate students at the university. The participants were offered a small monetary incentive to participate in the completion of a short Web-based task. The participants were asked to bring their laptop computer to a large classroom where they were instructed to locate 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. The focus group discussions had demonstrated that the target group was mostly functional users of the Internet who were used to seeking specific information that could involve a range of interests from course-related material to shopping information. The tendency to “surf” was less evident in the group. Thus, it was decided to offer a specific task that they were unlikely to have done as the test case for the study. Furthermore, it was agreed that the task needed to be specific with a reportable outcome, and without too much interpretive latitude. The latter was important since the participants were given limited time, as is often the situation when students are researching a topic for school work. The task had to be clearly specified, as is also often the case when students do online research and seek information on very specific issues. Thus, an attempt was made to ask the participants to do a task that mimicked their real life use of the Web but that was also a task that they were unlikely to have done in the past.

A total of 92 students participated in the study: 45% were men; 36% of the participants were between the ages of 17 and 22 (with 64% at or above 23 years of age); 13% claimed to be majoring in the natural sciences, and 87% in the social sciences, arts, or the humanities.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

Research Question 1: Criteria to Evaluate Web Sites

The first research question was answered by analyzing tree set of items in the instrument that dealt with general evaluation of the Web. It is important to note that one section of the questionnaire addressed the evaluation of the specific Website the subjects found, but the answer to the first research question did not attempt to analyze the items related to the specific task, but focused on the general evaluation of Web sites. The mean responses varied between 2.77 and 1.26 on a three-point scale where 3 was “very important” and 1 was “important.” Respondents rated the statement “site offers information on issues you are interested in” as the most important criterion for evaluating a Web page with a mean score of 2.77. On the other hand, “sound use in the site” was assessed as the least important with a mean score of 1.26. “Picture/graphics used in the site” received a mean score of 2.38 and was the fifth most important criterion in assessing a Web site, whereas “textual content of the site” fell in the second position with a mean score of 2.70. Responses to “videos available at the site” and “animated graphics used in the site” were at the bottom, with mean scores of 1.56 and 1.45, respectively.

The data suggest that the fit of the information on the Web site is considered to be the most important criterion 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 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.

Table 1.  Mean responses to evaluation of the importance of web page criteria (n=91)
  1. * Measured on a 3-point scale from 1 “Not Important” to 3 “Very Important”

Site offers information on issues you are interested in2.77
Textual content of the site2.70
Credibility of the authors of the site2.68
Length of time it takes to load the site2.57
Pictures/graphics used in the site2.38
Lets you “visit” places that you could not in real life2.24
The site helps you to purchase products that you are interested in2.19
Offers information on distant places2.16
Search options offered by the site2.09
Site might offer social and political perspectives of minority groups2.05
Number of links provided by the site1.99
Site may offer underprivileged groups to have a voice1.97
Site might offer social and political perspectives of unpopular groups1.93
Offers you information about a place that you used to live in before coming to [city in which university is located]1.86
A personal site of someone you know1.8
Option of responding to the authors of the site1.77
Videos available at the site1.56
Animated graphics used in the site1.45
Sound used in the site1.26

Research Question 2: Categories of Web Sites Visited by Students

The mean responses varied between 2.96 to 1.27 where 3 was “frequently” and 1 was “never.” Students were asked to indicate how often they visited different categories of Web sites. The most frequently visited sites were search engines, which received a mean score of 2.96, whereas chat sites received the lowest score of 1.27. Similar to the response to the items about evaluating Web sites, the respondents assigned “sites that relate directly to your class work” a score of 2.80, and “sites that refer to your particular interest” a score of 2.78. On the other hand, special interest sites, such as gaming sites and pornographic sites, received scores of 1.55 and 1.36, respectively. Interestingly, respondents scored the item “sites related to specific courses at college” with a mean of 2.57, which was near the middle of the list of Web site categories offered.

The data suggest 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. 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 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.

