Inbox Shock: A Study of Electronic Message Volume in a Distance Managerial Communication Course
Hartman, Jackie, Lewis, Jeffrey S., Powell, Karen Sterkel, Business Communication Quarterly
As institutions of higher education strive to serve students who are diverse and geographically dispersed, many of them are implementing distance education programs using technology-mediated communication. Research reveals that distance education is often as effective as traditional education; however, teachers and students are confronted with a variety of obstacles. Thus educators need to determine the most effective and efficient methods of communicating with distance students. An examination of e-mail messages sent to the instructor of an MBA class by distance students reveals that the volume of messages sent depends on students' technology proficiency, ability to process and seek out information, topic affinity, and relational needs. Furthermore, the findings reveal that an instructor can decrease the volume of messages received by researching the student population, communicating proactively, and taking advantage of the messaging system's tools.
Keywords: Distance education, e-mail overload, managerial communication
REFLECTING INNOVATIONS IN TECHNOLOGY and a dynamic business marketplace, institutions of higher education are increasingly confronted with the task of providing their services to a more diverse and geographically dispersed group of learners. Over the past decade, many colleges and universities have attempted to overcome these new challenges by implementing distance education programs. A 1998 study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that "Distance learning is not a future possibility for which higher education must prepare; it is a current reality whose growth potential is virtually unlimited" (AAUP, 1998, p. 30). Research conducted by the International Data Corporation and published in the report Online Distance Learning in Higher Education, 1998-2000 reveals:
* The number of college students enrolled in distance courses will reach 2.2 million in 2002, up from 710,000 in 1998.
* In 2002, the number of students enrolled in distance courses will represent 15 percent of all higher education students, up from 5 percent in 1998 (Rochester, 1999).
The United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) defines distance learning as the "acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance" (USDLA, 1999). Distance education programs can provide nontraditional students with the opportunity to receive a college education, serve learners with restricted amounts of time, and reach those limited by distance or a physical disability.
Problem of E-mail Overload In Distance Education
These statistics indicate that many more of us will be called upon to teach management courses using distance learning technology. Additionally, business programs operating in the realm of distance education are striving to improve their practices (AACSB, 1999). Many instructors who volunteer or are appointed to venture into the realm of distance learning are unaware of the challenges and increased workload associated with the experience. A recent study conducted by Bradburn and Zimbler (2002) noted that time spent on e-mail correspondence is significantly increased for instructors teaching distance courses. Several studies have identified that distance courses require a disproportionate allocation of effort on the part of the instructor when compared to traditional courses (AAUP, 1999; Carnevale, 2001; Schneider, 2000). However, the existing literature does not provide much assistance because it is often based on anecdotal experience rather than valid and generalizable research (Merisotis & Phipps, 1999). Th is article begins to fill the void by providing a rich description of one university's experience.
This article presents the results of a study of the volume of email messages sent by students in a graduate management class (MBA), "Managerial Communication Strategies," delivered via distance education. …