Behind all the hype about the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW) lies the undeniable fact that valuable networked resources are becoming more accessible. Internet access software has been much improved and simplified with the coming of the WWW and more staff throughout the UK academic community have access to graphical and text browsers such as Netscape or Lynx.
The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) and other subject-based gateways are helping to provide academics, researchers, support staff and Librarians with quality, ordered fare from the chaotic menu represented by the vast and ever-growing number of networked resources.
Now Internet for Social Scientists training workshops are helping to widen access still further, but rather than offering SOSIG on a plate with little more than step-by-step exercises, they aim to introduce techniques and tools for information retrieval and handling which are more widely applicable. The use of SOSIG is placed in context and post-workshop evaluations will inform our knowledge of both how Internet training is received and how academics and others make use of electronic information to support their work.
Order from chaos
When Internet access first escaped from the domain of the computer experts many others in the academic community "gave it a try" and found it wanting. The most common complaints were the lack of availability of useful materials and the difficulty in locating the few that did exist. These problems persist with the continuing rapid expansion of the Internet: imagine a vast second-hand bookshop with a constantly expanding and changing stock but with little more than the spines of hundreds of thousands of books visible. Rose Growing and Essays on Stress jostle on the shelf next to Developments in Cognitive Psychology. Just like browsing the Internet, random selections from the shelves may uncover something up-to-date and worthwhile, but may just as easily disclose nothing more than outdated or frivolous comics on subjects of little or no interest. The time and effort taken to clamber to the top shelf to retrieve Essays on Stress will have been wasted if eventual perusal of the back cover or a quick flick through its pages reveal it as a collection on stress fractures in bridges (or worse still, simply a list of titles of other such works) rather than on the psychological and physical effects of occupational stress you were looking for.
SOSIG provides a service which brings order to the second-hand bookshop equivalent that is the Internet, allowing social science researchers and practitioners easily to discover and access relevant, high-quality networked resources worldwide. Each resource has been assessed for quality then catalogued, described and added to our database. You no longer have to rely on a random collection of 'spines'. Users may browse the titles of a rapidly rising number of Social Science resources (900 to date) ordered under subject headings currently ranging from Anthropology to Statistics, or by Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) Scheme if preferred. Better still they may use a simple on-line search form to track down relevant resources. If the title is not enough, then the description - the equivale nt of the book's back cover - is easily accessible and offers the chance to assess the resource's relevance before connection. Resource descriptions and other details such as keywords are entered via on-line templates and users will soon have the opportunity to offer suggestions for additional resources using a simplified form. SOSIG uses indexing and search software developed under another eLib project, ROADS and its interface is uncluttered and easy to use whether a text-based or graphical browser is employed. Many, however, may have missed the opportunity of making use of the service because they gave up on the Internet too soon. Others, of course, have not yet had the time or access to facilities to try.
SOSIG on a plate?
The SOSIG Training Officer, Lesly Huxley, provides training materials and runs SOSIG Workshops at Universities throughout the UK both to draw attention to the added value the service provides as well as introducing Internet - and particularly World Wide Web - tools and techniques. Although workshops are aimed at less-experienced netusers there are fewer absolute beginners now than there used to be. Libraries and Faculties alike are establishing and developing provision of networked machines running WWW client software and some have their own excellent Internet training programmes. The complaint of many staff and postgraduate students is that they have limited time to make use of these facilities and need to know how best to make use of that time.
The Internet for Social Scientists workshops provide a brief overview of Internet tools and facilities, but concentrate firmly on using SOSIG and other UK-based national services as starting points for Internet access to valuable networked resources worldwide to support teaching, administration and research. An on-line tutorial is used at the beginning of each session to introduce Internet and WWW fundamentals and offer practice in navigation for beginners and some useful links to occupy those with more confidence. During the course of the workshop SOSIG is provided 'on a plate' for the less-experienced with step-by-step exercises and hints and tips on using WWW browsers. Quiz sheets along the lines of 'twenty questions' emphasise for the more advanced how SOSIG can be used to answer a variety of research questions and how the national UK services can be used singly or in combination for a variety of enquiries. The use of SOSIG and other subject-based gateways is placed in context alongside the use of In ternet and WWW search engines and other electronic - and paper - sources of information such as Library Catalogues and Citation Indices.
It is not enough simply to achieve proficiency in the technology - using a browser and clicking on hypertext. Presentations, demonstrations and discussions seek to encourage all participants to develop their own information-seeking skills and strategies so that they can apply what they have learnt about using SOSIG and other example resources to any others they may use. Allowing them to become dependent on the technology as it stands today would be foolish given the great leaps which lie ahead. Participants should come away from workshops able to apply techniques and strategies to their use of the Internet, whatever stage of development it may have reached. Workshops can be tailored towards the experience and subject specialisms of participants and sessions on publishing information for the WWW using HTML can also be included.
SOSIG is available at http://sosig.ac.uk/ where links to more information about the service and training workshops and materials are provided. Requests for workshops have been heavy and current bookings are listed for you to check potential availability. At the time of writing, bookings are being taken from October 1996 onwards (although some places are left for July and August if necessary). If you would like us to run a workshop at your University, contact firstname.lastname@example.org as soon as possible as dates are filling fast!