gms | German Medical Science

GMS Journal for Medical Education

Gesellschaft für Medizinische Ausbildung (GMA)

ISSN 2366-5017

How do German veterinarians use social networks? A study, using the example of the 'NOVICE' veterinary medicine network

research article medicine

  • author Elisabeth Schaper - University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Foundation, e-Learning Department, Hannover, Germany
  • author Neil D. Forrest - Royal Veterinary College, London, United Kingdom
  • author Andrea Tipold - University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Foundation, Vice President for Teaching Hannover, Germany
  • corresponding author Jan P. Ehlers - University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Foundation, e-Learning Department, FTA für Informatik und Dokumentation, Hannover, Germany

GMS Z Med Ausbild 2013;30(1):Doc12

doi: 10.3205/zma000855, urn:nbn:de:0183-zma0008552

This is the English version of the article.
The German version can be found at:

Received: April 23, 2012
Revised: September 5, 2012
Accepted: October 10, 2012
Published: February 21, 2013

© 2013 Schaper et al.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License ( You are free: to Share – to copy, distribute and transmit the work, provided the original author and source are credited.


Objective: NOVICE (Network Of Veterinary ICT in Education,, is a professional online social network for veterinarians, lecturers and students of veterinary medicine as well as for e-Learning advisers and others working in establishments that teach veterinary medicine.

This study sets out to investigate to what extent German veterinarians, lecturers, students of veterinary medicine and e-Learning representatives would accept a specialist network, what requirements would have to be met by an online social network, how to use web 2.0 tools [21], [30] and what advantages a specialist network could offer.

Methodology: The investigation was carried out by analysing data from the Elgg platform database as well as using Google Analytics. Annual focus group surveys and individual interviews were carried out in order to perform an analysis of acceptance among network users.

Results: 1961 users from 73 different countries registered on the NOVICE site between 1 September 2010 and 21 March 2012. Germany represents the biggest user group, with 565 users (28.81%). During this period, most individual hits on the website came from Germany too. In total, 24.83% of all members are active, while 19.22% of German members participate actively. In terms of gender, there are significantly more female members than male members, both in the NOVICE network as a whole as well as in Germany. The most used web 2.0 tools are chat and email messaging services as well as writing wikis and contributing to forum discussions. The focus group surveys showed that respondents generally make use of other online communities too. Active members generally use more web 2.0 tools than in other networks, while passive members are generally more reluctant in all networks. All participants of the survey welcomed the idea of having a network specifically set up for the profession and believe that it could be very useful for veterinary medicine.

Conclusions: The network and its membership figures developed very positively during the assessed time period. Until now, the focus of the content of contributions in NOVICE (Network of Veterinary ICT in Education) has been on veterinary medicine teaching supported by e-Learning. An increase in the number of members would, however, be beneficial in order to further develop the network so that valuable exchange of information and informal learning can also take place in other specialist areas of veterinary medicine.

Keywords: Veterinary medicine, web 2.0, lifelong learning, information and communication technology (ICT)


Both the amount we use the internet and they way in which we use it have changed dramatically in the past few years. Content is no longer merely consumed, but users are now helping to create content more and more [14]. People use the internet in order to access information as quickly and simply as possible, or to keep in touch with friends. The internet is also used, however, to upload documents, photos and videos and to make these available to others [24]. According to the German Federal Office of Statistics, 75% of those over the age of 10 used the internet in 2010 in Germany, though internet use has increased notably among older people [10]. These figures are confirmed by Van Eimeren and Frees (38) who state that approximately 52 million Germans (73.3% of the population) are online, while the increase in internet use emanates primarily from those aged over 60.

Internet use among veterinarians is considerably higher than the German average. In a survey conducted in 2006, in which 212 veterinarians participated, 96.9% of respondents stated that they had a personal computer (PC), of whom 97.3% had an internet connection [11]. As part of a further survey conducted online in 2009, in which 1776 veterinarians of various age groups and students of veterinary medicine participated, 94% of respondents stated that they used the internet for communication purposes in particular [23].

