Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Teaching Sans E-mail

An interesting article from Inside Higher Ed concerning a college instructor’s “Don’t email me” policy – which she says has increased students’ in-class preparedness and improved their writing.

First, I’m interested in the policy itself – and the parsing one can do with it. Then I’ll look at how such a policy could be applied in an online course where students and teachers aren’t on the same campus – or even in the same town, state, country or continent, as is my experience – and how such a policy could be introduced. Or not.

First, the policy:

Email is allowed in two instances: First, to set up a face-to-face meeting. Second, to send links to material that could be used in class. That’s it. Any questions the students have ought to be asked in class, by phone, or in person. No more emails.

The instructor, Spring-Serenity Duvall, who teaches communications courses, grew tired of questions that could be answered with a mere “it’s in the syllabus.” Thus the policy.

Her original post on the matter is here (scroll down a bit, the blog is laid out a bit oddly).

Now, I’ve never read any of her syllabi. Maybe they’re as thick as country music. Maybe they’re not readily available to students (and I’ve discovered that figuratively pinning them to their shirts by either handing out physical copies or posting them on a public spot on the Internet doesn’t mean they’re “readily available” because the students lose them, forget the link, or just outright don’t read them).

And I have to wonder: How many emails was she getting a day? A week? I’ve been teaching online classes for more than three years now, and I can’t say I’ve had a week where I got more than a dozen emails from students. And maybe that’s because of the already online nature of the courses I teach – I’m “in class” on a daily basis, responding to student questions there, and students are in class where the syllabus is only a click away, as are assignment rubrics and such. Having a physical classroom, where such stuff isn’t readily available, probably makes things different.

This leads me to the second question: Does a no-email policy make sense for an online course?

Probably not.

As mentioned, I’m not flooded with student email.

Secondly, face-to-face meetings are highly complicated, given that, as in semesters past, I have students in vastly different time zones attending class. Last semester I had students literally half a world away. Telling them they have to meet with me face to face, even virtually, to ask a question introduces some significant logistics problems – juggling flaky Internet service and trying to figure out the difference in time zones. Allowing for email access is clearly the simpler route for both parties here.

Nevertheless, I do enjoy Duvall’s de facto re-emphasis of face to face meetings, where she and students are able, one on one, to get to know each other better. There is something about hearing a voice or seeing a face that makes people want to connect better and to help each other out more.
So for my online efforts, probably keeping the email pipe open is a good practice. A better practice is to make myself more “physically” available through chats and online classrooms, with camera feeds.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t quantify or qualify her statement that the policy led to students writing better papers. (She writes: “It’s difficult to convey just how wonderful it was for students to stop by office hours more often, to ask questions about assignments in the class periods leading up to due dates, and to have students rise to the expectation that they know the syllabus. Their papers were better, they were more prepared for class time than I’ve ever experienced.”)

One can assume that the questions asked in the face-to-face sessions made the papers better – but wouldn’t questions asked electronically have had the same effect? To bolster this part of her argument, Duvall needs to delve more into what made her students’ papers better. Frankly, I’ve had semesters where, overall, student writing was better than the past – I chalk that up more to student age, experience, and comfort with writing than any face-to-face conversations or electronic conversations I might have with them. I’m a realist, not an idealist.

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