One Way to Use the Computer (and writing) in Class

Mike Salovesh


This is in response to John McAnnaly's request that NIU faculty report on their experiences with using e-mail and/or the Web in their classes. I have been afraid to set up a Web page for my classes because I have no way of knowing whether any of my students have even the vaguest idea of how to use the Web. E-mail, however, is another story.

I began to use e-mail as an integral part of my anthropology classes last semester. I thought it was a good idea to require students to use the fantastic facilities we had just made available to all of them.

I use a break-in period of a few weeks at the beginning of the semester to work out system and personal bugs. This takes two steps.

1) I announce in class that all students are required to activate some kind of e-mail account, and to demonstrate that they have done so by sending me e-mail messages announcing their on-line addresses. I acknowledge each message because I want them to learn, from the beginning, that this is a two-way communications medium. As student messages come in, I pull the addresses into to my PINE address book and set up a class mailing list. When I have a class list more or less established (there always are some students who need extra time to figure out how to do it at all), I send the course syllabus to the list.

2) The first assignment in the syllabus asks the students to subscribe to some LISTSERV (or equivalent) mailing list whose focus is more or less relevant to the subject matter of the class. (I back this up with two resources for their files: a short manual on how to subscribe to e-mail mailing lists and a long list of anthropology-related LISTSERV discussion groups. Follow up includes forwards of standard messages concerning such stuff as netiquette.) To make sure they actually subscribe to some list, and to get them involved more deeply, the assignment includes a request that students submit, via e-mail, a report on some three threads they see on the list they have chosen. Again, the "three-threads" report is circulated to the entire class via e-mail so that everyone can benefit from each student's choice.

The objective of the break-in period is to insure that students develop at least minimal competence in using this major tool.

Once I'm sure they know at least the rock-bottom minimum prerequisites, I distribute syllabi, assignments, supplementary readings, announcements, and messages to class members via e-mail exclusively. I also forward stuff I think may be relevant to a class, or just plain interesting or funny, that I have received from LISTSERV and other mailing lists. (I try to get permission first, unless there is a blanket permission statement in the message I receive.) Students submit their written assignments by e-mail. I redistribute them to the entire class, and assign each student the additional responsibility of writing comments on papers written by classmates. The comments, too, are redistributed via e-mail.

That's the short version of how I'm using the system in my classes.

WARNING: Although I am enthusiastic about the potential of e-mail as an addition to traditional teaching, anyone who is thinking about doing what I am doing should know that there is a tremendous cost TO THE INSTRUCTOR. You pay in time-units. Let me explain.

Some students already have a lot of experience and are highly sophisticated about e-mail AND the whole Internet AND Web-surfing, thank God. Most, however, have never done anything like it. A significant minority knows nothing about computers at all -- and may not even know what a word-processing program is or does.

Whatever level of experience or knowledge a student may have, they all find it difficult to figure out where to get on-campus support. We now have computer labs all over campus, but most of the lab attendants have extremely limited experience with e-mail. Even those who do know something about it don't know how to understand students' questions, and they clearly don't know how to trouble-shoot for them when something goes wrong. As we all know, something ALWAYS goes wrong: Murphy's Law rules!

That means that the instructor who asks students to use e-mail, or make a wider use of the Web and the Internet, becomes the support person. That's what eats up your time. (I spend a minimum of an hour every day, seven days a week, leading students through basic steps that nobody told them about.) Soon after you think you have a class mailing list to work with, you start getting stacks of bounce messages. Examples:

No matter how many times I tell my classes that they must empty their INBOXes religiously, the most common problem is that new mail gets rejected because of a full INBOX.

Students see my alias (which is , for everybody's convenience -- nobody can be expected to know what t20mxs1@corn.cso. means) and think they can proceed to use one of their own instead of their assigned z-number. Since they don't know how to do that so it works, they usually fail to insert the alias into the NIU address server.

Some students have been doing word-processing for long enough to have developed dependency on some particular program (Word, or WP, or WordStar, or one of the Lotus variants, not to mention WinWrite or God knows how many others still in use out there). That shouldn't be a problem. When they try to upload text to an NIU server, they forget to reformat to ASCII. What comes out the other end can be unreadable, even if you have the program that originally generated the text. (We're more than halfway through the semester, and I still have one student submitting text in some old WP format via some oddball kind of communications program that generates gibberish on my end. There's just enough readable text for me to see that there is some kind of course- specific writing in her messages, but the signal-to-noise ratio is so bad that I can't get full meaning out of it without editing character by character. No matter what I say, she just doesn't seem to understand my instructions on how to save WP text to ASCII.)

Once in a while there is some kind of general glitch. I send out a message to a class, and the message only gets through to students using an off-campus commercial provider. Worse yet, sometimes my attempt to send something to a whole class HALF works: half the students on NIU servers get the message, and the other half do not, to judge by the bounce messages in my INBOX. (I have even discovered that the bounce messages themselves can be mistaken. That is, the message gets to some students in full and I still get bounce messages about how mail cannot be delivered to those students.)

I think that, glitches aside, the whole idea of adding e-mail to the resources I usually use with a class is fantastic. Student satisfaction, judging by end of semester student evaluations, is very high. I will keep e-mail in my courses from now on. The price in instructor effort is high (I usually pay by cutting sleep to a minimum), but in my judgment it is well worth paying.

mike salovesh, anthropology department
northern illinois university PEACE !

P.S.: Yes, you have blanket permission to store or forward this message. If you forward it to some other mailing list, please CC me so I can keep some sort of track of where my words are going. Thanks!