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Using E-Mail, Web Sites & Newsgroups to Enhance Traditional Classroom Instruction

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New methods of communication are rapidly changing the fundamental shape of education. Computer programs have successfully replaced a significant portion of the time expended by an individual instructor in dissemination of basic information. Such programs might be as simple as instruction in the mechanics of typing or as complex as introductory computer science courses.

Moreover, many institutions have set up distance learning programs to conserve the finite resources of higher education. Interactive television in special classrooms allows effective learning at sites far distant from the central campus, and transmitting data through the Internet enables virtually instantaneous interaction between instructor and student at any distance.

Nevertheless, we have only begun to employ new technology in conventional classroom instruction. Despite the pervasiveness of communication networks outside of academe, many students -- especially those in the humanities and social sciences -- use computers only for word processing and games. Likewise, many instructors through fear, lethargy or ignorance retain the teaching methods of yesteryear. Yet within a few hours, any teacher can learn the basic technology to communicate with students in new powerful and efficient ways.

Trio Matches Teachers' Tasks

Not simply an alternative to personal interaction of instructor and student, communication technology can serve as an extension of traditional classroom instruction. A computer network can enhance the three major activities of all teachers: to counsel students individually, to deliver general information (a lecture), and to encourage class discussion.

First, e-mail provides extended opportunities for personal counseling. Not only can instructors choose to make themselves available to their students at any time but they also have an electronic record of all such transactions.

Second, a Web site may deliver general knowledge more effectively than a lecture. Access to precise information on a home page eliminates the distortion that taking written notes in class inevitably introduces.

Third, a local newsgroup introduces a powerful new form of class interaction totally impossible in earlier times. Students reluctant to participate in a traditional class discussion may contribute extensively to a newsgroup.

Ideally, teachers will incorporate all these new methods of electronic interaction seamlessly into the usual pattern of lecture and discussion in regular class meetings. When the technology becomes invisible, both student and instructor can concentrate on the specific content of the course.

Tips for Basic Ground Rules

Neither instructor nor student needs more than a bare minimum of technological knowledge for such a course.

Instructors must first have an account with the institutional network to establish an e-mail address. Many faculty members already avail themselves of this service, of course. A program like Eudora or Claris Emailer will provide the means to organize notes from students as they come in throughout the term.

Second, the instructor needs to create a site for a home page. A basic knowledge of HTML programming or software such as Adobe PageMill will allow the teacher to add information here as the term progresses.

Third, the instructor needs to request the establishment of a newsgroup at the appropriate computer center of the institution. Fifteen minutes of instruction in the use of a newsreader such as tin (UNIX) or Netscape Navigator are adequate for all but the most technologically-challenged of teachers to employ this resource effectively.

The success of using communication technology in class depends on the swift and uniform introduction of all students to this form of interaction. Any student lacking access to the network labors under a real disadvantage relative to other students regarding general course policies, assignments and lecture information, and such a student cannot participate in the class newsgroup at all. Thus, each student must immediately activate an individual computer account, usually offered at a minimal charge or free to registered students.

Students who already possess accounts may provide guidance for their fellows to use e-mail, the newsgroup and the instructor's home page -- a process that can be well underway before the end of the first class period. Moreover, students will need easy access to the network throughout the term, either at some terminal on campus or through their own personal computers. The advent of inexpensive computers dedicated solely to Internet access will bring the cost steadily downward for every student to secure an individual connection to the network.

Students may well find that a course using electronic interaction differs from most of the classes with which they are familiar. Thus, the syllabus needs to state clearly the special requirements of the course.

Some continuity with their previous academic experience will be provided, of course, by the conventional regularity of class meetings. These class periods can serve -- as they usually do -- to emphasize material the instructor deems important, as well as to provide an immediate forum for verbal interaction among students. At the same time, the instructor may well wish to allow at least one free class period per week to insure that each student has time to engage in the electronic work of the class. Some students have such busy schedules that they may not have extra time to interact electronically except during these times.

Instructors may be justified in making participation fully one-fourth of each student's grade: sharing immediately in the classroom with their fellows and contributing to the newsgroup. Making participation such a large component of the grade emphasizes the personal responsibility of each student to the ongoing work of the class.

The Many Facets of E-Mail

Once the course is up and running, these three means of communication come into their own. First, e-mail serves for direct contact. The network extends office hours to any time the instructor turns on the computer. But whereas an office visit or phone call may well interrupt some other business, e-mail is famous for being non-intrusive. One chooses when to respond to any message.

