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E-mail, computer usage and college students: a case study.

Introduction

The explosive growth of the Internet and electronic mail (E-mail) is causing many educators to try integrating electronic materials and communication into their classrooms. Many of these educators are implicitly assuming that all students will use these new electronic resources once they are available. However, research to date has not explicitly tested this assumption. This paper tests this assumption and finds that even when students are given large incentives to use e-mail, over a quarter of the students in one class did not.

Educators are interested in the Internet and e-mail because of pressures to improve teaching effectiveness. Teaching is increasingly more difficult because of the pressure to deliver knowledge more cost-effectively (Mingle 1995). The pressure of busier faculty and student lives results in a decreasing amount of time for out-of-class meetings. Lastly, some educators are receiving pressure to integrate academic courses with current computer technology.

This research describes and quantifies a very simple one-semester experiment that measured how many college students would use computers without being forced. Students were given the option of having all lecture notes, homework questions and most hand-outs received electronically by simply singing up. Students who did not sign up received nothing. Before the semester's start, this incentive was expected to ensure almost all students learned and continually used computers. Unfortunately, even those strong incentives were not enough to encourage all students to use computers since over a quarter of the class never signed up. To understand why this significant fraction never received any materials electronically, a survey was run at the semester's end.

This paper follows a long line of previous researched designed to test if new tools enhance student learning. For example, research has documented ideas such as regular video taping of lectures (Allison 1976; McConnell and Lamphear 1969) and using interactive video (Rhodes and Cerveny 1984). Computer-assisted instruction or CAI (Soper 1974; Smith and Smith 1989; Adams and Kroch 1989) has expanded so greatly that many students now have the choice of buying their textbooks with either Macintosh or PC software.

The rest of this paper is organized as follows. The next section first describes how the course was implemented and then describes the survey that quantified students' reactions. The third section describes the costs and benefits of distributing notes electronically. Lastly, a conclusion summarizes the paper, suggests improvements and discusses future directions for research.

Implementation and Survey Design

The experiment to provide class material electronically was run at Boston University, a large private North East institution, in the spring semester of the 1994-1995 academic year. All students were in a combined undergraduate and graduate labor economics class that met twice a week. Students that signed up were sent all homework questions and lecture notes by e-mail, usually the morning after the lecture. To receive messages students needed a computer account which was free to all registered students. Additionally, a student needed to send the instructor a short message asking for inclusion on the e-mail distribution list.(1) Sending a message showed a basic mastery of e-mail and provided an accurate return address.

During the semester the teacher provided no instruction to students on how to use either the campus computer system or e-mail. The only help students received was a general announcement that computer accounts were free to students and where the computer account office was located. While students could sign up any time during the semester, all but two signed up before the first exam.

Toward the end of the semester students were required to submit their homework by e-mail. To minimize problems, students worked on homework in small groups that enabled people with weak computer skills to team up with more proficient classmates. After collecting all answers the entire homework set was forwarded to the distribution list, enabling students to compare their answers with other groups.

To quantify the ambiguous effects of providing material by e-mail a twenty question survey composed primarily of closed answer questions (See data appendix) was undertaken.(2) During the last two weeks of class, students were informed that a paper and pencil survey would precede the final exam and that this survey would not reduce their examination time. Since the entire class had just finished conducting a University wide survey, there was no resistance to the idea of a combined survey and final examination.

One week before the final, the survey was sent electronically to the entire distribution list, enabling students to preview the questions. Just before the final exam, fifteen minutes were allocated to filling out the paper survey. Since not only every student passed back the survey but almost 100% of the questions(3) were completed there is no need to statistically correct the following tables for missing data.

Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of students in both absolute and percentage terms. The class was composed almost entirely of advanced undergraduates (25% juniors and 61.4% seniors) and masters degree candidates (11.4%). Over sixty percent of the class was male and every student was either an economics major (93.2%) or economics minor (6.8%). The group showed a high degree of academic motivation by a relatively high grade point average (2.93 out of 4.00)(4) and almost one third participating in either a mixed degree or mixed major program.(5) Lastly, the question on expected rank showed that almost 90% of the students believed they were doing well in the course since they ranked themselves in the top two thirds of the class.

