Enhancing Communication
between Students and Instructors

through the Use of E-mail and the Internet

Mary Bold

A Presentation at the Annual Conference of the
North Texas Student Council on Family Relations, Denton, Texas, November 1, 1997


Introduction
Universities’ Perspectives
Uses of the Internet
E-mail
Benefits
Problems
References

Introduction

The use of the Internet in higher education has increased dramatically in recent years, reflecting the rapid adoption of the technology by society. The entire history of the Internet can be described as less than three decades old (Hafner & Lyon, 1996) and the World Wide Web (WWW) has been available only since 1992. In spite of these relatively short histories, the technologies are increasingly available and affordable to the public (Palin, 1997).

The Internet is a powerful tool for both instructors and students. One use of the tool is communication, which can be described as unidirectional or bi-directional. An example of unidirectional use is an instructor’s use of a homepage on the WWW for distribution of course materials. An example of bi-directional use is e-mail correspondence between instructor and student. Examples of these two types of communication will be presented throughout this paper.

To date, the utilization of such communication technology has been largely dependent on individuals’ efforts (Connell, 1996; Spotts & Bowman, 1995). Thus, an instructor’s interest level and technical proficiency have been the main determinants of what type of computer-mediated communication has been incorporated in college coursework. In spite of this, the use of computer technology and its inclusion in instructional design is fast becoming institutionalized. Researchers and educators expect it to become an integral part of education (“Building the Syllabus,” 1997; Griffin, 1995; Lawless, 1995; Schneider & Block, 1995; Spotts & Bowman, 1995; Wang & Sleeman, 1993).

Universities’ Perspectives

Universities increasingly support instructors’ individual endeavors and also have begun to institute campus-wide programs which standardize technology for both employees and for students. Universities’ motivation is at least two-pronged. First, they respond to demands of the marketplace, which includes responding to demands of students who have grown up using the technology. Second, they strive to use technology to reduce costs.

The first motivation is evident in the increasing number of distance education courses and entire degrees which are “exported.” The new technologies being used in distance programs minimize the constraints of distance and time on education (Rohfeld & Hiemstra, 1995). Students, especially older and re-entry students, who seek to start or complete degrees with a minimum of disruption to their work and family lives are especially attracted to distance programs.

Many college courses are well-suited to computer-mediated communication so that some or even all on-campus meetings can be eliminated. As students have found such courses available at some universities, they have enrolled in those schools. The result is a growing competition among colleges and universities for this market segment. Even if a college has as its primary student body young, “traditional” students coming to campus directly from secondary school, it feels the motivation to incorporate elements of technology in coursework. Such schools realize that these young students are increasingly computer literate and expect to use technology in coursework. Thus, the technology is being incorporated in both distance and on-campus classes.

The second motivation addresses the increasing cost of running a university today. Even though technology requires high initial cost, it has the potential of reducing other costs in the long-term. Some examples of reduced costs follow.

Uses of the Internet

Uses of the Internet at the university level include:

computer-mediated communication, including electronic mail (e-mail);

research through Internet-based services such as FirstSearch and EBSCO;

research through WWW sites;

access to library holdings worldwide;

scholarly discourse through listservs and electronic conferencing;

delivery of course material through instructor and university WWW sites;

publication of syllabi, class schedules, degree plans, etc.;

distance learning (synchronous and asynchronous); and

in-class display of information during meetings in traditional classrooms.

 

E-mail

Just as e-mail has changed communication in business, it promises to alter the way professors and students communicate. For example, educators can offer “extended office hours” by way of e-mail, inviting students to make inquiries in a text-based mode. Since a professor’s answer can be sent back to the student with the push of a single button (“reply”), communication is faster and usually more clear than through use of telephone or voice mail. With campus-wide adoption of e-mail as the primary means of communication, a campus of the University of Minnesota found that the new system resulted in less telephone tag, less waiting at offices, and more access to people and information (Sargent,1995).