Online social networks have been around since 2003, such as Facebook [22], Xing [13] or StudiVZ [12]. Online social networks differ from web-based forum services, particularly as they enable users to create their own personal profile, become a contact of other users and to make these connections public [4]. These kinds of networks have experienced a considerable increase in the number of users in the last few years and in Germany, too, they are being used by more and more people [15], [27]. Professional networks and/or forums are also well established and are gaining in significance. In German-speaking countries, various portals are available for veterinary medicine, for example,, [39].

Creating a social network

The NOVICE project ( is supported by the EU ‘lifelong learning’ programme, which aims, among other things, to support improvements to links and networks among learning communities and increases in creativity and innovation. NOVICE was founded by five European teaching establishments [3]:

Faculteit Diergeneeskunde, Universiteit Utrecht, The Netherlands
Stiftung Tierärztliche Hochschule, Hannover, Germany
The Royal Veterinary College, London, UK
Szent István Egyetem, Budapest, Hungary
Facultatea De Medicina Veterinara, Bucharest, Romania

With NOVICE, a social network for veterinary medicine was created which differs from other online networks in that the contents of the site focus on the teaching and training of veterinary medicine. As a professional, free-of-charge network, it aims to simultaneously support collaboration between veterinarians of all specialisations, as well as veterinary students and e-Learning representatives of veterinary medicine teaching establishments. The project aims to promote the use of web 2.0 tools in veterinary training and higher and further education as well as promoting lifelong learning, thereby familiarising veterinarians with the use of web 2.0 tools. The NOVICE network also provides a platform for international dialogue and exchange of information. Veterinarians are thus able to establish contacts with colleagues from all over the world. The use of IT as well as informal, web-based learning is expected to lead to an improvement in veterinary performance.

Companies from the industry are not involved in the network, nor are there advertising banners promoting veterinary or other products, and there is no intention to involve these in future. Network administration and maintenance is not the responsibility of an external company, but rather these services are provided by the administrators (on the whole veterinarians, but including one IT specialist) of the five veterinary medicine teaching establishments. NOVICE is a closed network which is only accessible to the circle of users described above and which cannot be manipulated and analysed by third parties. This is to protect the network’s integrity.

It is possible to use various types of web 2.0 tools in NOVICE and to learn to use these safely (see table 1 [Tab. 1]). By using these web 2.0 tools, users can design their own learning environment [2].

NOVICE also offers a further function to host online meetings (webinars) [26]. Those wishing to participate can click on an access link to log in to the virtual classroom where lecturers give live lectures and can see and hear participants. Participants are able to take part in the discussion by sending a ‘chat’ message or by using the audio connection (see figure 1 [Fig. 1]).

The aim of this paper was to investigate, by means of the NOVICE project, the acceptance of a web-based, social, expert network for collegial communication and informal learning among German veterinarians, e-Learning representatives of higher education establishments offering training in veterinary medicine as well as students of veterinary science. Alongside analysing the acceptance and actual use of the NOVICE network, the demands of users of online social networks were also to be investigated and presented. At the same time, the aim was to document the how and how often web 2.0 tools were used and to explore the potential of a job-related network. The starting hypothesis for this study was that using a social network and web 2.0 tools could boost communication and improve informal learning in the international veterinary community.


Collecting data about network use

NOVICE was created with the help of ‘Elgg’ open source software [32]. Data analysis for this study was carried out using the Elgg platform’s own database as well as Google Analytics (with a disclaimer and the active agreement of each member). While the Elgg database lists user data as well as the use of the tools (such as blogs or discussion forums), Google Analytics shows, for example, how much time users spent on the NOVICE site, how many pages were opened, which country the users were in, which web browser was used at the time, and which search terms were used in order to find the NOVICE site.

Data was collected for this study over a period of 569 days from the launch of the online network on 1 September 2010 until 21 March 2012.