Table 1 Demographic Summary Statistics of Survey Respondents
Category                    Number of    Percentage
                           Respondents

Total Students:                44             100%
Class:
   Freshman                     0             0.0%
   Sophomore                    1             2.2%
   Junior                      11            25.0%
   Senior                      27            61.4%
   Graduate Student             5            11.4%

Sex:
   Male                        27            61.4%
   Female                      17            38.6%
Economics Majors:              41            93.2%
Economics Minors:               3             6.8%
Mixed major or degree          14            31.8%
Current GPA                  2.93
   (Scale 0 - 4.0)
Expected Rank in Course:
   Top Third                   18            40.9%
   Middle Third                21            47.7%
   Bottom Third                 5            11.4%




More interesting summary statistics are found in Table 2, which shows students' usage of e-mail. Before the course, less than half (43.2%) of the students commonly used e-mail. Distributing materials in electronic form clearly provided a large incentive for students to use computers since during the semester the class's usage of e-mail climbed from 43.2 to 72.7 percent of the class. Hence, with proper incentives a majority of students will use a computer system to further their learning

Table 2 Survey's Reported Usage of Electronic Mail
Category                                Number of     Percentage
                                        Respondents

Commonly Use e-mail Prior
to this Semester:
   Yes                                        19         43.2%
   No                                         25         56.8%
Received Notes Via E-Mail                     32         72.7%
Receive Notes Via Classmate                   11         25.0%
Did Not Get Electronic Notes                   1          2.3%
Reasons For Not Directly
Receiving Notes(a)
   Easier if classmate gets them               5          41.6%
   Computer illiterate/Hate computers          4          33.3%
   Writing notes helps me remember             2          16.6%
   No computer account                         2          16.6%
   Computer lab too far away                   1           8.3%
   E-mail program is to confusing              1           8.3%
Printed out notes:
   Yes                                        34          77.3%
   No                                         10          22.7%




(a) The percentages add up to more than 100% since some students gave multiple responses.

While this confirms incentives modify behavior, of more interest is why 27.3 percent of the class did not use e-mail. Twenty-five percent of the class did not sign up because they received copies of all materials from fellow classmates. The sole person (2.3%) who did not get class materials by any means wrote that taking notes by hand enhanced his learning.

The twelve people not using e-mail were asked to list all reasons why they did not directly receive notes. Five stated a free rider answer by stating it was much easier if fellow classmates picked notes up for them. More concerning is the four people who stated they were computer illiterate or hated computers since these individuals slow down wider usage of electronic dissemination of classroom materials.

The four miscellaneous reasons show that a number of special cases always arise. One student had tuition problems and was denied a computer account by the University. Another stated he did not have a computer account but provided no details. This excuse is hard to understand since every registered student is entitled to a free account. One student stated that the computer lab was to far away. This answer is amusing since the primary computer lab was less than a four minute walk from the lecture hall. Lastly, one student reported that the E-mail program was confusing. While confusion is relative, the University maintains a large staff of roving student consultants in the computer lab to help with any type of problem or question. Hence, providing materials electronically, increases some student's computer usage but not all.

Cost and Benefits

Educators interested in providing class materials electronically, should first weigh the costs and benefits. As the above section showed, unless college educators make computer usage mandatory, a significant fraction of students will not voluntarily use computers, significantly decreasing the benefits of using computers in the classroom.

Electronic distribution also eliminates the need to photocopy large amounts of material, which directly reduces a time-consuming and expensive task incurred by the department. The University, however, did not save resources since survey answers reveal (Appendix Question 1 page 2) that 100% of the students printed out personal copies of the notes. However, while paper expenses shift from the Department to the Computer Center budget, the University saved many hours of secretarial time because students printed and monitored their output instead of departmental staff.

