Using E-Mail for Journal/Expressive Writing
and Laboratory Reports

William G. Huitt

Reference: Workshop presented at the Connecting Teachers and Technology Conference, Valdosta, GA, Valdosta State University, September 27, 1997.

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Technology is rapidly changing the way we communicate. One of the most powerful and often-used new communication tools is electronic mail or e-mail for short. E-mail allows one to send a message via a computer to another user that will then be available for reading at that person’s convenience. The person receiving the message can respond easily by typing in a reply and pressing a key or clicking the mouse. The entire message or a part of the message can be included in the reply to remind the sender of the original post. The purpose of this presentation is to discuss how I use e-mail in two college-level courses.

I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in educational psychology at Valdosta State University. The primary purpose of the undergraduate course is the initial development of the knowledge and skills of a professional educator. Topics covered include planning, instruction, and classroom management as well as an overview of behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic approaches to learning. In this course, students are required to spend 16 to 18 hours in a school serving as a teacher’s aide. They will usually spend this time tutoring 1 to 3 students under the supervision of the classroom teacher.

Prior to the use of e-mail, I required students to keep a journal. They were required to produce 18 to 20 pages over the 10-week course related to their teacher aide experience and another 18 to 20 pages related to their reflections about a topic we had discussed in class or something they had read in the textbook or related article. Some of the objectives of the teacher-aide aspect of the journal writing assignment were to: 1) get into the habit of remembering and reflecting on what happened during the teaching/learning interaction; 2) become comfortable in writing about their interactions with students; and 3) produce a record of their early learning professional development experiences. I was especially interested in their connecting concepts and principles covered in class to their actual experiences in classrooms and reflecting on their emotional reactions as they worked with students. In the reflections section I was especially interested in their generating ideas about topics covered in the course.

The purpose of the graduate course is to provide a more in-depth analysis of the variables related to the teaching/learning process. Learning and development theories and research are provided more extensive coverage and students are encouraged to try out some new ways of dealing with students in their classrooms.

Prior to e-mail, I also had students in my graduate class keep a journal. In this case the students made 18 to 20 entries related to content covered in a class presentation or in a reading; they made an additional 18 to 20 entries related to their term paper. In the first section I was interested in students connecting concepts and principles covered in class to their experiences as professional educators. This was similar to the purpose for undergraduate students, but the graduate students had much more experience to reflect upon. In the second section I was in students' summaries and reflections about the references they selected for their research papers.

For undergraduate students, I decided to discontinue the journal writing exercise and have students start using e-mail to produce the teacher aide reports for two primary reasons. First, I wanted future teachers to have experience using e-mail as a communication process. Second, I wanted a better way for students to communicate with each other about what they were doing and how they were feeling about their classroom experience. Even though students would be producing considerably less writing, I believed the benefits of the additional communication opportunities would make up for it. I continued to give essay questions on exams, however, so that writing was, and is, a major part of the course. I decided to have graduate students begin to use e-mail for basically the same reasons.

For graduate students, I implemented a requirement for writing summaries of 5 journal articles as a replacement for the second section of the journal. Students are required to write a personal reflection for each article summary.

I set up two discussion lists (called listserver lists): one for students enrolled in the undergraduate course and one for those enrolled in the graduate course. Individuals who subscribe to the list can read every posting to the list; they can also communicate with everyone on that list through one posting. In order to set up a listserver list you must provide the systems operator of your server with a name for the listserver and other pertinent information. The required information and samples for the two lists I set up are shown in the appendix.

Undergraduate students are now required to make 5 e-mail entries related to the teacher aide experience. Each entry should be between 100 and 200 words. The student is to briefly describe an interaction he or she had at the school. I am especially interested in the student providing enough information so that the reader can develop a picture of the interaction and interpreting the interaction in light of content covered in the course. I also want students to describe their feelings and emotions about the interaction. I have included a sample of the reports that show some of the variety of entries. While most are positive, I have also included some negative ones since that is part of the reality of schools.

Graduate students are now required to make 10 e-mail postings related to a class presentation, something they read in the textbook or an article, or a particular video or film that I have shown in class. The post could in the form of a question, an idea or feeling about a topic presented in the course, or it may be a response to someone else's posting. At various points throughout the course I will assign a particular topic that all students are to write about. I have also included asample of these entries in an appendix.

I have been very satisfied with my student’s experiences with e-mail. For the majority of both undergraduate and graduate students, this is their first experience with using e-mail on a regular basis.

For the undergraduate students, I see two primary advantages. The first relates to an increase in awareness at an early stage in their careers. An average undergraduate class is about 25 students. Each student makes 5 reports which means that each student is not only developing knowledge through his or her own experience, but also is participating vicariously in the experiences of 24 other students. Since students are placed in a wide variety of situations (all normal academic subjects plus music, art, and business education from 4th- through 12th-grades as well as an adult education program), each individual student is able to gain a breadth of experience with today’s schools that was not possible with the journal writing experience.

A second advantage relates to the increased sharing among students. Even though we would discuss student’s journal entries in class and I would provide students an opportunity to talk about how their observations were going, student’s simply did not share as much of their personal feelings during open class discussion as they do when they use e-mail. Students will reveal thoughts and feelings through e-mail that they simply will not do in front of 25 or 30 other people. In addition, even the quietest and most reserved students are able to gain access to the communication process whereas in a normal classroom their voices are never heard.

A third advantage is that the personal qualities of the individual (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, etc.) that are usually difficult to remove from face-to-face communication are placed easily in the background in e-mail communication. And when I teach two sections of the same course, students will often communicate with individuals they have never met.

For the graduate students, the major advantage is a discussion process that is difficult to produce in a classroom setting. As with the undergraduates, students reveal themselves more openly, even though they know everyone will be reading their post. However, since the boundaries of what makes an acceptable post is more open, communication more resembling a dialogue is more likely to occur. Also, since everyone is required to make 10 posts, no single person dominates the discussion process.

I believe students in most college-level courses would benefit from the use of e-mail. However, if a student were required to use e-mail in every course it might become a burden, especially if they were members of several discussion groups through listserver lists. Departments might want to reflect on the purposes of e-mail as it relates to the educational needs of their students and provide students with experiences throughout their programs that will expose them to the benefits of e-mail without its use becoming overwhelming.