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Using Electronic Mail in teaching and learning

Sally Barnes, University of Bristol

One advantage of Email is that it combines the immediacy of the telephone with the control you have when you can choose when to read your post. It means that someone can send a message and know it will arrive in milliseconds but the receiver can choose when to read and when respond to it. Another advantage of Email is the ease with which messages can be stored and retrieved.

For teaching, Email can be used in the following ways:

  • Email is useful for setting up appointments. People who want to see me know that the easiest and most successful way of contacting me is via Email. I get messages of requests for appointments, which we can then set up.
  • Email is especially good if you are trying to arrange a meeting between several people. A list of possible dates can be sent to everyone and the replies also sent to everyone.
  • Email is useful for answering the more mundane sorts of questions that arise: questions about readings, assignments, problems with concepts or practical work, many of which can be dealt with in a short message in return, or an appointment can be made.
  • Email can be used to send a message to a whole group of students. I use it to set homework assignments on one of my practical courses; and students send their homework to me via Email (in this case, it's all part of their learning to use the system). I can also send out standard replies or corrections to the whole group.
  • Finally, Email can be used to have discussions between students. Everyone has the chance to participate and their messages can be sent to all members of the group.

Obviously, for Email to be used successfully in teaching, all course participants must be able to use it successfully and fairly confidently. They also must look for messages regularly. The implications then for using Email in teaching are threefold:

  1. Students must have access to network facilities to connect to the mail.
  2. They must know how to use the system for receiving, sending and storing messages. This may mean that a hands-on session to teach the group how to use Email is necessary.
  3. Email must be an integral part of the course so that it is expected that communications via Email carry the same weight as communications using other means.
How does Email affect teaching and learning?

It is often quite difficult to get to know individual students during the one class meeting each week. Email has meant that I can get to know many more students on this more individualized level. Our interactions on Email have allowed me to see them as individuals in the big group where I might not have otherwise.

Many of the Email interactions I have with students are an extension of the kinds of work we do in class. Email allows us a different sort of discussion than we have in the usual 1.5 hour session. Email can be rather continuous and many students welcome the opportunity for ongoing discussions on areas they may have be having difficulty with; or areas they have a particular interest in.


I find that I spend up to two hours a week reading and responding to Email from students. This may sound a lot, but my sense is that this work enriches the course work we are doing and feeds into my preparation for the next group meeting.

What is most important with Email is to keep the interactions open and to use them in your next encounter with a group. My sense is that Email can help students learn that they can approach a tutor, ask questions, or criticize and have a discussion about what's going on.

It does take time for students to learn that it is OK to Email a tutor.. Generally my students have been quite pleased about using Email and have told me how much they appreciate knowing they can Email me and know they aren't disturbing me when they do it.

I have also been aware that some students, especially at the beginning of the term, find it easier to communicate via Email as there is a bit of anonymity to it. Anyone worried about asking a question in front of a group may be able to do it if they think it's more private

The Email culture

It is very hard to train people about the etiquette that surrounds any form of communication. The etiquette of Email is quite different from written letters or telephone.

  • Mis-spellings or typos are readily accepted and often expected. Sending of blank messages is a regular occurrence for all of us; or neglecting to attach a file we had meant to.
  • Messages often carry no salutations.
  • It's common to ask for a message to be resent when someone has inadvertently deleted it.
  • Using the reply form of sending a message means that you can include parts of the original message and so not need to reply in full sentences.
  • Trying to be funny is discouraged because it is so difficult over this medium.
  • Junk mail is a real no no.
How to use Email for teaching

It is a distinct advantage to be confident in your own Email use before you start using it with students. This way you can help them when they get stuck.

I set up a mailing list for each student group. There may be overlaps, but the advantage is that if you want to send a whole group message you can do this is one go rather than umpteen individual messages.

The mailing list can be set up in one of two ways. You can create an alias for each individual and then merge the aliases into a course group alias. Or you can ask the Computing Service to set up a mailing list for you. This is useful because everyone can know about the mailing list and send messages to the whole group. This might lead to more large group discussions over Email. If you use a mailing list you might still need to know individual mailnames.

I create a mail folder for each course that way I can store and keep track of messages concerning different courses.

Of course these techniques can be used for much more than teaching. I use the same techniques for the group research projects, working parties, anything that involves communicating amongst a group of people.

Two last things:-

It takes some discipline, at first, to use Email. I respond to every Email message I receive from students. This might just be an acknowledgement or a full-blown response. My sense is that, especially in their beginning use, it is important for new users to get positive feedback as soon as possible so that there is a reason to login and check mail regularly.

I use Email regularly: I login as soon as I arrive in the office each day and check my mail. I then check it after lunch and before I leave the office for the day. I use Email from home as well. I don't login as regularly, because of the expense, but I do check my mail at least once every day.

Sally Barnes
Research Fellow (Research Support Unit)
School of Education
University of Bristol

Warwick ETS thanks the author for allowing us to republish this article which first appeared in the newsletter of the Educational Technology Services at the University of Bristol, July 1995.

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