Even more important than reducing departmental costs, electronic mail enabled extended student-teacher communication beyond the confines of office hours and class time. Since the instructor's computer flags the arrival of new e-mail, many students received quick answers to late night and weekend questions. Moreover, while most messages were about routine administrative matters, quite a few students used e-mail to ask questions about course material. The class sent, excluding homework, almost 2.0 messages(6) per student.

Often only the teacher learns from grading homework. Insisting that students pass in homework assignments electronically helped everyone who is on-line learn. During the semester homework, that had no right or wrong answers, was done collaboratively in small student groups. After each group submitted their assignments, all homework was bundled together and sent out to the entire class. Learning increased because students were able to see how other groups approached the same assignment and the teachers general comments. It was also clear that students expended more effort on homework since not only the teacher, but their peers, saw their work.

While distributing notes electronically has many benefits, there are costs. The largest and most important cost is that all lecture notes must be typed, edited and carefully proofread. While each teacher's style varies, in this advanced labor economics class each one and one half hour lecture period produced an average of six pages of single spaced text. Moreover, while spelling and grammar checkers improve a lecture's polish, proofreading is very important since neither of these tools catch embarrassing mistakes likes transposing the economic terms "supply" and "demand."

Teachers using much visual data such as graphs and figures will find electronic mail a problem. To ensure e-mail is readable on the widest variety of systems, most mail programs support only simple ASCII text. This means creating figures using only simple punctuation characters like backlash or colon. Unless the class contains sophisticated computer users able to use encrypted mail attachments, complex graphs are impossible to distribute electronically. To work around this problem, data were often provided in tabular format instead of graphical and when visually complex graphs were needed, photocopied handouts were distributed.

Since all lectures need transcribing, lectures lost some spontaneity. For example, in previous years a five or ten minute discussion of current labor market events usually preceded every lecture. Since special events like major strikes, are not repeated every semester, many current event topics were skipped. This ensures only material relevant the next time the course is taught were typed. Many students, however, viewed less spontaneity as a benefit since it greatly reduced the number of interesting but unplanned side topics presented during a lecture.

Lastly, delivering the course material electronically provided students with a new set of high-tech excuses on why they performed poorly on an exam. While many students blamed poor performance on the inability to log in at key times or a dying printer, the most common excuse was the reduced incentive to attend class. While passing out photocopies of notes forces some students to attend class to collect the handouts, electronic distribution eliminates this reason for attendance.(7)

Conclusions and Future Directions

This research describes a simple experiment run for one semester in an advanced labor economics class. The experiment attempted to measure how many students would voluntarily use a computer. A large incentive was provided. Every student who asked, was sent lecture notes, homework questions and hand-outs by electronic mail. Students not online received nothing.

Interestingly, over twenty five percent (27.3) of the class never signed up to receive the notes. Survey answers suggest that a large fraction of these students do not like to use computers. While students can always be forced to use computer technology, reluctant students will learn little when compelled to work with tools they dislike.

Students who used e-mail made a number of suggestions during the survey on potential improvements. The primary suggestion was sending materials before the lecture instead of after, allowing students to annotate their notes during class. The second group of suggestions dealt with e-mail's adverse effects on classroom attendance. One student suggested leaving out all graphs and tables from the electronic materials to encourage attendance. Another felt that only students who attended class regularly should receive materials while a third felt elimination of electronic materials is best.

In conclusion, this case study showed that providing class materials by e-mail reached about three quarters of the students. While many educators are rushing to "computerize" their classrooms, they should be aware that not all students are willing or able partners in this exercise. Readers are cautioned that the results come from a single course at one University. Only by replicating this research will educators know if these findings are generalizable to other courses and institutions.

Notes

(1) No student asked to be removed from the distribution list. One student who dropped the course explicitly requested that she continue receiving materials.

