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I found Vir Phoha’s "Viewpoint" (Sept. 1999, p. 29) on email instruction intelligent and of interest.

I recently taught an informal, short email-based course in planning and staging a medieval feast. Normally, this course is taught as a two-hour lecture without practical exercises for six to 12 people. In this particular one, my class consisted of one person with the specific goal of producing a profitable feast for 100 participants. We covered site evaluation, preliminary budgeting and profit margins, menu planning, fitting the budget to the menu, and the logistics of presenting the feast. Each of these subjects was presented as a brief email lecture with questions and answers followed by the student actually performing the necessary preparation tasks and asking questions as needed. The final exam was preparing and serving the feast.

The student was able to take advantage of this form of instruction because he already had a solid grasp of basic cooking skills and the specifics of properly preparing medieval recipes. He was highly motivated, having committed to the final exam before contacting me.

From this experience, I am certain courses can be effectively taught strictly by email. However, there are considerations:

  • Using email effectively requires an unprecedented level of trust between the instructor and the student. The instructor depends on the student to accurately describe what is happening in the learning process. The student is dependent on the instructor to voice doubts and concerns about the process and to provide guidance in how to use the process.
  • The instructor must be proficient in the subject matter to field questions and suggest approaches as problems appear. It is not enough to be one chapter ahead of students, when the instructor cannot readily evaluate their capacities or anticipate their questions.
  • Developing an effective syllabus and teaching style takes time. Email is a different medium from the classroom and requires different techniques to be used effectively by an instructor.
  • Students must be proficient in the prerequisite knowledge. If they lack the background to understand what is being taught, they are more likely to be adrift than in the classroom.
  • Students must have a disciplined attitude and be able to learn independently.

Phoha raises some concerns about the quality of education with email instruction. However, the quality of education suffers equally in the classroom environment. Having dealt with instructors whose accented English was incomprehensible and whose expository techniques left one questioning what was being taught, I wonder whether the instruction could not have been improved by email.

The technical issues are momentary sticking points. Greater bandwidth and speed are becoming available to the average user, and a standard for instructional email is possible.

Learning style is also critical. Some styles cannot be addressed by email instruction. Others cannot be addressed in the classroom. This is a key issue with all education that is not completely addressed by any educational institution or method. A text-oriented student might, for example, find email superior to more traditional instructional methods.

Regarding checks and balances, Phoha confuses instruction with certification. Neither instruction nor learning require evaluation to occur. A self-graded exam can tell students what they need to know about how well they’ve learned. If certification is the desired result then the evaluation becomes more important than the instruction or the learning and is subject to falsification.

Proctoring is a requirement of most certification exams. Universities tend to require it for classroom studies, for correspondence courses, and for distance learning. Therefore, there should be no difference for email courses. With or without proctoring, the issue of cheating is outside the scope of the method of instruction.

My experience has been that email is better suited to discourse than to lecture. It is a medium of peers, largely limited to text, although the capacity for active links enhances the instruction. The medium is not suitable where user authentication is required.

Phoha raises a few questions that should be addressed: Is the current interest in email as a general instructional medium or strictly as an educational tool for university use? What is considered a proper education? Were the students responding to Phoha’s essay question as familiar with different types of learning as they were with computers? Does their long exposure to classroom instruction fix them on the classroom process as the only way to learn? And does the phrasing of the question or the environment in which the question was asked bias the respondents toward classroom education?

Terry D. Decker
Oklahoma City, OK

I was involved in a successful distance learning experience at the postgraduate level (see www.isic.org/inet/proceedings/c5/c5_2.htm). This course was delivered entirely through the Internet; 71 students and researchers from all over the world attended the course’s two editions.

I believe the key success factors in this experience, the GNA-VSNS BioComputing course (www.techfak.unibielefeld.de/ bcd/Transfer97/welcome_e.html), deal precisely with the reasons Phoha states as why a course delivered entirely via email is not appropriate:

  • The course learning strategy centered on an apprenticeship approach, where an instructor was assigned to a limited number of attendees (5 to 7). The instructor was responsible for guiding the group’s learning process and ensuring interaction among peers, which is as important as the student-to-instructor interaction. Every edition of the 12-week course had about five such groups. Attendees were selected through a preregistration process, and once the groups were formed, no new students were accepted.
  • We successfully integrated several Internet tools to enable this apprenticeship environment across the global Internet: a Web-based hypertext coursebook, several focused mailing lists, and a weekly interactive session for questions and answers in a MOO-based electronic conferencing system, called BioMOO (see bioinformatics.weizmann.ac.il/BioMOO/). All the tools used were readily available for free and with low bandwidth requirements.
  • The BioMOO environment allows inexpensive, interactive communication between the instructor and the participants without high-tech fuzz.
  • BioMOO allowed us to support learning with special lectures delivered by top experts that would otherwise be difficult for the participant to attend.
  • The apprenticeship approach easily accommodates different learning styles; some attendees with leadership abilities support the instructor, some learn from peers, and there is always the opportunity for one-to-one interaction.