Analysis of acceptance among NOVICE users

In order to gather data about user demands vis-à-vis social networks as well as their criticism of these, annual focus group surveys or individual interviews were conducted [8], [9]. The interviews were conducted in the form of guided focus groups or individual interviews lasting approximately 30 minutes and were carried out simultaneously by each national project partner before the results were evaluated as part of an international content analysis. The aim of the focus group surveys was to find out how veterinarians operate in other social networks, what they believe are the benefits of these networks, what they would like to see as part of a job-related social network and how they rate social networks in general. In 2010 two focus group sessions were held in Germany, with a total of 23 participants (15 students, 8 veterinarians) and in 2011, after ten months of the portal being online, four small focus groups were held with a total of 20 participants (with five participants from each of the four groups: NOVICE-active and NOVICE-passive students and veterinarians). Participants were asked to express their views on the advantages and disadvantages of NOVICE compared to other social networks. The results of the focus groups were recorded before being clustered and evaluated by two people per country. The results presented here only represent those of surveys conducted in Germany.

In addition, all NOVICE members from the five project partner countries were invited to participate in an online survey. According to the project plan, the aim was to receive 50 completed questionnaires per project partner. The questionnaire was completed by more than 270 members and contains 34 questions about internet usage as well as the individual’s use of NOVICE.

All data from these surveys has been treated anonymously and confidentially in line with EU Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and is used for project evaluation. The data was released by respondents for use in presentations and for publication within the context of the project. This procedure has been approved by the Ethics Committee and/or the data protection supervisor of the participating universities.


Member structure

The network has been online since 1 September 2010. By 21 March 2012, a total of 1961 members from 73 countries had registered with NOVICE (see table 2 [Tab. 2]), of whom 565 members were from Germany (28.81%).

Figure 2 [Fig. 2] shows the evolution of the numbers of NOVICE members between 2 August 2010 (start of the testing phase, in which users from project partner countries could register) and 2 March 2012.

When registering for NOVICE, members must state which professional group they belong to. Selecting more than one category is not possible (see figure 3 [Fig. 3]).

448 members fall into the category Veterinary Educationalists. 55 of these (12.28%) come from Germany. Of the 582 practising veterinarians, 219 (37.63%) come from Germany. 277 (32.10%) of the 863 members registered as students of veterinary medicine come from Germany. With 68 members, of which 14 (20.59%) come from Germany, the ‘ICT Educationalists’ constitute the smallest group.

There are 120 open and closed topic-based discussion groups, in which members communicate primarily in English. In some discussion groups, the native languages of the project partner countries (Dutch, Hungarian, German) were used.

In total, 1142 women (58.24%) and 628 men (32.02%) were NOVICE members. A further 191 members (9.74%) gave no information about their gender. However, from Germany there were 373 women (66.02%), 115 men (20.35%) and 77 people (13.63%) who gave no indication (see figure 4 [Fig. 4]).

Origin of German members

386 (68.32%) NOVICE members indicated that they studied at Hanover, 52 (9.20%) in Berlin, 22 (3.89%) in Leipzig, 41 (7.26%) in Giessen and 47 (8.32%) in Munich. Data was not available for 17 people (3.01%).

During the time period under analysis, there were 50,855 visits to the NOVICE site from 112 countries, of which most visits were from Germany (12,626, 24.83%) (see figure 5 [Fig. 5]).

Use of web 2.0 tools

During the time period analysed, 13,575 contributions were made, of which 4121 (30.38%) were from Germany. Primarily the chat, discussion forum, wiki and internal messaging system tools in NOVICE were used (see figure 6 [Fig. 6]).

Active members

Not all NOVICE members were visibly active in the network. Contributions have so far been made by 487 members (24.83%) from 43 countries. Of these, 177 (20.51%) were veterinary students, 142 (31.70%) were veterinary educationalists, 137 (23.54%) veterinarians and 31 (45.59%) were ICT educationalists. During this period there were 108 active members in Germany (19.22% of all German members). In comparison, 26.62% of members from the UK and 41.64% of members from the Netherlands were active. Members are considered ‘active’ once they have made at least one contribution.

