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Anna Chronaki and Vassilis Bourdakis
University of Bath
The Internet promises fast access to information and a new way of communicating, networking, teaching, learning and researching. Anna Chronaki and Vassilis Bourdakis consider the operation and structure of the Internet and its potential uses in the field of research
The Internet is a global network of various regional computer networks designed to promote computerised communication, sometimes also referred to as telecommunication or teleinformatics. It was originally developed in the US by the National Science Foundation as an academic and research network aiming to foster communication amongst scholars. It can be conceived of as a system of computers where information can be stored, accessed and distributed. The Internet is also referred to as the Information Superhighway, a term that helps us visualise information as data travelling through wires from one computer to another. Data travel in small 'packets' marked with an address that indicates their source, destination and the identity of the sender, much like a normal letter, only much faster.
A common sub-unit of the Internet's structure is the Local Area Network (LAN) which provides a regional computer network and links several computers in a site. These computers are then connected to other machines or networks in remote sites around the globe. Provided that such a structure exists, then an individual computer can be linked to the LAN via a modem (MOdulator/DEModulator) a tool that translates digital information to analogue which can then be transmitted via a normal telephone line. The speed of access depends on the type of connection (direct link, ISDN, modem) but also on the type of software used on the computer and its processing power. Commercial networks such as CompuServe or Prodigy are built around similar principles and provide comparable services at a cost.
The Internet is very rapidly entering our lives through cable or telephone line. If not yet in full use, its existence certainly has captured the attention of the media. Magazines and the press offer daily updates. Its entrance into our homes and schools has already started and even the launching of local Cyber-cafes cannot escape our notice.
The variety of services provided on the Internet can be classified largely into two types; those that promote avenues for communication and those that facilitate access to information, resources and materials.
The communication centred services are e-mail, usenet newsgroups, talk and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). The information presentation/collecting services are tools such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP), gophers and database searches via telnet, WAIS and finally the World Wide Web (WWW).
The communication related services can be further classified in two main groups, the non interactive and the interactive or real-time communication. E-mail, the electronic mail, is a non-interactive medium that enables one to one communication. The real time communication tool of the Internet is talk, which is similar to a normal telephone, and enables one to one interaction but it uses text instead of voice. The one to many types of communication tools include usenet newsgroups, where discussion is focused on particular topics (i.e. education at various levels and subjects, conference announcements, specific interest groups, etc.). Time hysterisis (delay) is similar to email, often larger because messages have to be assembled on a main server and then distributed to all members of the newsgroup. An interactive real- time communication medium based on the same principles of newsgroups is the IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Users can again join specialised channels where discussions are taking place in real-time via a text based interface. Participants can carry various discussions concurrently with colleagues from around the globe. A prevailing problem is that the time difference makes certain roundtables difficult, if not impossible.
Amongst the simplest and oldest information presentation/collecting service is the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) which is self explanatory and used extensively even now. Gopher, database searches via telnet, and WAIS are tools that have to a great extent been superseded by the World Wide Web. Awkward interfaces, cryptic menus, difficult to mnemonise commands led Tim Berners-Lee to build a 'distributed hypermedia system' while he was at CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics) which is now the WWW. It is a collection of interlinked documents scattered around the world. According to the WWW FAQ pages: "The advantage of hypertext is that in a hypertext document, if you want more information about a particular subject mentioned, you can usually 'just click on it' to read further detail. In fact, documents can be and often are linked to other documents by completely different authors much like footnoting, but you can get the referenced document instantly!". Furthermore, the recent WWW browser programs support all of the above mentioned services, so they can be FTP, gopher and WAIS compatible and some even post email messages and receive newsgroup post.
Literature concerning the Internet has been growing fast over the last few years. This includes mostly books aiming at a beginner's introduction to the world of computerised communication. They provide guidelines and training, with new vocabulary, software and machinery, as well as guides for orienting ourselves in finding information and exploring sites. Examples are: "The Internet guide for new users" by Dern (1994), "Pocket guides to the Internet. Volumes 1-6" by Veljkov and Hartnell (1994), "Internet access essentials" by Tittel and Robbins (1995) and of course the "dummies" series, "More Internet for dummies" by Levine and Baroudi (1996). By contrast, others have attempted a more critical examination of the impact of the Internet in our daily lives and education. For example, Negroponte (1995) and Stoll (1994), both give a lively description of what they perceive to be the potential opportunities and dangers afforded by the Internet, of the consequences in our lives and of the impact that it will have on society.
