At the Sound of the Beep

Teaching through Electronic Mail

Sara Joan Miles | May 1, 1992

Editor's Note: For more information on electronic mail, see “Electronic Mail and Historians” by Donald Mabry (Perspectives, February 1991), and Structuring the Past: The Use of Computers in History (1991) by Janice Reiff, available from the AHA Publications Sales Office.

How many times have we heard, "But the computer is so impersonal"? The mere idea of a machine (usually two machines) coming between teacher and student in the learning process immediately raises eyebrows and a host of negative feelings. Yet the recent implementation of the regular use of electronic mail in some of the history courses at Wheaton College (Illinois) has actually increased both the quantity and quality of student-teacher communication, and professors using it have noted a number of benefits that were not originally anticipated. One such advantage is increased teacher-student dialogue while avoiding problems of scheduling appointments. Students seem to view the electronic mail program as a "fancy letter writer" and thus use the technology as a way to increase communication with faculty members. Pedagogical advances include the increased ability of the teacher to observe the process of learning, better use of class time, and the possibility of moving more quickly to higher stages of cognitive learning.

The initial motivation for using the school's electronic mail program sprang from the fact that one professor's schedule made it difficult for students to find her. As she discussed the problem with the support staff in the Academic Computing Center, it became clear that electronic mail could do a great deal more than serve as a message sender/receiver. She began by sending, via the computer, a weekly list of essay homework questions to the students in her world civilization discussion section (these are small subsets of the large lecture class. with each section focusing on a theme). Questions were available to the students the day after the weekly class session. They would answer the required number of questions and electronically return their responses to the professor by the evening before the class met. To do this, students accessed a multi-user mainframe computer either through a terminal in one of our academic computing labs or via a modem from their dorm room. The professor then accessed the computer system via a modem from her home computer, and she was able to have most of them graded, and all of them read, before walking into class the following day.

For the most part the students had not had a great deal of experience with mini-computers, and the first class period involved an orientation to electronic mail, because of this lack of familiarity, students had difficulty judging how much they had written, their only framework being their terminal screen. They did not know, therefore, whether their answer equaled one page, one-half page, or two pages, and as a result tended to write until they thought they had answered the question, not until they had come to the end of the sheet of paper, moreover, they often let the instructor in on the thinking process itself. One student, for instance, began arguing on one side of an issue, noted some counter-examples, and then began pointing out the strengths of the second position. At this point she commented: "Actually, now that I think more about this (I hate it when this happens), they .... " Some students engaged the teacher in dialogue, requesting more information, raising questions, admitting weaknesses in arguments, or insisting on the priority of certain presuppositions. Others would ask for a question to be discussed in class, for help in handling data or evaluating arguments, or for bibliographic resources. The number of these productive interchanges was significantly higher than before the use of electronic mail.

While such exchanges can be fostered in traditional forms of assignments, the image of electronic mail as a form of communication seemed to facilitate the process. Knowing that the instructor would be raising questions about portions of the answer or inviting additional interpretations, students did not view their responses as final products. They understood that answers would still need to be worked on, and that the learning process would continue beyond the student-faculty exchange on the computer to the interaction of faculty and students in the classroom. Their answers acknowledged the complexity and tentativeness of the learning task, leading the instructor to emphasize formative evaluation rather than summative. Grammar and spelling, in this approach, had their rightful place: as means to an end.

The editing program allowed the teacher to enter the students' texts at any point to make comments. Sometimes the remarks were minor corrections of grammar or spelling. At others they were the kinds of observations made on any written assignment—a commendation here, a correction there. But this new medium, because it was not limited to the space in the margin or the back of a page, and because it allowed for "edited" responses, fostered another kind of communication: longer and more personal interaction focusing either on a particular assertion, an evidence of unrecognized bias, or a request for understanding. The editing program can build on the formative process and interrupt the prose, allowing the teacher to insert questions, to suggest alternatives, to propose conclusions. These responses could be as short as a phrase or as long as five or six paragraphs. In one case near the beginning of the semester, a student had done an excellent job of analyzing the material, going on to draw some conclusions about the given situation. Both his analysis and his logic were impeccable. He was, however, assuming that the data, in the text provided the whole story, and so the professor wrote: "Great job, Tim. I think you have done an outstanding job of analyzing this material and drawing conclusions. You get an A for the assignment. However, I want you to know that your conclusions are wrong. What would you say if I told you that, in addition to the information provided by the text, .... ? How would that affect your argument?" When the student received his graded assignment, he stayed on and for forty-five minutes discussed with the instructor—via the computer—how the new information would have altered his analysis and his conclusions.

