The Power of E-mail

One of my favorite events on the Wake Forest campus is our Tech Fair. Twice annually about 30 faculty members present a poster session about how they are using technology in their own teaching. About one-third of our faculty attend.

I am always struck that the largest crowds usually gather around the simpler applications. Faculty members are impressed by, but rarely inclined to adopt, applications that take years to build. They are looking for effective applications that can be quickly replicated or modified.

The creative use of e-mail is an excellent starting point. By supporting prompt feedback, collaboration, interactive learning, preview and review, and customization, e-mail can capture the educational advantages inherent in the Internet.

And the benefits are substantial. Feedback can be timely and frequent. Messages can be customized. Shy and disabled students can be empowered. Both professor and student can compose and read messages at times that are most convenient for them. Student team projects can be facilitated. Communication can start before the class first convenes and continue long after the final exam. Archived conversations can be indexed, searched, and recalled for review and restudy. Course related e-mails can be "pushed" to the e-mail boxes that students and faculty often visit, eliminating the need to rely on a person going to the course site.

It may be helpful to share a few e-mailing tips from my teaching and reading. I hope you'll add to the list via an e-mail to brown@wfu.edu.

  1. Collect the addresses of the e-mail boxes most used by each student and share the list with the entire class. Show students how to create an e-mail group. Add your own address to the list. Keep the list up-to-date.
  2. State an expectation that each member of the class will consult e-mail at least once a day.
  3. Train students to use short and specific e-mail subject lines.
  4. Use e-mail for good news. Deliver bad news face-to-face. Anticipate the reaction of copy recipients, not only primary addressees.
  5. Use e-mail for routine class management, including the distribution of class materials. When using a course management system, post an announcement on the course Web site and send that same announcement as a group e-mail to the class.
  6. Before an important assignment, e-mail tips for success to the entire class.
  7. In smaller classes, send a specific and personal note of encouragement or direction to each member of the class every several weeks.
  8. In larger classes, assign several "students of the week" to monitor and consolidate e-mail questions from identified sub-groups of all students.
  9. At the end of a class session, encourage students to e-mail you about what is still unclear, or to demonstrate their understanding of the concept of the day.
  10. After a particularly important class, send an e-mail summarizing the major points made in class. Or, ask students to collaborate on answering a question related to the lecture and e-mail their response.
  11. Use selected comments made during e-mail exchanges as discussion starters in a later classroom session.
  12. Encourage students to be in e-mail contact with each other.

As computing becomes ubiquitous on all campuses and throughout our cultures, we can expect e-mail usage to soar.

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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