(2) Since no control group was available as a comparison, it is impossible to judge the accuracy of the answers on the second survey page.

(3) Two students did not fill in their current GPA.

(4) The average GPA is biased upward since masters students receive grades from a distribution with a higher mean than do undergraduates.

(5) Three students were participating in a five year BA/MA program while many of the others were doing dual undergraduate majors such as international relations and economics.

(6) The accidental deletion of some messages makes an exact count impossible.

(7) Students also reduced their usage of office hours. To increase student-teacher contact outside of class time two pizza parties were held to ensure some contact.

References

Adams, F. Gerard and Eugene Kroch. (1989). The Computer in the Teaching of Macroeconomics. The Journal of Economic Education 20 Summer: 269-280.

Allison, Elisabeth K. (1976). The Use of Video in Economic Education. The Journal of Economic Education 8 Fall: 27-36.

McConnell, Campbell R. and Charles Lamphear. (1969). Teaching Principles of Economics Without Lectures. The Journal of Economic Education 1 Fall: 20-32.

Mingle, James R. (1995). The World Comes to the Academy. Educom Review 4 July/Aug: 8-10.

Rhodes, Edwardo L. and Robert P. Cerveny. (1984). Interactive Video as an Economic Teaching Supplement. The Journal of Economic Education 15 Fall: 325-328.

Spoer, John C. (1974). Computer-Assisted Instruction in Economics: A Survey. The Journal of Economic Education 6 Fall: 5-28.

Smith, L. Murphy and L.C. Smith Jr. (1989). Microcomputer Applications for Teaching Microeconomic Concepts: Some Old and New Approaches. The Journal of Economic Education 20 Winter: 73-92.

Author's Notes

I would like to thank seminar participants at the 7th Annual Teaching Economics Conference and students in Ec552 and Ec356 at Boston University for their willing participation in exploring new teaching methods. All errors are mine. The author can be reached online via Jay_Zagorsky@osu.edu.

Data Appendix

The following is a reproduction of the 2 sided survey used to record student responses.

Side 1

Survey on e-mail Notes

Overview: This past semester all lecture notes have been available by electronic mail (e-mail). This survey seeks to determine why a number of students did not ask for e-mail notes and the note's effects.

Instructions: Please answer all questions truthfully. Circle your answers. Responses are anonymous and have no effect on grades.

1 What is your class?

Sophomore

Junior

Senior

Graduate Student

Other Please Explain

2 Sex?

Male

Female

3 Economics Major?

Yes

No

4 Economics Minor?

Yes

No

5 Participant in a mixed degree or mixed major program?

Yes

No

(Example: BA/MA degree or International Relations/Economic major)

6 GPA at Boston University as of beginning of Semester?

7 I expect my grade will place me in the class?

Top Third

Middle Third

Bottom Third

8 Did you commonly use e-mail before this semester?

Yes

No

9 Do you receive class notes Directly via e-mail? (Not via someone else)

Yes

No

If no, answer these two questions

9a Do you get the e-mail notes from another classmate?

Yes

No

9b List all the reasons why you do not get notes via e-mail and what

changes are needed to make it easier to get them.

Side 2

1 Did you print out the e-mail notes?

Yes

No

2 How have e-mail note affected your class attendance?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

3 How have e-mail notes changed your amount of in-class note taking?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

4 How have e-mail notes changed our amount of studying?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

5 How have e-mail notes changed your exam scores?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

6 How have e-mail notes changed your anxiety about this course?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

7 How have e-mail notes changed the amount you learned in this course?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

8 How have e-mail notes changed your usage of office hours?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

9 Do the in-class lectures match the e-mail notes?

Greatly Reduced

Slightly Reduced

No Effect

Slightly Increased

Greatly Increased

10 What future changes would you suggest for e-mail notes?

11 Do you have any other comments?
COPYRIGHT 1997 Project Innovation (Alabama)
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Author:Zagorsky, Jay L.
Publication:Education
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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