The current state of technology is indeed able to support effective distance learning today. However, I agree that email is not comprehensive enough to allow the interactions needed for learning. The apprenticeship learning approach is effective, but also time-consuming either in person, as traditionally done, or via the Internet. In the latter case, the added burden of using the technology results in more complexity and time for the instructor. This approach can be justified only when the topics are so unique (as in computational biology) and the audience is so geographically dispersed or time-limited (as in continuous education) that the extra time invested is worth it.

Regarding canned distance learning courses where previously recorded videos are provided to attendees and without real contact with a mentor (beyond email) or with peers, I would hesitate to concede its effectiveness, even if state-of-the-art Internet streaming video technology were used.

Francisco M. De La Vega
Foster City, CA

I found Phoha’s "Viewpoint" astoundingly shallow.

First, he did not adequately examine the large number of correspondence courses taught for decades by major universities entirely through postal mail. For example, the university where I teach (the University of Waterloo), currently offers 250 courses in 48 subject areas. Phoha did not provide any valid reason to believe that some of these materials could not be delivered electronically.

Second, instead of attempting to deliver such a course himself and report on the results, Phoha’s research methodology consisted of asking students their opinions. I congratulate him on this novel cost- and labor-saving approach and can only wonder why no one thought of applying it to other questions, such as whether airplanes can fly or whether humans can visit the moon. Perhaps the Wright brothers and NASA should simply have taken a poll.

Jeffrey Shallit
Ontario, Canada

Phoha asks whether a degree course can be taught by email. Well, can it be taught by snail mail?

The University of South Africa (www.unisa.ac.za) has been teaching by correspondence since 1946. More famously, the Open University of the U.K. (www.open.ac.uk) has been doing so since 1971; the National Extension College (www.nec.ac.uk) was already tutoring people at a distance for London University degrees. In all cases, the exams are invigilated in the traditional way, and many Open University courses include a one-week residential summer school. The Open University has tutors scattered over Britain (not just in the U.K.), and a few in continental Europe, holding tutorials for each course every few weeks. But computing students especially make little use of their tutorials, yet manage to pass the exam (we know the exams are valid because U.K. universities grade one another’s students); and in areas with low population densities, it is for some students impractical to get to their tutorials.

What can be done by snail mail can be done by email.

Having taken Open University courses, I can certify that face-to-face tutorials are valuable. So are the residential schools. But I have definitely missed the human contact when studying abroad with no residential school to give me even the slightest of human contact.

John A. Wills
San Francisco, CA

I’ve been teaching via distance education for 30 years and using email for at least 15 of those years. My experience belies Phoha’s fears. When used correctly, distance education can be more effective than conventional classroom approaches for a large segment of the student population. The experiment described by Phoha was bound to produce negative results because it reflects an inexperienced way of using the technology. Phoha criticizes "pure email" systems then constructed an experiment to show they do not work well, but everyone in distance education already knows this. All the systems cited by Phoha have richer capabilities than pure email. I know of no serious efforts that do not supplement email with additional resources. Yes, there is a dearth of articles on pure email because any serious distance education provider knows more is needed. Getting back to Phoha’s experiment, it is aimed at freshmen, who are probably the worst possible subjects for a distance education approach that does not require a lot of hand holding.

I sense that what is really behind this viewpoint is fear of change.

My distance-education students have given a different message:

  • The professor is forced to prepare in advance and be better organized.
  • Students can take a class when it fits their schedule (very important for adult learners with jobs and families).
  • Students can repeat things they did not understand the first time (and skip over the boring parts).
  • Students actually have more interaction with many of their distance-education professors (via email) than they do with traditional professors (who have a line of students waiting to talk to them).

My courses (I teach as an adjunct faculty member) are all available in both classroom and distance formats. Some students prefer to be in the classroom when weather and job constraints permit, and I like seeing live faces. But since many students must drive 50 miles or more to get to the classroom, I find a lot of them using the classroom as an occasional place and relying on distance mechanisms most of the time. This works quite well.

I also like the flexibility and the possibilities offered by distance education. I can teach more effectively and to a wider audience. It takes time and effort but pays off. It is not perfect or the best approach for all, but for some, it is superior. It is often more effective, usually more efficient, and serves a community that traditional classroom instruction cannot serve well.

Dennis J. Frailey
Dallas, TX

As a senior CS major at Arkansas State University, I participate in an internship offered by a company in Chicago, and it is sometimes difficult to keep strong communications open. I can see where communicating in this way would profoundly restrict education. The internship is supplemented with teleconferences, but I don’t believe this arrangement would be practical for a professor teaching a college course. However, with the introduction of affordable cable services, the issue of audio/video Internet transactions will improve. Still, it would take a much greater amount of discipline than many undergraduate students have. Personal contact with a professor always helps in this regard. I see email courses as a greater boon to post-graduate students, especially those who wish to continue their education while working in the field.

