E-Mail's Expanding Role in Education

Article excerpt

In the course of moving its student microcomputer lab as well as its own operations onto a 250-node local area network (LAN), the college of business for Oregon State University experienced a number of dramatic, positive changes both in its educational process and in its ability to accomplish day-to-day work. And electronic mail (e-mail) has played a major, causal role.

For example, the school's clerical staff used to manually copy and file each piece of communication into every faculty member's box. Now as much as 99 percent of the college's internal communications are performed online. In addition, the move to e-mail has improved the quality of that communication among instructors, and between students and members of the educational staff.

The school's Computer Services Group helped the network to evolve over the past four years. In the process, we've learned some lessons and drawn conclusions that may be of help to other educational organizations.

Early Steps

When the college of business first considered moving to an automated system in 1987, our concerns were twofold: 1) In order for our business students to succeed in industry, they would need to understand and have experience with the latest computing technology; and 2) As the college grew, faculty and students were finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with each other due to conflicting schedules. To answer both of these needs, our decision was to implement a LAN system.

As centers of learning, universities, in particular, have a high degree of tolerance for risk-taking and experimentation. We responded to the first concern by creating a computer environment that fosters this kind of behavior. E-mail service has been a kind of experiment. In addition, we serve as a beta-test site for a number of network-product development firms.

At present, our LAN is Novell-based. Nine Netware servers are linked to the school's Ethernet backbone. The servers link 250 workstations-a 125-node student lab and approximately 125 faculty.

General Benefits

One of the first lessons we learned as we moved to a network environment was that by eliminating the need for paper accumulation and manual distribution, we were able to facilitate a tremendous productivity gain.

Today, three years after the installation of e-mail service, faculty at the business college are much more comfortable in communicating with superiors and subordinates. Because e-mail has no formal conventions, much more real communication occurs, yet memos and other paperwork have been reduced by an estimated 95 percent.

The benefits of e-mail have increased the school's teaching abilities as well. In addition to providing greater access to shared peripherals such as laser printers, the LAN'S student workstations also provide greater access to professors-students communicate electronically with their class' instructors.

Professor Marion J. Kostecki, who prepared a research paper on the LAN, notes that e-mail makes professors' out-of-class interactions with their students more effective. Before e-mail, teacher-student discussions would often take place in a hallway, on the run, or in the professor's office-but when there's a line of students at the door of the office, there's no easy way to distinguish between a person who has a quick, simple question and a student who requires a lengthy discussion. Furthermore, it's not at all unusual for professors to work in their offices at odd hours of the night or to review student projects and do other school-related work at home. With e-mail, faculty members are able to exchange information with students and with each other from multiple locations and at any time of the day or night.

At Oregon State University's school of business, for example, MBA students were primary benefactors when the e-mail system initially went into place. Once students were given user accounts, they were able to pick up instructions for their assignments and, in some cases, even submit completed projects electronically. …