Table 2.  Mean levels of use of different kinds of web sites (n=91)
  1. * Measured on a 3-point scale from 1 “Never” to 3 “Frequently”

Search engines2.96
Sites that relate directly to your class work2.80
Sites that refer to your particular special interest2.78
News sites2.68
Academic sites (e.g., online journals, etc.)2.66
Sites to download music, video or pictures2.64
Sites about weather2.64
Sites related to specific courses at college2.57
Shopping sites2.27
Sites that you feel can improve your quality of life2.22
Tourism sites to learn about other places2.2
Sports sites2.18
Humor sites2.02
Sites that offer alternative social, political, economic perspectives2.00
Sites from other countries1.97
Sites of personal friends1.91
Sites of persons you do not know1.70
Gaming sites1.55
Pornographic sites1.36
Chat sites1.27

Research Question 3: Gender and Web Use

In general, there was little difference between men and women with respect to the different kinds of sites they visited. Both genders indicated that they visited sites such as search engines, sites related to class work, news sites, and shopping sites equally frequently. Both genders rated search engines as the most frequently used category of site, followed by news sites, sites related to class work, and their specific special interest.

However, the data indicate some significant differences between men and women in two components related to Web use. First, there are differences in the selection criteria used by men and women. The male respondents indicated a slightly higher mean for preference for sites with video and sound available at the site. For sounds, the men reported a significantly higher mean of 1.39 as compared to women, who reported a mean of 1.19 (p=0.031, df = 88). Similarly, men reported a significantly higher mean of 1.83 for videos used in the site, as compared to women who reported 1.33 (p=0.000, df = 88). Second, there were significant differences in the types of Web sites visited by men and women. For instance, on the average, men reported that they visited humor, gaming, sports, pornographic, and special interest sites more than women did, whereas women reported that, on average, they visited academic sites, such as those of online journals, more than did men.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix

The data demonstrate a need to understand better what categories of Web sites are used by the student population represented in this study, as well as a need for a better evaluation of the criteria used by students to judge the quality of Web sites. It appears that there could be a tension between what Web designers consider to be state-of-the-art applications in Web design and what users consider to be attractive. As pointed out earlier, the emphasis on a visual rhetoric that focuses on the bells and whistles of Web design (Turban & Gehrke, 2000), particularly in terms of the use of elements such as streaming video, audio, and pop-up screens, may appear to make a Web page more fun and attractive, but these are not the elements that users in the academic setting claim draw them to a particular Web page. This mismatch requires further exploration. The findings in this study also support the emerging preference for simplicity in Web design, as pointed out earlier.

A lack of congruence between what the designer thinks is good and what the user wants is also demonstrated by the fact that the user criteria that make a Web site most attractive are the basic textual content of the site and how well the site responds to the specific interest of the user.Specifically, in the academic setting where functional use of the Web appears to be central, it is more important that the Web sites emphasize what the contents are rather than how they are presented. This underscores the fact that the Web still remains a primarily textual medium with emphasis on text and discourse and their relevance and credibility. When users are seeking information to accomplish a particular task, the amount of information appears to be more important than the mode of presentation.

In addition to the relative importance of the textual content, the data also demonstrate that the use of Web sites by the students in the study is dictated mostly by interest and the perceived functionality of the Web page. The technical quality of the Web site appears to be superseded by the way in which the technology can be inserted within the process of learning. This finding is congruent with the argument suggested by Pacey (1983) that the quality of a technology may well be measured by its practical value rather than by its purely technological value. This is demonstrated by 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 could potentially inform the ways in which the Web could be used in pedagogy. The students reported less use of special interest sites, and greater use of sites that are of practical interest to them. It is thus important to be able to evaluate some of the predispositions of the students, as well as to consider the specific use of a Web site before it is used in teaching.

The way in which technology is inserted into the learning process of the subjects is further illustrated by the differences noted between how men and women approach the use of the Web. Again drawing upon Pacey (1983) and other findings about gender mentioned earlier, these findings demonstrate that women are more likely to adopt the technology in a manner that fits with their everyday practice, as compared to men who are more likely to use the technology for its own sake. With the increasing diffusion of technology, some of the differences between genders have disappeared. However, as demonstrated here, some differences persist as technologies are utilized in different ways by men and women, particularly in the academic environment.

As a preliminary study, this project had as its objective to do some exploration of the preferences and existing modes of use of Web sites by college students. As in past studies, this one raises important issues 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.

