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What is the Internet?

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What is the Internet?

Although it is difficult now to take a class, read a newspaper, or watch the evening news without hearing about the Internet, most of us can probably remember when the Internet as we know it did not exist. In fact, most of us can probably recall when email was an foreign concept, and if we think back hard enough, we can most likely recall our first experience "surfing" the net. Those among us who were technologically on the cutting edge probably also remember the early days of the Internet, when information was gathered using gophers and telnet; these pioneers most certainly appreciate the growth and advancement of Internet technology in the last ten years.

The Internet is a network of national and international computers that allows access to an interconnected Web of information. The original prototype of this Web, ARPANET, was developed in the late 60s by the Department of Defense. It was intended for use by the government and military as a way to maintain nationwide communication in the event of a national disaster such as nuclear war. In the 80s, the National Science Foundation developed the NSFnet, which was the precursor to our present-day Internet. The NSFnet provided high speed connections between computers across the country. Information was transmitted primarily through the use of text-based gophers, as well as newsgroups, mailing lists, and electronic mail. (Lam, Palmquist). By today's standards, it was clunky and user-unfriendly, thus its use was mainly limited to government and university researchers and scientists.

In the early 90s, however, the Internet began to take on broader public appeal when the World Wide Web was developed. The WWW links documents together through the use of hypertext and is accessed through easy-to-use browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer. Its graphically-oriented nature makes it easy to navigate and user-friendly, thus making cyberspace convenient and accessible to the general public and hundreds of new users. Anyone who has access to a server or Internet provider and knows how to use HTML (hypertext markup language) can post to the Web. As a result, millions of people now use the Internet to keep in touch with friends, purchase automobiles, trade stocks, advertise products, and conduct online classes, to name only a few uses. Although the older means of accessing the Internet still exist, the WWW's ease of use and access has made them virtually obsolete, and public-access gopher sites are gradually being phased out.

To say the Internet is growing quickly is an understatement. In 1993, there were estimated to be four million users (Lam), and by 1995, the number was up to 27 million and was predicted to grow to 200 million by the year 2000 (Harris). By 1997, that prediction was up to 500 million users by the year 2000 (Cooper and Cooper).

Along with that growth, particularly in the field of education, have come changing attitudes about the value of the Web. During its early years, the WWW was touted to hold the potential to improve education and create a worldwide community of learners (Davis, Graves, Lam, McGlinn, Monahan). More recently, however, that enthusiasm has subsided, and educators have tended to step back and view the Web with more caution (Knowlton, Lyman, Nigohosian, Oppenheimer).