ATHENS, Ohio -- E-mail and Internet use in the college classroom could enhance students' learning of course subject material, a new study suggests.
Forty percent of students participating in an Ohio University project reported that use of electronic communication contributed to their learning in courses ranging from mathematics to music to management.
The university's Center for Teaching Excellence surveyed more than 700 students in 13 classes last year about their e-mail use patterns, attitudes about the technology and how much they learned in their classes.
"The more students communicate electronically, the more they gain from their courses, and the more they are becoming prepared to enter a world where computer-mediated communication is increasingly the norm," said Karin Sandell, the study's author and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.
Sandell studied computer-based communication applications in classes varying in size from 20 to 400 students. The researchers explored different models for using e-mail in the classroom, examined ways to enhance student knowledge and use of e-mail, and studied the impact of e-mail use on subsequent learning.
While 15 percent of study participants were familiar with e-mail before the project began, that figure more than doubled by the end of the quarter. In addition, the 20 percent figure of students not at all familiar with e-mail dropped to fewer than 3 percent by the end of the project.
Results from questionnaire data and focus groups also suggested that more than 46 percent of students increased their use of e-mail. Students' communication with professors via e-mail rose from 18 percent to 41 percent, and their accessing of the Internet increased from 24 percent to 42 percent.
"We would be remiss if we weren't introducing students to this technology," Sandell said. "This is not only getting them there but helping guide their use. Also, we're asking how we can use this to be more effective teachers. Our focus in the center is to find out how to make this a good teaching tool."
E-mail uses in the project involved creating listservs, retrieving information through e-mail, accessing the Internet and conducting all course activity -- from group projects to paper editing -- via e-mail.
Some students said there was a need for better access to e-mail and more technical support when using computer technology. Sandell warned that faculty using e-mail in the classroom should not overestimate students' familiarity with computer-based communication.
"With e-mail in the classroom, the access issue was phenomenally important," Sandell said. "There are a lot of assumptions that students are very technologically advanced. There are some who are, but there are some who aren't, too. Technophobia is probably not entirely generational. I think we have to revisit some of those assumptions."
Not all students were interested in the added technological element to their classes. Sandell said some students reported they were disturbed at having to master a new skill in a class that otherwise had nothing to do with computers.
Almost 10 percent of students responded that use of e-mail had contributed to some decrease in their learning, and some students were unable to accomplish required assignments for a variety of reasons. Just more than 5 percent of students reported that their e-mail use decreased. Sandell projected that some students failed to begin using e-mail at all.
Sandell also listed recommendations for faculty on using e-mail in the classroom. They include introducing computer-mediated communication gradually, from simple applications such as e-mail to more complicated listservs and Web resources, and supplementing group communication with opportunities for individual interaction with students. She also suggested that large classes may benefit from peer-group instruction as a means of providing hands-on training.
Sandell's study was published in October in the 1996 issue of To Improve the Academy, a publication of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD).
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