Note
  • 1

    Accepted for publication under previous editorship.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Use of the Web
  5. Designing Web Information
  6. Gender and Web Use
  7. Research Questions
  8. Methods
  9. Results
  10. Discussion
  11. References
  12. Appendix
  • Anderson, K. J. (2001). Internet use among college students: An exploratory study. Journal of American College Health, 50 (1), 2126.
  • Bakken, J. P., & Aloia, G. F. (1998). Evaluating the World Wide Web. Teaching Exceptional Children, 30 (5), 3034.
  • Balas, J. L. (1999). The 'don'ts' of web page design. Computers in Libraries, 19 (8), 4648.
  • Bimber, B. (2000). Measuring the gender gap on the Internet. Social Science Quarterly, 81 (3), 868876.
  • Blumenstyk, G. (2001). Publishers promote e-textbooks, but many students and professors are skeptical. Chronicle of Higher Education, 47 (36), A35-A36.
  • Boneva, B., Kraut, R., & Frohlich, D. (2001). Using e-mail for personal relationships: The difference gender makes. American Behavioral Scientist, 45 (3), 530549.
  • Brenner, V. (1997). Psychology of computer use: XLVII. Parameters of Internet use, abuse and addiction: The first 90 days of the Internet Usage Survey. Psychological Reports, 80 (3), 879882.
  • Burton, V. T., & Chadwick, S. A. (2000). Investigating the practices of student researchers: Patterns of use and criteria for use of Internet and library sources. Computers and Composition, 17 (3), 309328.
  • Creative Pro. (2003). How to's. Retrieved June 24, 2003 from http://www.creativepro.com/front/home.
  • D'Angelo, J., & Little, S. K. (1998). Successful web pages: What are they and do they exist Information Technology and Libraries, 17 (2), 7181.
  • D'Esposito, J. E., & Gardner, R. M. (1999). University students' perceptions of the Internet: An exploratory study. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 25 (6), 456461.
  • Dalal, N. P., Quible, Z., & Wyatt, K. (2000). Cognitive design of home pages: An experimental study of comprehension on the World Wide Web. Information Processing and Management, 36 (4), 607621.
  • Dillon, D. (2001). E-Books: The University of Texas experience, part 1. Library Hi Tech, 19 (2), 113124.
  • E-textbooks may be a new trend in higher education, but not an immediate threat to traditional publishers. (1999). Electronic Education Report, 6 (5), 13.
  • Jennings, S. E., & Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2001). Computer attitudes as a function of age, gender, math attitude, and developmental status. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 25 (4), 367384.
  • Generation 2001: The second study. (2001). A second study of the first college graduating class of the new millennium. Retrieved January 6, 2005 from http://www.nmfn.com/contentassets/pdfs/study2.pdf.
  • Goodson, C. (2001). Web-connected generation. The Futurist, 35 (5), 9.
  • Goodson, P., McCormick, D., & Evans, A. (2001). Searching for sexually explicit materials on the Internet: An exploratory study of college students. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 30 (2), 101118.
  • Hall, A. S., & Parsons, J. (2001). Internet addiction: College student case study using best practices in cognitive behavior therapy. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 23 (4), 312327.
  • Hughes, M. M. (1997). World Wide Web site design. Unpublished manuscript, Texas Woman's University.
  • Jackson, L., Ervin, K., Gardner, P. D., & Schmitt, N. (2001). Gender and the Internet: Women communicating and men searching. Sex Roles, 44 (5/6), 363379.
  • Jones, S. (2002). The Internet goes to college: How students are living in the future with today's technology. Retrieved November 6, 2002 from http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/reports.asp?Report=71&Section=ReportLevel1&Field=Level1ID&ID=312.
  • Kaltenbach, M. (2001). Organizing web based discourse. World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2001 (1), 856861.
  • Kandell, J. J. (1998). Internet addiction on campus: The vulnerability of college students. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 1 (1), 1117.
  • Landoni, M., & Gibb, F. (2000). The role of visual rhetoric in the design and production of electronic books: the visual book. The Electronic Library, 18 (3), 190201.
  • Leung, L. (2001). College student motives for chatting on ICQ. New Media & Society, 3 (4), 483500.
  • Lindroth, L. (1997). How to … use Internet search tools. Teaching Pre K-8, 28 (2), 1415.
  • Lindsay, W., & McLaren, S. (2000). The Internet: An aid to student research or a source of frustration Journal of Educational Media, 25 (2), 115128.
  • Ling, J. & Van Schaik, P. (2002). The effect of text and background color on visual searches of Web pages. Displays, 23 (5), 223230.
  • Lubans, J. (1998). How first year university students use and regard internet resources. Unpublished manuscript, Duke University.
  • Maddux, C. (1998). The WWW: Some simple solutions to common design problems. Educational Technology, 38 (5), 2428.