E-mail also permits assignments to be submitted electronically. Some instructors choose to receive the assignments as private e-mail. Others require that students distribute their assignments to all members of the class via e-mail. Practical considerations include size of class, length of assignment, due dates within the semester, and computer lab access for students who do not own computers. When the logistics are handled well, this style of work is satisfying to both instructors and students.

These benefits have been reported:

The interpretive nature of Family Sciences information is a potential drawback in the use of e-mail, however. There may be a limit to the amount or character of use in the field because e-mail is nonverbal and not conducive to communication of highly interpretive language. It can also be described as relatively anonymous and status-levelling (Geser, 1996). Geser (1996) wrote of the language limitations of e-mail for the social sciences:

Of course, E-communication is most adequate in cases where words have a highly standardized and consensual meaning, so that there is no need to provide additional specifying cues. Thus, it will be used widely in scientific fields characterized by high paradigmatic development and formalized codes of expression (mathematics, chemistry etc.) and less in most social sciences or humanities, where imprecise definitions and nonconsensual terminological interpretations prevail. (p. 6)

These aspects of e-mail may be important to instructors in the Family Sciences who seek to use e-mail to communicate with students and to evaluate that use. Zack (1995) addressed the issue in his report of using e-mail with undergraduates. He found that both he and students were more likely to use e-mail when issues were relatively unambiguous and factual. As questions became complex, the need for face-to-face meetings was obvious.

Klein (1996) reported at the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) that his experiences with e-mail as a pedagogical tool were highly dependent upon class size. Specifically, when the number of students exceeded 25, e-mail was less efficient and less effective.

Benefits of Using the Internet and E-mail

Some benefits associated with the technology follow.

1. Reflective thinking by students is encouraged when coursework is accomplished in asynchronous learning processes (Hiltz, 1997; Rohfeld & Hiemstra,1995). For example, if an assigned reading is posted on the Internet and students are asked to post their comments about the reading, the ensuing discussion can take place over several days’ time. Students can read, think, read classmates’ postings, reconsider their own opinions, and finally post comments which are the result of more thought than would normally occur during an on-campus discussion in a single class session.

2. Important information in curriculum material can be highlighted for students with animation, sound, blinking or reversed text, and graphics (Cates, 1991). Curriculum presentation can include images and color at a fraction of the cost of visuals in print materials. Animation and the other special features mentioned above serve students who retain information more efficiently when the information includes graphics. Randal Day (1996) of Washington State University reported that visual images representing family structure make a powerful impact on students. He created original art to accompany lectures; the art was also installed on students’ CD-ROM self-study modules. Day used the following software applications to aid in creating such images: Fractal Design Painter, Adobe Photoshop, and Poser.

3. One of the strongest arguments for using the Internet for delivering curriculum material is the interactive nature of the medium. Some topics are especially well-suited to interactive exercises or immediate application. An example of interactive exercise might be a student’s participation in a scholarly discussion in a chat room with a “visiting professor” or guest speaker. Depending on the student’s level of expertise or level of comfort, such an exercise could even afford the choice between actively participating or lurking (listening but not making one’s presence known). An example of immediate application might be the ability to follow hyperlinks from an assigned reading to related topics at WWW sites.

4. Posting information about courses and distributing learning materials can be accomplished on the WWW with relatively little difficulty (Schneider & Block, 1995). Little technical knowledge and virtually no expense are required. The author of such materials—typically a professor or his graduate assistant—can use Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) editing software to create materials in the format used for web sites. Netscape Composer, which is part of the Netscape Communicator suite (sometimes referred to as Netscape 4.0), is a sufficient HTML editor. It is available at no cost to educational users and can be downloaded from the Netscape WWW site. A more extensive editor, Microsoft FrontPage, costs about $140 retail and as little as $65 through vendors serving universities.

5. The collaborative nature of the Internet promotes the utilization of teachers as facilitators instead of information transmitters (Schneider & Block, 1995) and promotes students’ exploratory research (Schneider & Block, 1995). While educators can reserve the right to lecture when that is an efficient means of delivering information, they can also use the new technologies to limit the traditional lecturer model, sometimes called “sage-on-a-stage.”