Good teaching can happen anywhere, and there is nothing in the more traditional ways of handling assignments to prevent such exchange, but it usually does not take place, often because of two factors: (1) the teacher and the student must be at the same place at the same time to communicate, and (2) students often flip to the end of the assignment to look at the grade and then file the paper, sometimes in the wastepaper basket. Electronic mail eliminates the first obstacle and, with respect to the second, makes it more difficult to get to the end of the file without seeing what is in the middle. Moreover, it makes it easy to respond to the teacher's comments or questions without having to amass a pile of paper.

In other cases the computer allowed the instructor to deal with issues of personal bias and ideology. The section in which this method was first implemented focused on women's history, and the students were not aware of that fact when they signed up for the section. A polarization quickly developed between those who did not want to "waste their time" studying women and those who saw it as interesting—and potentially valuable—material. As the students reflected, analyzed, evaluated, and interrogated the material, presuppositions and emotions became evident in their answers. It was as though they felt they were actually talking to the professor (in a way that pen and paper usually do not allow). but this time with the protection of an impersonal go-between. They wrote about the differences between what they thought about an issue (and what they had accepted as "the facts") and what the course readings and discussions were implying. Again, the dialogic nature of electronic mail allowed students to send the teacher information describing where they were in both the cognitive and affective process instead of the perfected, dogmatic statements found with the traditional pen and paper. The teacher could nudge, encourage, evaluate, clarify, and generally assist class members on an individual basis to understand where they were in their thinking, where they had been, and where they might be headed. The medium mediated the inherent disadvantage of the classroom—one teacher and many students—and allowed "personal" student-teacher interaction. It also protected students from perceived possible embarrassments in the classroom where they might give an inappropriate answer or hold an unpopular view, and often, after two or three weeks of private interchange, they were ready to raise issues in class or to request an appointment with the professor.

One way in which computer dialogue led to more personal interactions between student and teacher was one feature of the use of electronic mail that had not been anticipated. In some cases, students were not certain how the professor would react to alternative interpretations or philosophies, and so they would make tentative comments, ask questions, or advance a position in the form of the third person ("Some people maintain .....”) to see what kind of response would be forthcoming. As they became confident that diversity of opinion that was well-supported and logically consistent could be tolerated, they began to be more open and direct. Comments such as the following became more and more frequent as the semester continued: "Professor X in the Y Department (or historian J in such and such a book) said this, but you say that. I feel more comfortable with his/her position, but I'd like to know why you think the way you do. Could I talk with you sometime?" One student spent four weeks asking questions, responding to the answers, and asking more questions before he believed himself ready to discuss the subject in person; by that time he was able to begin to identify bias in historical writing-and in his own interpretation as well.

Another student informed the instructor via electronic mail during the third week of class that she was concerned about the fact that class participation would be a significant part of the grade. She reported that as the only American student in a school overseas, she had been ridiculed every time she had spoken in class, and as a result she still found it impossible to speak up. The professor answered by explaining her philosophy of criticism—criticize ideas and not people-and offering some suggestions as to how they could work together to overcome the student's fear. The student then made an appointment to see the teacher, and they worked out a strategy to encourage class participation. By the end of the semester, the student was freely discussing, even to the point of disagreeing with her peers. It is doubtful that she would have felt free to raise this problem in an initial face-to-face encounter with the instructor, but the computer provided a protective shield that ultimately fostered personal interaction.

In addition to providing a protective distance, the computer also bypasses the problem of conflicting schedules. It is not unusual for a student to have classes or other conflicts during an instructor's office hours. Electronic mail can be used any time the student is free and the computer lab open. It allows the student to ask questions ("Is there any other time I can see you? I'm free ... ") or provide information ("I won't be in class next week because I have to go on a field trip."). The instructor had informed the students that she would check the computer mail twice a day from her terminal, and so both students and professor were able to handle many items at their own convenience.

By scheduling the assignments to be completed before the class period, the professor was able to make much better use of class time. First, she was able to estimate just how well individual members of the class had comprehended the assigned readings· on the basis of their written answers. Second, she already knew which issues for that week had been difficult and which had been easy for the students, which material had been misunderstood or poorly understood, and which needed little attention at an introductory level. Third, she was aware of which students had exhibited insights, and she had been able to tell them, when grading, things like. "Be sure to raise this point in class," or "Make a copy of this answer; I'm going to ask you to share it in class."

