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Just because that college junior still has not found his way to the campus library does not mean he is an academic slacker. Almost three-quarters of U.S. college students now use the Internet more than the library, and a strong majority said the Net has been an asset to their educational experience, according to a report expected to be released today.
The study, conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, found that 86 percent of college students have gone online, compared with 59 percent of the general population.
"One of the things that jumped out was the degree to which college students have integrated the Internet into their everyday life. They are used to high-speed, instant access. They treat it like they would any utility -- water, telephones, television," said Steve Jones, the study's author and head of the Communications Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The study is based on more than 2,000 surveys from undergraduate students at 27 U.S. colleges and universities as well as observational research done at 10 Chicago-area schools. The research was conducted from March to June and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.
"This is such an interesting generation," Jones said. "We've known anecdotally that students are using the Internet a lot, but we didn't have any hard numbers. Nobody has ever gone out to find out for sure what is really happening."
Students are using the Net for research purposes, but also to communicate with professors and other students outside the classroom. Almost half of the students said they were better able to share thoughts and ideas with professors through e-mail than in person, and 75 percent have used the Internet to communicate with peers about academic projects.
The study also found that 85 percent of college students own their own computer and that most prefer to use the Net from the comfort of home.
Computers have not yet revolutionized the university experience in the radical ways many predicted. Of the 6 percent of students who chose to take a class online, only slightly more than half found it to be worthwhile. And interaction between teachers and pupils on message boards and instant-messaging programs remains low.
Nearly three-quarters of students check e-mail at least once a day but not always in anticipation of a new homework assignment. Forty-two percent of college students use the Internet primarily as a vehicle for social communication, and almost all students use e-mail to keep in touch with friends and family at least once a week.
The Internet's ubiquity on campus may shape the way its use develops in the rest of society, Jones said.
"This is an interesting generation because they were born and grew up at a time when the personal computer was a household item," Jones said. "And they are going to take these expectations about the Internet with them when they graduate. When they get out into the world and off campus, they are going to demand this type of access."
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