This study describes a technique for using e-mail and the World Wide Web to teach an introductory media writing course online. It also surveys students' attitudes toward the technique and evaluates the technique's effectiveness in helping students learn.
Journalism educators have found at least two main uses for the Internet. Many have recognized the Internet's utility as a vast library with speedy retrieval and no closing hours. Typical of their efforts, Gunaratne and Lee (1996), created a Web page for use in reporting, copy editing, and international communication courses. Students in the courses learned to use e-mail, search the World Wide Web, subscribe to Usenet groups and listservs and access online newspapers. Related work (Ketterer, 1998; Smethers, 1998) has stressed teaching journalism students to evaluate online sources as skeptically as they would conventional sources. Finally, the growing computer-assisted reporting movement emphasizes, among other things, skill in searching the Internet (Houston, 1998).
Meanwhile, other journalism educators have noted the Internet's utility as a "virtual classroom" (Hiltz, 1986) capable of supplementing or replacing the physical classroom as an instruc- tional medium. Smith, Kim, and Bernstein (1993) called for the development of instructional applications for e-mail and computer bulletin boards in journalism courses. Carter and Elasmar (1996) suggested that such applications could include using e-mail to field students' questions, distribute and receive assignments, and forward student-written news stories to editors. But what happens when journalism educators heed this advice? Investigations of that question have focused on two variables: how much journalism students like computer-mediated instruction and how much journalism students learn from computer-mediated instruction. The results remain inconclusive, partly for methodological reasons and partly because the few studies published lack comparability with one another. Lieb (1990) required students in a writing course to exchange critiques of one another's work via a text-based computer conferencing system. At the end of the course, 15 of the course's 19 students said they would rather take a writing course that used computer conferencing than take a writing course that did not. However, Smith (1994) obtained seemingly contradictory results when he required students in a media law course to take quizzes using a similar text-based computer conferencing system. Students gave him lower evaluation scores than had students in two conventional media law courses he had taught. Additionally, final exam scores in the class showed no significant improvement in learning compared to the final exam scores of students in the conventional courses. Some important differences between the two studies may help explain the varied outcomes.
Computer-mediated instruction played a more central role in Lieb's course design than in Smith's. Furthermore, although both Lieb and Smith reported chronic problems with the computer conferencing systems they used, Smith ended up allowing students to submit their quizzes on paper if they could prove they had tried to use the computer conferencing system. Both factors may have made computer-mediated instruction seem like more of an unnecessary bother to Smith's students than to Lieb's.
More recently, Hester (1999) reported that students in a large lecture class who volunteered to take an online practice quiz for extra credit generally liked it. They also posted higher exam scores than students who had chosen not to take the quiz. Again, factors unique to Hester's study may have made the difference. Hester's students accessed their quizzes via the World Wide Web, with its relatively user-friendly graphic interface, instead of the more complicated text-based system used by students in the two earlier studies. Furthermore, Hester's quizzes were voluntary instead of compulsory as in Smith's study. …