February 10, 2004

Demonstrating Good Teaching with E-mail and Other Technologies

Posted by Michael Arnzen at 8:10 in Praxis.

Demonstrating Good Teaching by David G. Brown -- recently published in Syllabus magazine -- is a good reminder that teachers who integrate lots of technology in their courses may have to take special steps to show its value to their administrators and colleagues. Especially those who are up for tenure and promotion. Brown briefly lists ten strategies for helping others to see that computer mediated instruction can be good instruction.

Brown's tips range from utilizing a website or Powerpoint presentation in a final exam (and archiving that to disk or publishing it online in an electronic teaching portfolio) to publicly soliciting and archiving comments about course materials (as a blog like this one might do). It's all good advice. Brown emphasizes generating empiric evidence to make your teaching process self-evident so that the strengths of your use of technology will be obvious. It can sometimes be difficult for those who don't use technology to understand it's use if you only talk about it or describe it from afar...it's far better to have it speak for itself. That is, if you can get folks to look at the web site or CD in the first place...sometimes that's the hurdle. Brown recommends having colleagues visit classes or soliciting their opinions about specific course strategies you're employing.

One tip that Brown mentions gives me pause. He suggests that technology savvy teachers "Ask students, about every three weeks, to e-mail you comments about how the course is going, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it can be improved." He's probably advocating this because you're likely to get good supportive letters from students who sing your praises that you can put in your promotion file. But even better, you can adjust your approach to a specific class along the way, "tuning in" to the students needs along the way as the course progresses. Of course, this can also lead to troubles: students might see your inbox as a complaint box. And if what research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project suggests is correct, students already e-mail professors so often that such course corrections already occur. In fact, 82-90% of students are already contacted by their profs via e-mail and around half of those students report that e-mail has enhanced their relationship with their professors. (That research also suggests that students only complain 4% of the time, by the way...which, as is often the case in course evaluations, too, is probably a case of one bad apple spoiling the bunch.)

In any case, I agree that professors need to be receptive to student e-mail, but the degree to which it is solicited is up to the teacher. Many of my colleagues report being flooded with e-mail correspondence to answer, from not only students but administrators, publishers, communications officers, and even e-mail worms. E-mail can become a workload problem if it isn't managed well. I personally ask students to contact me via e-mail if there are problems they're having in the course, but more often than not my replies ask the student to come by my office hours for a conversation. At the beginning of the semester, I tell students that I'm addicted to e-mail and love to get it from them -- and I am very receptive to their messages. But sometimes e-mail is a false solution to problems. I've had students e-mail me about problems finding materials on reserve, for example, when the obvious solution to that problem is to first ask the librarian for assistance (in my Literary Criticism class recently, I learned that an article was placed in the reserve file folder for a different class -- there's no way I could have solved that problem by e-mail...it took someone asking the librarian about it for them to dig around and discover the error). There's a tendency for people, not just students, to defer work by sending off e-mails to others and hoping they'll do the work for them. Like when students conduct e-mail interviews, whipping out five questions and sending them off without really inter-viewing at all. I've also had students write e-mail to me to "defend" their writing from editorial feedback I'd written to help them revise...which means my inbox became a place for them to vent rather than to critically rethink their writing (of course, again, I invited them to come see me with the subtle reminder that writing must always speak for itself).

But I'm beginning to digress. Like I said above, e-mail is a boon for teaching but it needs to be managed effectively. The same is true of all classroom activities, especially technology, which is usually intended to help organize material. I recommend you read Brown's article and see which tips are applicable to your courses. If you're coming up for promotion or tenure review, you need to start thinking in the ways that Brown advises. Regardless, you might even e-mail David Brown to let him know how you feel about it; his article practices what he preaches and solicits tips. You also might want to review the long list of practical and useful articles he's written for Syllabus magazine. I'm going to let him know about this entry.

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UPDATE: David Brown wrote me back to share an interesting way that he handles the ENORMOUS amount of e-mail he gets. It's such a great tip that I'll quote it directly below (with his permission):

"When I received 1247 individual emails from my 15 student class (9 emails per week per student), I made several fundamental adjustments before the
next term began.

First, I appointed (from within the class) an "email captain of the week." Each student was captain for one week during the term. The responsibility of this captain is to be the first recipient of email questions from other students. His/her responsibility is to answer the question, to help the inquirer find an answer from someone else in the class, or (if all else fails) to consolidate similar questions and raise them in an email to me.

Second, students are told that they don't have to go through the captain of the week if they have consulted at least one other student in my class before consulting me."

Posted by Mike Arnzen at 14:40 on February 11, 2004. #

I just found your site while surfing and looking for blogs on ESL or linguistics. I would like to say that i have enjoyed reading several of your posts.

In particular this post is interesting to me. I have set up a message board on a site for my students to do online writing, usually homework - writing paragraphs. But sometimes I get questions from students about material covered in class. Additionally I have a form-mail on one of the pages where students can contact me privately.

Once I set up this system the number of contacts i have with students skyrocketed. In the past I was lucky to have a student visit me in the office or to recieve more than 1 email a week. Now I regularly get messages or emails. I would strongly recommend some sort of internet contact option for students

Of course in my context of teaching students who are learning English and are very nervous about speaking with a native speaker, giving them opportunities to contact from a distance is extremely beneficial.

Posted by Blinger at 19:10 on February 14, 2004. #

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