6. Collaborative learning also provides motivation for most students: in preparing e-mail assignments, they are motivated to work hard because other students will be reading their work (Hiltz, 1997)

7. One of the most powerful uses of the Internet is the publishing of books and reports by both faculty and students. It is also an area of great debate as academia decides how to value such publishing and how to manage practical aspects of it. Compared to print publishing, electronic or digital publishing offers greater speed to publication, lower cost, and wider distribution. All of these factors will encourage a larger number of writers. Whether readership will be increased is not known. However, writing and readership in narrow disciplines will almost certainly increase. When only a small audience (of a few hundred or a few thousand) is identified for a manuscript, print publishers are likely to pass on a project since recouping printing costs is not assured. By contrast, electronic publishers can produce the small-audience-document since the cost of posting it on the Internet is relatively small. Additionally, certain narrow audiences can be reached through the Internet, especially if computer users access material through filters which the publisher can identify as appropriate to the publication.

Problems

Some problems associated with the technology follow.

1. Loss of regular and frequent face-to-face interaction may negatively affect the educational process. Instructors using distance technology report the need for special activities to establish rapport among students at the start of a course (Rohfeld & Hiemstra, 1995). The effects of loss of interaction may not be fully felt or known yet.

2. Large time commitments by instructors is widely reported (Hiltz, 1997; Hughes, 1996a; Kearsley, Lynch, & Wizer, 1995;Lacina-Gifford & Kher-Durlabhji, 1996; O’Donnell, 1996). Compensation for faculty time for preparing new course materials is a continuing problem (Hiltz, 1997).

3. Training for instructors and students is costly and ongoing (Sargeant, 1995). Those who are new to the technology are especially in need of specialized training. “The amount of support novice users are likely to need cannot be overestimated” (Rohfeld & Hiemstra, p. 3).

4. Limited standardization of hardware and software is evident on campuses. Competitive market forces have produced a multitude of possible computer configurations. The practical result on campus is that assignments must accommodate students’ various hardware and software, in terms of both access and skill level. Some universities address the problem by requiring identical hardware among all students and faculty. Sargeant (1995) described the solution by University of Minnesota at Crookston as a large-scale leasing program of IBM laptops for all students as well as a required introductory computer course. Other schools, such as Carnegie Mellon University, require that all incoming students take a course in specific software that is the standard for all assignments on that campus.

5. Start-up, maintenance, and replacement of computer labs, classroom equipment, local area networks (LANs), and similar facilities are expensive in time and money. Schools usually must hire additional specialized personnel to maintain the facilities.

6. Even with adequate support staff, a university faces continuing challenges in the technology. Hiltz (1997) reported that after a decade of experience with virtual classrooms at New Jersey Institute of Technology, technical and logistical problems persist although they change in nature.

7. Through fees or personal expenses, students share the cost of technology. Some are unable to meet or resistant to such costs (Hiltz, 1997).

8. Internet technology poses legal and ethical dilemmas in the areas of intellectual property, copyright, and privacy. Intentional violation of laws and rights is not necessarily the larger problem, although violations such as plagiarism are well-known in educational communities. The greater issue, at least during the current rapid expansion of the technology, is universities’ and instructors’ unintended errors in publishing student information and student work. For example, a tour of course homepages on university servers can turn up class rosters, student home phone numbers, even Social Security numbers. Instructors have posted such information on web pages without thinking about the inherent public access. Access can be limited by setting passwords for entry to course homepages, but often faculty opt to forego passwords because of their own or students’ irritation with the process. Similar privacy issues surround the posting of students’ work.

9. Procrastination by students is sometimes a problem if classes do not meet on a regular and frequent basis; students may postpone work and fall seriously behind (Hiltz, 1997). Timeliness of required e-mail submissions is also jeopardized by unexpected technical problems (for example, if the university server is “down” or a student’s computer at home malfunctions). Such problems are exacerbated if the student has procrastinated and is relying on the technology on or near the due date for an assignment.

 

References

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Day, R. D. (Speaker). (1996). Bridging geographical distances through online courses (Cassette Recording No. 96-329 Workshop on Instructional Technology). Minneapolis, MN: National Council on Family Relations.

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