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Monday, August 24, 2009

Teaching with Email in the Online Classroom

Over the years education has continually changed, or evolved into something that is considerably different from what education was when I was in school. One major difference is the inclusion of online and hybrid courses into the course offerings. This is still evolving on most campuses, so it's understandable that many people in charge of educational institutions aren't always clear about how faculty use certain technologies in their classrooms. So I'm going to try to clarify some things.

First, we've used email for many years in our district, and all employees are given an email address to use to communicate official district business amongst ourselves. This system works well, as it's easy to find an email address in the district and send a fellow employee a message. We can even create distribution lists to send to certain groups of people. It works so well, that we used to get tons of emails on a daily basis from just about anyone who had a cause, a need, a show, or any important information they felt everyone in the district needed to know. Mercifully someone recognized the overload we all experienced, and we adapted to a "only specially designated people on each campus can send ALL district emails. Thank God or whoever made that decision. It was nice to see that we could recognize a problem and find a solution.

But as I mention, delivery methods of teaching have changed too, and faculty are now using email in lots of different ways. Before I started teaching online classes, I never gave my students my email address. I couldn't imagine how I would handle all that email, and there wasn't really a need. If they had a question, they could just ask me in class. When I first started teaching online, I recognized the need for students to be able to contact me and quickly created an email account just for that purpose. Since then how I use email in my online and hybrid courses has evolved along with the courses themselves. I don't use email as just a way for students to ask questions. It is so much more than that.

Email can be a drafting space, prewriting activity, organizational tool, assignment dropbox, conferencing space, peer review tool, and so much more. It is so essential to teaching online that it always surprises me that as an educational institution, we have never sought a more robust email tool for faculty to work with. It has always been up to us to figure out how best to make it work. It wasn't until webmail evolved that some of us began to dream big with email and start to use it in more ways than the obvious. Now it's hard to imagine teaching without it.

Here's a brief example of how I use email in the first week of school. I begin by sending all my students an email introducing myself and giving them a list of things I'd like for them to do before the first week of the semester ends. This list includes filling out a form and providing me with a convenient email address for them. If it's convenient, they'll use it and hopefully read my correspondence to them. I use the collected information to set up folders, filters and auto-responders in my email client. To get students familiar with using email in my classes and to help me set up the filters, I have students send me an email after they have completed the first assignment. That email is received, filed, and an auto-responder to that particular email is sent out. It all works quite smoothly. I get what I need and students get instant feedback.

I also keep track of student activity on the course network via email. When students fill out the form, register for the network, and participate in the first discussion, I get an email notification for each. This allows me to quickly approve their registration and then welcome them to the network right away. Students feel a part of a community and feel as if there is someone present to interact with in the online environment. In the first week, many students are nervous about the online class and have questions. During this week, I try to answer questions as soon as possible. For instance, the bookstore had a mix-up with the books for my class. After reading the syllabus, students discovered that the book listed in the bookstore was different than what was listed on my syllabus. Many emailed me to asked about this. One student had even emailed from his phone while he was still in the bookstore and got a response right away. He was able to purchase the correct book right then.

I don't profess to respond that quickly all semester long, but to me it equates to all that extra time all faculty spend during the first week giving directions, advice, answering questions and just plain being "present" on campus for students. Students have responded well to this interaction in my classes. Just today a student responded to me with,
"Wow, I am seriously impressed by the quick response. I will have to remember this when I do 'Rate my professor'."


Once the first week is in the books, I continually use email as a teaching tool in my online courses. Students in the ENG102 course send me research prospectuses and we have email conferences about their research progress. Students collaborate on writing projects in Google Docs and use email to invite me to see their work and to receive updates on revisions made. And I use my email contacts groups feature to take role and keep track of attendance in my hybrid and face to face classes. These are just a few of the ways that email has evolved for me.

When I'm teaching, I don't have time to deal with emails about:
Biology instructors needed, weekly air quality, and employment opportunities. I'll handle that later when I get back to my work "office." I have email for teaching, and I have email for work. My work email stays at work, and my teaching email goes with me to my many teaching environments and teaching moments. I control when, where and how I want to deal with it. I love that freedom, and I love that it allows for me to serve my students. I couldn't do this if I had to deal with all my email in one standard, made for business, work email account. That just doesn't work for me.