Techniques: The Effective Use of Listservs in Distance Education

Article excerpt

Barbara, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming, asks her classmates, "can anyone help me identify some resources for my distance education research project?" Within a short period of time, Barbara, who lives nearly 800 miles from the main campus, receives a variety of useful responses. How does she receive timely feedback from her classmates who are scattered throughout Utah?

Delivering effective distance education offers unique challenges for adult educators and students such as Barbara. Barriers to communicating are amplified in distance education settings where students are geographically dispersed and socially isolated. This article describes how the University of Wyoming Adult Learning and Technology faculty and students have effectively used email listservs to overcome the barriers of communicating at a distance.

University of Wyoming - Utah Doctoral Cohort

The University of Wyoming offers a doctoral program in Adult Learning and Technology to thirty-two students throughout the State of Utah. The students, dubbed the Utah Doctoral Cohort, began their program in the summer of 1997 and plan to graduate in the spring of 2001. The program consists of courses delivered via audio-teleconferencing to seven sites throughout Utah and face-to-face sessions held at a central site in Salt Lake City. The challenges of conducting doctoral course work at a distance have resulted in some unique methods of communication and collaboration among students and faculty. Additionally, since distance learning is new to most of the participants, they have had to expand their view of the learning process.

Student-to-faculty and student-to-student interactions have significant positive correlations with academic achievement and socialization (Astin, 1993; Tinto, 1994). Distance learning programs, however, may inhibit student contact with the instructor and classmates. Thus, in geographically dispersed learning situations, using supplemental methods of communicating is necessary. To establish a level of communication consistent with a residential doctoral program, the University of Wyoming program uses a computerized email discussion group known as a listserv.

Listservs are automated email management systems that accept email messages from individual participants and then redistribute copies to each member on a designated list. Educators commonly use local, regional, national, and even international listservs to facilitate academic discussions. The University of Wyoming has incorporated a program-specific listserv into the Utah Doctoral Program. The listserv, an asynchronous method of communication, uses simple email connections to link the participants.

Guidelines for establishing and running a program specific listserv are provided in the following section. These guidelines include setting up the list, providing guidance, and facilitating participation. The article concludes with a discussion of the benefits of the listserv to the University of Wyoming Utah Doctoral Program.

Guidelines for Listservs

Setup The List. Setting up an email listserv is relatively easy, however, be sure to allow an adequate amount of time for this task. Network support personnel or an Internet service provider can handle the technical aspects of setting up the list. For example, in the University of Wyoming Utah Doctoral Program, a student in the cohort set up the listserv as a project for a technology course offered early in the program.

Provide Guidance. Listservs, as a means of communication in the learning process, are a new experience for many adults. Giving participants adequate training and instruction on listserv procedures is vital to their success. In the University of Wyoming Utah Doctoral program, participants received pragmatic handouts showing how to subscribe, unsubscribe, and post messages (comment online) to the listserv. The cohort heard a short presentation discussing both technical and social aspects of using the listserv. …