You can surf the Net for free and get a degree

The Internet is a godsend for impoverished students, and this year's intake is keen to take advantage of it. Kevin Calder reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is October and abruptly, across the UK, the Internet is busier. If you live in a metropolitan area, you already know why - the universities are back, bringing the annual influx of "freshers". But this year's intake will probably be the first who already know what the Net is and are eager to take advantage of their (usually) free accounts.

What should they use them for? Keith Halstead, director of computing services at the University of Warwick, ranks the three main uses as e- mail, newsgroups and the World Wide Web. E-mail is the single most popular use of Warwick University's Internet facilities. Academic staff typically dispatch between five and 20 e-mail messages a day, and many describe it as "invaluable".

Dr David Haddleton, of Warwick's chemistry department, says it opens up new opportunities for collaboration: "Without the Internet, I wouldn't be able to do my work. I get e-mail from colleagues in Australia and America every morning." He feels that without e-mail and the ability to transfer work and ideas quickly, research would be put back many years: "A lot of inter-institutional research work goes on using e-mail." Students reading and writing e-mail often fill the undergraduate computing labs. Former sixth-formers and foreign students can keep in touch with distant friends almost without effort: e-mail takes less time than composing a letter, can be saved permanently and - most importantly - saves impoverished students the cost of stamps.

Newsgroups are another common use of the Internet. "There is a tremendous spectrum of value. Some are incredibly good, others are painful," Mr Halstead says ("painful" meaning "bad").

Through newsgroups, students can read about research subjects or (more usually) hobbies, and contribute to discussions with others across the world. Kevin Cook, a student who is interested in Acorn computers, regularly reads comp.sys.acorn.misc, which, he says, "allows me to communicate with others who have similar interests and views. It means I can keep in touch with the latest news and developments."

The university also has several internal newsgroups devoted to debates between students and staff: uwarwick.misc has seen discussions as to which sort of calculators should be taken into exams, and the summer timetables of local bus companies.

The World Wide Web "gets well used", according to the computer services department. Academics enjoy the availability of online library catalogues, article abstracts and up-to-date economic statistics. Dr Haddleton uses a Web facility to trawl through the latest US patent applications. "From searching on a subject to printing out applications takes around 30 seconds. Before the Internet, an inter-library loan request, made once you knew which patent you wanted, took three weeks."

He recommends his students to use a Web site devoted to polymer chemistry, where students in America have put their lecture notes on to the Internet. "It's like a book, but with student comments. It's nice for students to see where others have had difficulty," he says. He is one of a small number of lecturers who encourage their students to use the Web, and believes it to be a valuable additional resource: "There is a shortage of textbooks on polymers in the library but, with the Internet, students have 24-hour access to the information."

However, Dr Martin Campbell-Kelly, of the department of computer science, feels the Web's usefulness for academic work is limited: "The careful scrutiny that occurs before an article can be printed in academic literature is evaded by the self-publication on the Internet." Searching for information can be difficult and often fruitless: "The Internet has found the technological solutions to information storage but no solution to the finding problems." Technological problems and bottlenecks can slow down retrieval. He does not think it is always worth the wait: "It's quicker to take a train down to London and use the library there than to use the Internet."

Within the university campus, Web pages are increasingly used for free publicity. Clubs, societies and the Students' Union have their own pages to promote events: each day the union's pages (at http://www.warwick.ac.uk/suaar) receive about 600 accesses from Warwick students.

Still, "surfing the Net" is a popular late-night pastime for "spods" (regular Net users), and the creation of personal Web pages is attracting growing numbers of students. Making a distinctive one has become an art. This means that the modern measure of student success may not be how many pints you can down at the boat race, or what notable people come to your all-night raves. It could be that the real road to popularity lies in brandishing a print-out showing how many "hits" your page has had. O tempora! O mores! - as they don't say on the Net.

The World Wide Web site for Warwick University, with links to students' pages, is at http://ww.warwick.ac.uk

The writer is a law student at the University of Warwick.

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