Since the students already knew in general terms whether they were understanding the material properly, they were more willing to enter into class discussion; as a result, the instructor was able to structure class discussion in such a way that the students learned from each other as well as from the teacher. Class time had as its focus students' understandings and analyses of historical material, with the teacher asking them to describe the process they went through to arrive at an answer, comparing the answers of two students who came to different conclusions, or sharing a response that demonstrated outstanding integration of the material. Moreover, the fact that the students had their assignments back by the time class began allowed them to know where their difficulties were and provided the opportunity for clarification at the time the topic was being discussed, not the following week.

There is yet another advantage to scheduling assignments in this manner. Since the assignment had already dealt with learning at the factual, comparative, and introductory analysis level, class time could be spent on higher cognitive skill exercises involving in-depth analysis, evaluation of arguments, and evaluation of evidence. In general, very little time was spent in class in communicating information per se, but a great deal was spent helping the students to learn to manipulate data and concepts.

In addition to what has already been described, the computer became a valuable tool to handle routine "paperwork." For instance, rather than circulate a sign-up sheet for student reports, the report topics were listed on the syllabus and students were asked to let the instructor know their first and second choices via the computer. Reports were assigned on a "first come, first served" basis, meaning that students who did not really care enough to go to the computer lab-and not the ones on the opposite side of the room from where the sheet was started-took the leftovers.

As events on campus related to the course were scheduled, the professor sent messages alerting students of programs. One semester a campus group sponsored an illustrated lecture dealing with racism and sexism in the media, and the instructor was able to bring this to the students' attention. Moreover, at the end of the semester, the teacher still had copies of all the work completed by each student without having lots of paper. There was no need to photocopy, collate, or file these materials, they took up no room in the professor's office, and they could be arranged by assignment or by individual student with a simple computer command. It was then possible to look at each student's progress during the semester: Was he doing a better job of recognizing important material? Could she analyze an argument better nearer the end of the semester than at the beginning? Was there an improvement in his ability to draw historical conclusions? Trends in developmental learning—or non-learning—helped the instructor to know which skills needed to be stressed or cultivated and which ones could be ignored for the time being. While this type of evaluation is done without using electronic mail, the use of the computer facilitated that task and saved paper.

The major disadvantage to our electronic mail teaching related to the editing system we had to use. The editor, known as "vi," is not a particularly easy one to learn, and students had some problems during the first two weeks. The Academic Computing Center and the college administration recognized the value of this use of electronic mail, however, and provided personnel and funds to develop a "user-friendly" help menu. Other improvements have also been made, including a menu-driven program to encourage students to use other computer options such as "read news."

Students are generally quite positive about the approach. They find the editor difficult to work with and would like more access to computer facilities, but these demands are being addressed by the administration. Students appreciate the ease of contacting professors, the speed with which their assignments are returned, and the opportunity to know how well they are understanding the material before the time for class discussion.

Faculty have questioned whether electronic mail requires a greater time commitment on their part or on their students' part. The answer is that for both it may slightly increase time spent on the course work, but not significantly. Time commitment for students depends largely on keyboard skills, but even those with virtually no typing or computer background are able by the end of the semester to enter their answers or messages more quickly than they can write them out by hand. For faculty who have tried this system, the process of grading seems to have gone more quickly, and there is the added advantage that they tend to make longer, more detailed comments. What little extra time is spent in responding, however, is negligible compared to the improved learning that takes place. In this case, the computer has served as an invaluable communication tool to facilitate the education process.

The possibilities for other creative uses of electronic mail are numerous. Combining it with an editing program for test construction would permit students to take tests outside of class. This could be especially valuable in the case of pretesting where the lack of grade pressure reduces possible cheating. Teachers who are unable to finish a lecture or are running behind can send the essential information to their students, requesting that they read it and raise any questions at the next class period. In seminar classes, students can report on personal research prior to class time, and then class periods can move beyond the "reporting" stage to an analysis or evaluation of various findings and their implications for the next phase of the course.

We have discovered that the educational use of electronic mail is limited only by our creativity. Moreover, we are convinced that technology is not, in itself, impersonal. Just as the telephone was originally viewed as an impersonal technological device that would interfere with personal communication, the computer has been accused of being cold and impersonal. Experience with the telephone has demonstrated that it can actually increase interchange. Experimenting with the use of the computer can lead to a similar conclusion.

Sara Joan Miles is an associate professor of history and biology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, lL.



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