Focus group surveys - spring 2010

The first focus group survey was conducted in 2010, before NOVICE was online. The student survey made it clear that the students were already members of various social networks (e.g. Facebook, Foren4vet, StudiVZ, MySpace) and that specialist veterinary groups already exist on these platforms. Among other things, they believed that these networks provided them with the possibility to access subject-specific and organisational information about study-oriented group learning, facilitated the exchange of learning material and enabled them to maintain contact with friends and acquaintances. However, they also said that the joined the network(s) for ‘amusement’. Students found using the networks easy and convenient, and thought that it saved them time. In terms of the obstacles or difficulties of participating in social networks, the following were named: varying prior experience of members (in interest groups), a lack of safety, the fact that statements cannot be verified, conflicts of interest, complicated web tools, costs involved, the obligation to register and the publication of personal data.

When responding to the question about what support the students would require in order to participate successfully in an online veterinary network, they stated that they would like to have access to learning materials and other resources, a good search engine and options, specialised groups and competent tutors, and the provision of information on important topics in the form of wikis.

The eight veterinarians worked in different areas of veterinary medicine. They were also members of online communities such as Foren4Vet, Xing, Facebook,, Skype, LinkedIn or VIN. They stated that they were members in order to maintain contact with colleagues or friends, to be part of a community, to gain access to specialist information, to learn about public relations, to participate in discussions not linked to veterinary medicine and to receive information about job opportunities. Reasons for not joining other networks cited included the costs involved, a lack of time, language barriers, too little content in discussions and/or too few experts participating in discussions. In addition, they thought that low levels of activity on discussion boards, complex registration procedures, having to create a profile and the amount of personal passwords were reasons not to get involved.

The veterinarians said that in order to entice them to participate in a professional online community, they would like to see a simple registration procedure, good navigation within the platform with instructions about the first steps, FAQs, competent hosts, quick responses to contributions, clear purpose and advantages of becoming a member, evidence-based content, contributions in German as well as the ability to communicate directly with individuals within the network.

Focus group surveys - spring 2011

During the focus groups in spring 2011, once NOVICE had been online for over half a year, 10 active and 10 inactive members (of whom five each were veterinarians and five were students) were asked about their membership in NOVICE and their relationship with other social networks. The active members read and wrote contributions in NOVICE and used various web 2.0 tools to do so, while the inactive members were rarely online in the network; they occasionally read contributions, but never make any contribution themselves.

On the whole, both the active and the inactive members also used other social networks such as StudiVZ, Facebook, Twitter, Xing, Stayfriends and forums. Here, specialist veterinary topics were discussed (Foren4vet, or veterinary content was accessed (WikiVet). Both the active and inactive members participating in the focus group surveys stated that they did not participate very actively in these networks. Some of them wrote contributions, chatted, and uploaded files. Active members in NOVICE used web 2.0 tools such as chat, blogs, microblogs and wikis, as well as reading and writing discussion contributions. Inactive members indicated that they had no time or no need to participate actively in the network.

Respondents stated that the advantages of participating in other networks were in particular the ability to maintain contact with people as well as the exchange of information and quick access to news. With regard to NOVICE, both active and inactive members valued the fact that NOVICE represented the first specialist network which was only open to a specific user circle, in which it is possible to make contact with national and international colleagues and discuss specialist topics. They also valued the fast information flow and the ‘informal atmosphere’. Many of the inactive members participating in the focus group indicated, however, that had not yet used these services.

In general, respondents were critical of the potential for data misuse within social networks, the openness to the public of the individual as well as the opinions they express and the possibility of receiving unwanted contact from others. They also pointed out the danger of internet bullying, the additional time spent and potential costs incurred as points of criticism. Similarly, they pointed out that it was often difficult to assess the relevance and accuracy of the information obtained.

Some participants viewed negatively the period of time required to be online regularly in order to participate actively in NOVICE. Some experienced difficulties in finding their way around the network and described the structure as confusing. There were also concerns here that personal data could not be adequately protected in NOVICE. Another negative aspect was the relatively low number of members at the time (under 1000) as well as the lack of experts in some areas of expertise.