The instructor may send out a message to all recipients via e-mail to emphasize some point made in class, on the home page or in the newsgroup. The possibilities are endless for creative interaction. For instance, the teacher could send out an optional questionnaire to all students in an effort to get to know them as individuals and to establish a more personal tone to the class. Shy students can respond only to the teacher; more extroverted ones can reply to all recipients.

E-mail can connect instructor and student more intimately than ever before. Interaction is fully two-way. On one hand, a student can contact the instructor for individual counseling. For instance, he might ask for further clarification of some class policy or some point left unclear in lectures and discussions. On the other hand, an instructor can contact a student directly and confidentially about personal matters or learning problems. For example, the teacher might ask about an unusual number of absences or answer a query about the student's current performance in class.

And of course, e-mail allows private responses to a general discussion on the newsgroup. A teacher may wish to acknowledge privately rather than publicly a student's contribution to the newsgroup; too many comments from the instructor in the midst of a discussion might distract students from pursuing their own lines of inquiry.

Moreover, e-mail offers an unparalleled opportunity to handle material from the student. As each message comes in, the instructor can use the "reply" key to respond. For instance, a student may turn in a term paper outline electronically. The instructor can edit in the reply mode by entering some bit of commentary or guidance at the appropriate points; introducing some symbol, such as ### or @@@, would clearly distinguish the instructor's commentary from the original text. The original message can then be deleted, and the combined message/reply transferred to the mailbox for that particular class. Teachers have a complete electronic record of every interaction with the student.

Using a Home Page in Instruction

The second method of communication is the home page. Many universities already put class schedules, registration material and course descriptions on a Web site. Such an institutional vote of confidence testifies to the expectation that many students have Internet access. More and more individual instructors may choose to avail themselves of this resource.

On the practical level, this can simplify distribution of course materials. One section of the home page may be devoted to the syllabus, general academic policies, term paper guidelines, study questions, and general reminders of class activities such as deadlines and assignments. Instructors will never make too many or too few paper copies, nor will they ever need to bring extra copies for students who happened to be absent on the day of a handout.

Exemplary sites for this purpose, for instance, are those of professor J. M. Massi in the English Department at Washington State University (http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~massij/shakes.html) and the page managed by David Partee for professor Fred Feldman in the Philosophy Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~philos/phil100/phil100.html).

To extend this, an instructor may choose to put daily lecture notes on the home page. Even a relatively brief outline would eliminate the need for students to be distracted from the train of argument by having to write notes. Moreover, being under a teacher's direct control, the resulting display of information would undoubtedly be more accurate. Students may read these notes at their leisure on the computer, of course, or choose to print them out.

The ease of communicating such information facilitates discussion. Rather than introduce basic information in the class period itself, an instructor may proceed directly to exploring its ramifications. And students, who have presumably had time to check out the class material for that day, can come prepared with well-thought-out questions.

An LCD panel and overhead projector, or a data projector teamed with a portable computer connected to the network would allow instructors to bring this material right into the classroom for explanation and amplification. Students who, for one reason or another, had to miss that presentation would at least have the basic lecture, information that might prove crucial to understanding subsequent concepts. Moreover, all students could return at their leisure to the instructor's home page to review material at any time during the term.

Newsgroups in the Classroom

A third powerful tool for reaching students is the newsgroup. Creation of a "virtual community" of people involved in a common intellectual pursuit re-establishes an academic ideal often lost in large institutions.

The classroom never closes. Like being in a dormitory (except probably a lot quieter), all students in a class can share an insight or enthusiasm with their colleagues at any time of day or night. Response may come within a few minutes or a few hours, but each student can feel the satisfaction of being heard immediately (at least by the computer). Physical proximity simply is no longer the determining factor for direct and immediate intellectual interaction.

At first some students will "lurk" rather than participate in the discussion. Gradually, they become more familiar with the network, and with practice, the technology becomes unobtrusive.

Once the initial fear of technology has passed, students usually find this kind of discussion not only non-threatening but exhilarating. Students may find typing an idea out at their own pace to be far easier than making a point in the heat of class discussion. An instructor can encourage this process by affirming that content, rather than minor points of literary style, are important in any posting. What such written comments lack in spontaneity, they more than compensate for with intellectual merit.