Brad Montgomery
Jonesboro, AR

I read Phoha’s "Viewpoint" after registering for my first online class—Accounting 220 at the University of Maryland. I’ve spent the past five years attending traditional evening classes toward my B.S. in business management and have observed the overwhelming increase in the availability of online classes.

These classes are the best thing since sliced bread for those of us with full-time jobs and who are supporting families. Physically attending a class two or three nights a week after putting in a full day at the office, commuting to the campus, and returning home around 10 p.m. is enough to deter the most disciplined person. Colleges and universities are exploiting these challenges by targeting their online classes to potential part-time students who might not otherwise attempt to begin or finish their degrees.

This is perfect. Revenues increase because schools can save on overhead by paying adjunct faculty less money.

There is the potential for cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty. Conversely, how will students know whether their online professors are truly qualified to teach that subject?

My final thought: Online courses are ideal for students facing the time and physical contraints I’ve mentioned. My strategy for this semester was to combine online and classroom courses to get the best of both worlds.

It’s a double-edged sword—ultimately the student’s desire and discipline determines whether or not a course is successful. I’m just glad I finally have a choice.

Carole M. Milazzo
Rockville, MD

I tried to supplement a course I taught with email, and perhaps my experience would be useful to share. I experienced two things that I did not anticipate:

  • I was overwhelmed by student email. Their assignments came flowing in faster than I could deal with comfortably. Without the classroom rituals and time-scheduling as a buffer, I felt pressured to review and reply to their assignments quickly.
  • Technical skills and environments varied widely among my students. Those working in corporate environments had some difficulty with receiving my specifications and sending assignments due to corporate policies and company software enforcing those policies, or simply due to technical differences between their email clients and servers and my email client and server. In addition, some students were less familiar with emailing attachments, taking them several attempts to read assignment specifications and submit assignments properly.

W.J. Liederbach
Indianapolis, IN

I disagree with some of Phoha’s points, and, in particular, with his conclusion that a course cannot be taught by email.

My interest is in the pedagogical aspects of delivering a course. Phoha’s concerns about the difficulty of authenticating a student’s work are valid, and I am wary of the notion of awarding a degree remotely. However, such problems are distinct from and unrelated to the problem of actually teaching the material.

Learning by email is not substantively different from learning by traditional correspondence, which has been done successfully for a long time. Indeed, learning by email affords many advantages over traditional correspondence, including more immediate feedback and the potential for automated marking of rote exercises.

Phoha raises some specific points:

  • "A teacher uses … aural and visual cues…" While true, it is not clear that such cues are indispensable. In my experience, the vast majority of learning takes place outside the classroom, in studying course notes, and in working through assigned exercises.
  • "The present state of technology … cannot effectively support audio/video transactions in real time…" Since the stated topic restricts the discussion to the merits of email, this is irrelevant.
  • "…There is not enough standardization in email packages." The lack of standardization need not be a significant problem, provided instructors are aware of the limitations of a text-based medium.
  • "Learning styles differ." While some students may not respond well to an email course, others may fare better with email than they would in a traditional classroom environment. One might argue that university learning styles differ. We should explore alternative methods for teaching.
  • "[One cannot] ensure that work submitted via email is the enrolled student’s…" I will not dispute this claim, since it is outside my realm of interest.

I view the results of Phoha’s student survey more as an indication of the perception of telelearning and a reluctance to abandon traditional ideas, rather than any definitive statement about the issues. Perhaps more weight could be given to these responses if the students themselves attempted to take an email course.

David Mould
Toronto, Canada

As someone who has both taught an email course (although not on a university level) and taken email courses, my opinion is somewhat different from Phoha’s. In my experience, it is possible to teach at least some courses entirely by email for some students. The approach that appears to work best is one based on student self-study with the teacher available for additional advice and to answer questions. The time-shifting advantage of email can offer more access to the teacher’s time for an individual student than is often possible with a large, traditionally taught course.

Such an approach depends on students’ own motiviation to study, which can be a problem for some students when there are many other competing demands for their time. Such a teaching method is similiar to the correspondence courses New Zealand University offers. A significant number of distance-learning courses are offered, and I understand quite a number of students have completed entire degrees.

Naturally, the experience of an email-taught course is not the same as a traditionally taught one, and this will suit some students better than others, just as the traditional lecture format suits some students better than others. There are also some practical problems in respect to assessment (the course I taught was self-assessed); university-level correspondence course assessment is often done by an exam supervised at a nearby university.

My greatest concern as a teacher of such a course was the difficulty of having class discussions on topics while keeping the time-shifting aspect of email (most of the students were in different time zones), but this may have been due to the fairly small class size. Some form of online chat software may fill this gap so it is possible for students and the teacher to be available simultaneously.

I suggest that email courses not be dismissed as "different" from traditional courses. The advantages these distance courses offer to both students and teachers in terms of time-shifting can outweigh the disadvantages (particularly limited information from teacher to student) in some situations for motiviated students covering suitable course topics.

Ewen McNeill
Wellington, New Zealand

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