In order to help users find their way around the online veterinary network, participants thought that FAQs or some instructions for ‘first steps’ could be useful, for example. When asked whether NOVICE provided this sort of support, the response was very conflicting. Some respondents could not find their way around the site easily and required better structure, while others had no problems whatsoever and were very happy with the navigation and the structure. Participants spoke positively about the NOVICE administrators’ helpful attitude towards any questions which were asked. No serious technical problems were pointed out when using NOVICE (e.g. when logging in).


The use of computers and the internet has today become commonplace and fully integrated into daily life. Young people in particular have grown up with these and use both as tools of the available infrastructure for their activities [36]. Schulmeister [31] sums up by saying that ‘…die neuen Medien…bei Jugendlichen lediglich in die eigene Lebenswelt inkorporiert werden, nicht aber die Einstellungen, Sehnsüchte und Wünsche prägen’ [new media...entirely incorporated into young people’s lives, do not, however, characterise their preferences, desires and wishes].

Online social networks have developed into a form of mass media, on the whole free of charge [15]. The veterinary network, NOVICE, investigated here has also experienced significant growth, both in Germany and internationally. Membership grows by an average of 100 people per month. This trend is also true for Germany, where the percentage of internet users with a profile in a social community increased from 39% in 2010 to 43% in 2011 [1].

The division of NOVICE members according to gender reflects the gender division among the veterinary community in Germany [5]. The over-representation of students and those working at universities could be explained by the fact that the project started off in a university context. The distribution of members is no doubt also affected by the linguistic, technical and time-related barriers described during the focus group surveys. The participation of the Hanover TiHo in the project team also explains the large share of TiHo alumni. Compared to the size of the veterinary medicine community in Germany, with 36,000 members [5], the membership of NOVICE is relatively still very low.

It is important to always look critically at the contents and structure of online social networks. Jakob Nielsen [29] created the 90-9-1 concept (see figure 7 [Fig. 7]) with regard to the use of networks (‘online communities’). According to the theory, 90% of network users are ‘lurkers’, i.e. observers who only read and do not create any content themselves. Approximately 9% of users are ‘intermittent contributors’, that is to say, participants who occasionally contribute actively, although NIELSEN does not provide an exact definition of this. Just 1% of members are so-called ‘heavy contributors’ who are invariably active and who make the most (90%) contributions. The 90-9-1 concept should be viewed as approximate, but it does give you an idea of the imbalance seen in online communities in terms of participation, since just a few users create 90% of the content.

NOVICE compares rather favourably here in terms of activity. In total, 24.83% of members are more or less active and just 75.17% are passive, i.e. they read articles or are merely registered on the network. Given the data collection method used, a detailed breakdown into ‘intermittent contributors’ and ‘heavy contributors’ was not possible for NOVICE. With 19.22% of active users, Germany is below the global average of 24.83%. Possible reasons for this are a linguistic barrier or the member structure. Members from Germany are to a large degree veterinary students (32.10%) or veterinarians (37.63%) and fewer state their main occupation as being ‘e-Learning representatives’ (20.59%) and/or ‘lecturers in veterinary medicine’ (12.28%). Users cannot register in more than one category. It is possible that both students and veterinarians are less interested in partaking in discussions, given that these have thus far concentrated on university teaching.

Looking at general user behaviour on the internet, it becomes clear that, despite the existence of web 2.0 tools, internet users still prefer to consume content as opposed to creating it themselves. The conditions of web 1.0 essentially continue to dominate the world wide web. A study focussing on the media behaviour of young Germans showed that a quarter of all users create their own content by uploading photos and videos or by making blog contributions etc, while 75% passively use pre-existing internet content [18]. According to Busemann and Gscheidle [7], who evaluated the results of the ARD/ZDF online study, only a third of internet users are interested in participating actively in the World Wide Web.