Instructors who create this form of class participation will find (to their amazement) a depth of commitment by seemingly uninterested, uninvolved students. Students who otherwise might remain silent in class will offer observations of impressive quantity and quality to the newsgroup.

The mere effort of writing helps prepare students for the midterm and final exams, and the newsgroup leaves a more permanent kind of record for other students to read as they review material. Contributions to a newsgroup bear a similarity to keeping a private journal, a semi-casual effort somewhere in between a formal term paper and undisciplined rambling. Yet rather than being an exercise open only for the instructor at some point in the term, such efforts provide other students with the ongoing benefits of seeing the enthusiasms and insights of their fellows.

Although the technician at the computer center can maintain the mechanics of the newsgroup, the instructor needs to keep close attention to the direction of a discussion. As the course progresses, the teacher can offer a question to the newsgroup for consideration. Students may reply directly to that posted question as they follow a thread of thought, or they may begin another topic.

Conscientious instructors will read and answer a good number of these comments. Teachers can respond privately to the writer via e-mail or post a follow-up comment to the newsgroup for the entire class to read. The instructor can evaluate and record each entry at this time. The quality and quantity of a student's contributions to the newsgroup help form part of the "class participation" component of the grading process. Whereas many teachers are reluctant to attempt measurement of classroom participation because of the legitimate shyness of otherwise excellent students, anyone can find time and courage to write, polish if necessary, and send a paragraph to a newsgroup discussion.

Implementing These Techniques

Implementing such techniques into the college classroom is not without problems. First, inadequate preparation in high schools (caused primarily by limited funding) leaves many college students computer illiterate.

For instance, only one-sixth to one-fourth of students in liberal education classes at the University of Utah have such electronic accounts at the beginning of the term. These students must learn a bit of technology as well as get started with course material. Since there is no way at present to inform students at large of the special nature of such a course, many students with computer-phobia or general intellectual inertia will register for the class. The time between application and activation of a new computer account will cause an inevitable gap -- perhaps days, perhaps weeks -- between the contributions of the newcomers and experienced network users. Such a disparity might be mitigated, however, by having novices write out their comments on paper for later contribution to the newsgroup.

When each individual faculty member has a personal academic home page to dispense the wide range of materials associated with every class, the nature of education itself will change even more dramatically. For instance, two months before the beginning of the term, an instructor might post the syllabus and book list along with the materials to be discussed on the first day of class. A student contemplating registering for that class would know to browse over to the teacher's home page, make a decision, and come to the first class fully informed and ready to engage in the discussion immediately. Moreover, the instructor might provide a link to the newsgroup of a previous term where the most significant contributions have been left to set an example.

Inevitable Changes

For better or worse, the general employment of a home page for class material will almost inevitably change the fundamental attitude of teachers toward their students. Up to the present, the individual classroom has been essentially one's private fiefdom. On the rare occasions when someone comes to judge the effectiveness of a classroom presentation, the very presence of a stranger distorts the pedagogical transactions.

But when the very intellectual life of a course lies open to the world by being posted on a network, any casual or determined observer may unobtrusively monitor it. Although one might not be able to judge the full personal charisma of the instructor in the give-and-take of the classroom, one can certainly judge the depth of ideas.

Advantages for the student may be even more profound. Currently, secure in the knowledge that students are uncertain judges of material new to them, an instructor might deliver the same old tried-and-true lectures year after year. With home page-based course delivery, knowing that one's colleagues might see an unhealthy repetition of outmoded ideas, a teacher would feel a constant pressure to re-think material and keep current in scholarship.

As instructors are familiar with the real advantages of computer-enhanced education, they will be less fearful of losing the pedagogical benefits of face-to-face interaction.

Morriss Henry Partee is a Professor of English at The University of Utah. E-mail: morriss.partee@m.cc.utah.edu

Products mentioned:
Adobe PageMill; Adobe Systems, Inc., Mountain View, CA, (800) 642-3623, www.adobe.com
Claris Emailer; Claris Corp., Santa Clara, CA, (800) 544-8554, www.claris.com
Eudora; Qualcomm, Inc., San Diego, CA, (800) 238-3672, www.qualcomm.com
Netscape Navigator; Netscape Communications Corp., Mountain View, CA, (800) NETSITE, www.netscape.com tin; a newsreader standard to many UNIX networks

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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