  • Markel, M. (1998). What students see: Word processing and the perception of visual design. Computers and Composition, 15 (3), 373386.
  • Matthew, K. I., & Varagoor, G. (2001). Student responses to online course materials. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 33 (5). Retrieved January 6, 2005 from http://www.iste.org/jrte/33/5/matthew.cfm.
  • McGovern, G. (2000). Managing information in the digital age: How the reader is king. Irish Marketing Review, 13 (2), 5560.
  • Meyers, D. M. (2003). The impact of virtual office hours on in-class participation. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago , IL , April 21–25.
  • Mitra, A. (2002). Towards developing questionnaire items to measure effectiveness of computers in teaching. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 26 (4), 381394.
  • Mitra, A., & Hazen, M. (1999). Longitudinal assessment of computerization at Wake Forest University. In D.Brown (Ed.), Electronically Enhanced Education (pp. 101106). Winston-Salem , NC : Wake Forest University Press.
  • Morahan-Martin, J., & Schumacher, P. (1997). Gender differences in Internet usage, behaviors and attitudes among undergraduates. Paper presented at the Seventh International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction, San Francisco , CA , August 24–29.
  • Newburger, E. C. (1999). Computer use in the United States. October 1997. Current Population Reports, U.S. Census Bureau (pp. 111). Retrieved June 12 from http://www.census.gov.
  • Odell, P. M., Korgen, K. O., Schumacher, P., & Delucchi, M. (2000). Internet use among female and male college students. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 3 (5), 855862.
  • Ono, H., & Zavodny, M. (2003). Gender and the Internet. Social Science Quarterly, 84 (1), 111121.
  • O'Hanlon, N. (2002). Net knowledge: Performance of new college students on an Internet skills proficiency test. Internet and Higher Education, 5 (1), 5566.
  • Pascoe, C., Applebee, A., & Clayton, P. (1996). Tidal wave or ripple? The impact of Internet on the Academic. Australian Library Review, 13 (2), 147153.
  • Scealy, M., Phillips, J. G., & Stevenson, R. (2002). Shyness and anxiety as predictors of patterns of Internet usage. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 5 (6), 501515.
  • Scherer, K. (1997). College life online: Healthy and unhealthy Internet use. Journal of College Student Development, 38 (6), 655664.
  • Shaw, L. H., & Gant, L. M. (2002). Users divided? Exploring the gender gap in Internet use. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 5 (6), 517527.
  • Smith, B. N., & Necessary, J. R. (1996). Assessing the computer literacy of undergraduate college students. Education, 117 (2), 188193.
  • Sullivan, P. (2001). Practicing safe visual rhetoric on the World Wide Web. Computers and Composition, 18 (2), 103121.
  • Sutcliffe, A. (2002). Assessing the reliability of heuristic evaluation of website attractiveness and usability. Proceedings of the 35th Hawai'i International Conference on System Sciences. Los Alamitos: IEEE Computer Society Press. Retrieved January 15, 2005 from http://csdl.computer.org/comp/proceedings/hicss/2002/1435/05/14350137.pdf.
  • Technology Bits & Bytes. (2001, March). Black Issues in Higher Education, 18 (2), 4041.
  • Technology of E-books needs work before students will accept them, study finds. (2002, September). The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49 (3), A33.
  • Thompson, C. (2003). Information illiterate or lazy: How college students use the web for research. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 49 (2), 259268.
  • Turban, E., & Gehrke, D. (2000). Success determinants of e-commerce Web site design. Human Systems Management, 19 (2), 111120.
  • Useit. (2003). Usable information technology. Retrieved June 24, 2003 from http://www.useit.com.
  • U.S. women surging online, closing gender gap, reshaping social landscape, study says. (2000, Spring). Media Report to Women, 28 (2), 12.
  • Van Der Heijden, H. (2003). Factors influencing the usage of websites: The case of a generic portal in The Netherlands. Information & Management, 40 (6), 541549.
  • Van Horn, R. (2001). Website design sites. Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (1), 810.
  • Van Schaik, P., & Ling, J. (2001). The effects of frame layout and differential background contrast on visual search performance in Web pages. Interacting with Computers, 13 (5), 513525.
  • Welsh, L. (1999). Internet use: An exploration of coping style, locus of control, and expectancies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northeastern University.
  • Wilson, T. (2000). Web's gender shift more than a curiosity. Internet Week, 827, 28.
  • Young, J. R. (2001). A university that reverses tradition experiments with E-books. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 47 (36), A39-A40.
  • Zhang, Y. X. (2002). Comparison of Internet attitudes between industrial employees and college students. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 5 (2), 143149.