Even if the possibilities of web 2.0 are not yet fully exploited by many internet users, it still offers great potential to veterinary medicine. Digital technologies facilitate a high quality range of photo, audio and video files. These can also be placed on the internet to be used as learning material. They do not get lost and can be called up over and over again. This enables teaching establishments to move away from being dependent on ‘suitable patients’ to present specific symptoms of medical conditions. Using web 2.0, veterinary reference works such as ‘Vetipedia’ ( from Germany or ‘WikiVet’ ( from the UK can be created. The focus group sessions showed that veterinary students in particular are familiar with computers, the internet and the use of web 2.0 tools and one can assume that the use of web 2.0 tools will increase in the long term, even though some of the respondents experienced some technical difficulties [9]. This was confirmed by the results of the national focus group sessions. Many are already members of other online communities and use web 2.0 tools, and believe that NOVICE has the advantage of being a professional network in which expertise can be exchanged internationally. The NOVICE administrators should make the necessary additions and changes in order to remove technical barriers and difficulties which prevent users from getting an overview of the functions available in the network.

Web 2.0 content is already playing a significant role in information searches both when taking clinical decisions and in medical training [16] and web 2.0 will become more and more significant in medical education and training in future [19], [20]. The teaching of veterinary science has also benefited in the past two decades from information and communication technology and its associated new teaching methods and possibilities and will be closely linked to changes in internet use in future [33], [34], [35]. It is not only between veterinary students and teaching staff and veterinarians that web-based interactive cooperation will gain in significance but in the whole international approach to controls on animal production and food safety or the way that animal disease and zoonoses are handled [36].

Burrell [6] talks of the great potential for clinical practice offered by web 2.0. He believes that social networking can offer experts of human medicine a chance to work together internationally. Many social networking applications facilitate the exchange and bundling of knowledge and enable social contacts and discussion to take place between colleagues. He cites the examples of ‘Flickr’ for joint picture databases, ‘Facebook’ for common interest groups, ‘Delicious’ as a social bookmarking service for the exchange of interesting hyperlinks, ‘Googledocs’ for joint drafting of text documents and ‘Youtube’ for exchanging podcasts. Hyman et al. [17] provide a representation of the risks and advantages of ‘professional online networks’ for doctors. A careful, considered approach, using a closed, profession-specific network will help to ensure the success of the project. However, as was pointed out during the NOVICE focus groups, the constant scrutiny of security and public access to data is an example of media-savvy behaviour [37].

NOVICE brings together the web 2.0 tools cited by Burrell [6] in a network which is highly accepted by its users. In order to work together, no other social networking applications are really necessary. This potential needs to be further exhausted. Globalised trade and transport and the consequent introduction of vector-borne infectious agents, global warming and consequently the establishment of exotic vectors [28], animal production and food production represent a challenge for both animal and public health and require a great deal of international cooperation and the development of joint strategies. The veterinary network, NOVICE, represents an interesting medium and tool to take on these tasks. At the moment, NOVICE is little known among the German and international veterinary community. Should this situation change in future, and should the network become part of the communication infrastructure, used as a matter of course and integrated into work, it is possible that it could be used for international dialogue, to appreciate common interests, for joint knowledge management and for international cooperation.


The network and the number of members developed very positively during the assessed time period, though one must remain critical. There is fundamental acceptance of a web-based, social network for collegial communication and informal learning among German veterinarians and veterinary teaching staff and students. The current member numbers, however, are not high enough to reach a ‘critical mass’ [25], enabling the network to develop its own dynamic. The project partners must continue to provide support in order to promote discussions and to familiarise members with the network. This takes place, for example, by inviting members into thematic groups which they might find interesting, enabling them to participate in discussions, sharing their experience and skills. Until now, the focus of the content of contributions in NOVICE (Network of Veterinary ICT in Education) has been on veterinary medicine teaching supported by e-Learning. This is a particularly successful aspect of the network’s development. International experts from this field are well represented in the network and participate in discussions and expert dialogue. An increase in the number of members would, however, be beneficial to further develop the network so that valuable exchange of information and informal learning can take place in other specialist areas of veterinary medicine too.

An international network could, in future, support cooperation in animal health, the control of animal diseases, food safety and the associated consumer protection.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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