An exploratory way of learning more about the Internet is to use it, following sources of information, such as:
The above documents can easily be accessed from a World Wide Web browser, using any computer linked to the Internet.
Both e-mail and WWW resources are valuable research tools. Email provides quick and free one to one communication between educational researchers either within the same country or across countries. Furthermore, e-mail has been reported as a tool for conducting research. Thach (1995) refers to Email Survey Research as "..the systematic data collection of information on a specific topic using computer questionnaires delivered to an online sample or population. Respondents receive, complete, and return their questionnaires via Email" (p.27). She concludes that there are many advantages to this type of survey research compared to traditional paper questionnaires such as: cost saving, ease of editing and analysis, faster transmission time, easy use of invitation letters, higher response rate, and more candid responses. The limitations of this method need also to be considered. For instance, the sample is limited to those who have access to a computer and online network, and confidentiality and anonymity cannot be assured due to the open nature of most online networks. Layout and presentation issues are more difficult due to the varying formats that "email reading" software (also known as mailers) support. There are also problems with hardware and software as well as the additional instructions that are required by the respondents to fill in and send their response. However, the WWW interface provides facilities that can eliminate these reported shortcomings and can even ensure anonymity. As an example, one may visit the URL Internet Usage Survey for Research. It contains a questionnaire designed by the authors for a pilot survey exploring the use of the Internet for research and teaching.
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has put considerable effort into computerised communication and operates twenty different Internet discussion forums (LISTSERVs). These cover topics from broad areas, such as; Administration, Curriculum Studies, Learning and Instruction, Measurement and Research Methodology, Counselling and Human Development, History and Historiography, Social Context of Education, School Evaluation and Program Development, Education in the Professions, Post secondary Education, Teaching and Teacher Education. The various AERA lists provide the opportunity to participate in a variety of professional dialogues on subjects corresponding to the AERA divisions. They were created in a joint effort between AERA and the College of Education at Arizona State University. They are intended to serve as a place for educational researchers to discuss research issues, share information, announce meetings, and receive communiques from the Central Office and the divisional leadership.
The general AERA LIST has created both WWW and Gopher sites and carries information of job announcements, notices of publications of books, changes of addresses of members and announcements of conferences. If one wishes to post an item to this list, the address is:
and the Editor will post it or direct it to the appropriate LIST. To subscribe, write to:
LISTSERV@ASUACAD.BITNET and then
SUB AERA (your name).
Library catalogues, information databases, lists of current journal contents, and a growing number of electronic journals are also available at WWW sites.
One of the main aims of the Internet is to communicate and distribute information (US Congress Library). This has turned out to be a major weakness. The command line interfaces of the early years were replaced by intelligent querying systems, and finally integrated into graphical oriented interfaces (provided on the WWW). A typical example is First Search, a very extensive bibliographical database that recently added to the complicated telnet interface a WWW version, making searches more easy, intuitive and quick. However research has shown that the large databases currently created and served over the Internet are still difficult to navigate, investigate, search, and a lot of research has been carried out on more intuitive interfaces. This is a topic approached in many different ways, the most interesting being that shown by Benford and Mariani (1994) where the search subjects are distributed in a three dimensional (3D) Virtual Environment. Users can navigate in this 3D space (loosely resembling an actual library) 'walk on the screen, reach and grab the books they want and at the same time are able to interact with the other "Virtual Library" visitors on a one to one or one to many basis. Using Artificial Intelligence techniques, the virtual visitor focuses on the search topic by 'walking' in this Virtual Environment instead of typing keywords on various 2D dialogue boxes.
The main foci of future developments will be improving the human computer interface (HCI) to one that more closely resembles the real world and improving the type, availability, and richness of the information, acquisition and navigation techniques. Progress in 3D environments have dramatic influences elsewhere. For example, the A-Z maps of cities will look like the Virtual Model of the London City Centre as developed in the Centre for Advanced Studies in Architecture (CASA, University of Bath) where the 3D model of the city is the front end of an underlying database. Such maps can be useful for education, information, tourism, navigation, historical and geographical interest, documentation, engineering etc. One may see such an example in this URL. No doubt more uses will be introduced as soon as new computer models become available.
