E-Mail, Computer Usage and College Students: A Case Study

By Zagorsky, Jay L. | Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

E-Mail, Computer Usage and College Students: A Case Study


Zagorsky, Jay L., Education


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. …

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