Clifford Stoll, a Berkeley astronomer and well known writer about computer networking with considerable experience in the Internet, describes him- self as "deeply ambivalent" about the Internet. He says: "I've listened to plenty of spoken and implied promises about computer networks. Each seems reasonable and well grounded; most are simple extrapolations of the digital revolution that's happening over the Internet. Yet, I claim these promises are myths, grounded in dreams of an information Shangri-la that can never be realized. And were it to happen, many of us would prefer to remain behind" (Stoll, 1994, p.15)
Although many remain very enthusiastic about its effects and are seduced by its uses, there is still great confusion and little understanding leading to misbelief and scepticism regarding the promised opportunities. This is mainly due to the unresolved issues concerning the network's structure. Below, we will mention those great visions surrounding the Internet substance, referring to them as myths challenging the underlying promises.
The first big assumption is that through the Internet "access to information is easy, fast and cheap". However, is it? Easy access to information has been promised and people should be able to reach virtual libraries, virtual courses, databases and other information services by sitting comfortably at their desks in front of their computer screen. In reality, there are no clear guidelines on how to start searching. Access to information demands patience, skill, good networking with other colleagues who can provide advice for suitable sites in the net. Consequently, more and more guides are published that help orientation on the net. The speed of communication is another major issue, and is dependant on the type of connection, machine and software used. It also depends on the time of day; during business hours certain tasks are considerably slower. Stoll (1994) argues that it takes three days to deliver the content of a compact disk over the net. Nowadays, using the Janet network, the contents of a CDROM can be transmitted in less than one hour from one UK University to the other. However, trying to transfer the same amount of information to the US may take up to a week; the transatlantic connection being the weak link.
Internet connections are, despite common beliefs, clearly affordable. An Internet Service Provider (ISP) will charge between £10-30 per month as connection fee. The real cost is the telephone bill since an Internet capable computer is no different from the typical home personal computer with the addition of a modem. This is where the US has the advantage over Europe; since all local calls are free, families are connected for as long as they want for the price of a modem and possibly an extra telephone line. However, in most circumstances the full spectrum of infrastructure is necessary, demanding investment not only in the relevant hardware and software, but also on training and maintenance. Institutions are able to solve such problems although schools still seem to be having problems.
Hunter (1992) researching the potential of implementing the Internet in US schools, reports that there is a variety of problems that still exist and which need to be overcome. Among others, the following problems are noted: "There does not exist any consensus amongst stakeholders as to the overall network architecture, governance and financing. There is very little at present in the way of school district communications infrastructure. Teachers and students in very few schools have Internet access and functionality. Computer software enabling people to interact on the network is relatively difficult to learn and use. Few people with expertise in networking have an understanding of educational implications " (p.29). The above is probably a fair reflection of the present situation for the majority of schools and institutions in many countries and certainly implies problems for educational researchers if relied solely on the Internet for information and communication.
The Internet is said to be a great place to meet people. It's an environment to overcome shyness and find others with similar interests, develop friendships and perhaps find partners for life or work. By comparing experiences you can find support and advice From experts across the globe. The Internet can be described as a 'virtual neighbourhood', due to the possibilities for chatting, for informal and interactive conversations and for the real time exchange of information. Networking, 'meeting colleagues and sharing work experiences takes on a new meaning. Colleagues may be people that you have not seen and may never see. But you communicate and work with them in almost the same way you would with colleagues along the corridor!
However, Poling (1994) warns us about possible misunderstandings that may occur. Talking from his experience in using e-mail with his students, he points out that it is often easy to misinterpret people's writing (especially humour or argumentative comments) since you loose facial expressions that add to understanding. He also points out that comments on e-mail can sometimes be used as evidence, and he advises that disagreement and argument are better resolved face to face than on the screen. Electronic communication is an instantaneous and illusory contact that creates a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that leads to close friendships.
It is argued that there is a huge online population, equivalent to a medium-sized country, "the first generation in cyberspace" as some prefer to call it. Being able to reach so many people gives both a sense of power and community. Negroponte (1995) argues that the Internet is currently increasing at approximately 10% a month. He also admits that this growth can't continue for long at that rate, everyone on earth will be connected by the year 2003 which is highly unlikely. In fact, nobody really knows the actual number of networked users. Stoll (1994) reports that John Quatterman, editor of "The Matrix News", surveyed the Internet in January 1994 and found a lot of empty addresses and unreachable systems. Quatterman estimated that around two and a half million users make use of the Internet, and somewhere around five million people have access to the network. This shows that the number of people that make use of the Internet is significantly lower than the number of registered nodes.
The Internet expansion rates mentioned by Negroponte (1995) may not be wholly realistic, and certain things must not be overlooked. For example, high school children are introduced to the Internet, mostly using it for collecting information and preparing projects. The majority of those who continue studying at colleges and universities are using the Internet in many disciplines almost on a daily basis. This explains why the number of Internet Service Providers is rapidly increasing. This expansion may resemble (albeit on a different scale) the growth of video clubs during the last decade.
Computerised communication promises networks that are the ultimate in democracy, since all voices can be heard. For example, everybody can have a say, take part in debates and vote as contributors to mailing lists, irrespective of race, age, religion and upbringing. More possibilities seem to exist now for the tutor, learner or employee with special needs in communicating and obtaining information. Furthermore, remote areas in some countries, or certain mobile groups can be networked and participate in educational activities much more easily than before. There is indeed a potential for liberating, informing and strengthening minorities. Opinion exchanges increase awareness about one's scientific field and result in a feeling of empowerment.
But will that happen in the end? Practically everyone can send messages and initiate conversations. Mailing lists and usenet newsgroups can be very easily abused with massive cross posts which are out of topic messages, the digital equivalent of junk mail. Often the resulting cacophony drowns out serious discussion due to the lack of information quality assurance. There is neither yet agreement about a form of quality control of the available material nor guarantee that all partners are present in the debate. Instead of growing towards democratic ways of dealing with information and communication through the net, there is a danger of creating a sub-culture of Internet-literate people within academic communities, the 'technoIiterati' as Stoll (1994) calls them. Stake and Clifft (1995) point out that "although electronics make the diversity of the world apparent, it also serves for standardisation. Electronic communication establishes a certain few perspectives, models and standards as 'best'. It is also dominated by those for whom this medium is the communication tool of choice. These people, mostly white middle-class, mostly male, set standards through the evolution of NETiquette a sort of manners manual for those who seek to communicate on-line". This culture possibly leads to some specific models and types of communication that sometimes can be spontaneous and authentic but other times may tend to deskill socially, and possibly cause misunderstandings.
The uncontrollable give and take of information raises ethical issues about the credibility of publications in the net, copyright and plagiarism. Cavazos (1994) explains that transferring information digitally and in many cases not publishing work in reputable journals and books, means that anyone can use that information (data, text, images, sounds, drawings) to their advantage. Proving the authenticity and ownership of digital information is difficult if not impossible (Negroponte, 1995). Leask (1995) expresses similar concerns regarding students' coursework and assignments when Internet materials are used.
Most of the discussion forums such as mailing lists and newsgroups are unmoderated and any message being sent to the list is received by all subscribers. However, there are moderated lists, where any message sent is reviewed and edited before being sent to the subscribers. Pierce et al (1994) cite two educational journals; PSYCHOLOQUY an electronic journal on psychology and the Educational Policy Analysis Archives. Both journals are peer-reviewed and publish research papers and policy analysis reports.
The Internet has raised our hopes of growth, development and advancement in a variety of sectors. Policy decisions are the main concern of the US and EU, but also for other countries that need to make decisions about the provision of the necessary infrastructure to ensure an effective implementation of the Internet. The urge for interconnectivity, greater development, growth and communication seems to be confronted by the dilemma of either 'taking the initiative' in implementing this new technology in various sectors of education, or being more cautious (Collis, Wim and de Vries, 1993).
For the users, one of the most important factors is being able to get accustomed to the Internet culture, learning the associated language, and learning the tools, techniques and procedures required for accessing its services. In order to be able to make use of all available information, one needs to grasp ways of identifying sites, mailing lists and various contacts from among the plethora of offers. Being selective, making choices and being able to liaise with people through the Internet requires knowing and using some special types of social skills, which result in becoming part of the Internet culture. Support relations are being established between member users of the same mailing lists and often smaller sub-groups are spontaneously formed who decide to communicate and talk about issues in more detail. It has to be noted that there is a whole notation system for expressing feelings and for other informal discourse using plain text. A document providing guidance to new and old users of the Internet slang and specifics is the Etiquette for Public EMail Systems.
The use of the Internet may well change our styles of teaching and learning, and finding effective ways of selecting, disseminating and communicating huge amounts of information. All these may ultimately influence how society will operate in the near future. There is still a long way to go in terms of making effective use of the Internet either for personal professional development and entertainment or for use in schools and institutions. Stoll (1995) well sums up some of the current difficulties:
"Fingers on the keyboard, I'm bathed in the cold glow of my cathode-ray tube, answering e-mail. While one guy's checking the sky through binoculars, and another's stuffing himself with popcorn, I'm tapping out a letter to a stranger across the continent. My attention's directed to the Internet. Tonight, twenty letters want replies, three people have invited me to chat over the network, there's a dozen newsgroups to read, and a volley of files to download. How can I keep up?"
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