Supporting students through e-mail

Another piece of text for staff development. I may podcast this one with an interview with teachers who use e-mail

A colleague recently asked me “was it OK to carry on using e-mail or should I look at something more recent like blogs?”

The colleague in question had an organised set of distribution lists (and taught her students how to set up their own lists) and used e-mail mainly to provide feedback and set targets on a one to one basis, so there was no need to add another facility to the mix. There might be a case for a class blog if ‘visibility’ for the course (or tutor) will be politically useful within the organisation and if there is enough common material being posted each week or if the main support need was to provide links to Web sites of value to the students.

I think that e-mail is a most effective way of providing one to one support and feedback to students between lessons. I also think that many adult students could benefit from the experience of taking part in structured e-mail correspondence – including receiving, filing, editing and sending attached files – as a general ‘life skill’.

One technical point regarding attached files: the cheaper laptops sold on the high street tend to have MS Works installed in place of Microsoft Office. MS Works is a basic and useful package including a word processor, spreadsheet and graphics software but it saves files in a special format of its own. You might want to ask your IT support people to install the MS Works import filter, this is a free download from Microsoft but you usually need administrative access to your staff computer to install filters. You can then open and read WPS files from within Word, and you can save files in WPS format. Students who use MS Works might want to learn how to save their word-processing files in Rich Text Format (RTF). RTF files can be read by any recent word processor on any operating system. I recently had to help a manager convert a CV that had been sent by e-mail as an attached file in WPS format – not a good way of making an initial impression!

A simple framework for supporting a group of students by e-mail includes three phases;

Initial contact and exchange

I’m assuming that you are supporting a face to face course and that all the usual advice, guidance; diagnostic tests and so on have been completed. See Duggleby 2000 for a comprehensive set of templates for running a purely distance learning based course

  • Ask students to send an e-mail to your address with basic contact details including a mobile phone number
  • Confirm that you have received the contact details promptly. This reply could include a sentence of advice on submitting assignment work and ground rules about how quickly you can turn messages round (‘next working day’ or ‘before the next class’ as appropriate). You might also add a sentence about including the name of the course or group in the e-mail subject line. Your e-mail ‘signature’ should include your room number, staff phone number and your e-mail address (students loose e-mail address information but often keep messages saved on their computer)
  • Add students to your address book and set up a distribution list so that you can send messages to the whole group of students as well as to individuals
  • Most address books have space for other information such as the mobile number. I use the ‘company’ field for storing the name of the course

Sending materials

  • Simple activities’ can be sent in the text of the e-mail – messages should be kept to about a screen length. Longer activities and any kind of reading material should be sent as attached files. Keep instructions and text simple – you would be surprised how many people can find ways of misunderstanding text contained in e-mail!
  • Send longer documents as attachments
  • Use RTF and PDF where possible for attachments just in case students do not have an up to date version of MS Word. It is harder to send a virus by accident when using RTF, but, most College and Web based e-mail systems now include virus checkers so this is less of a concern than it was
  • Avoid sending MS Excel and PowerPoint files unless you know that your students can open them (i.e. you teach Accounts or Marketing). PowerPoint has a Send To Word function that can be used to extract text from Power Points, and this text can again be saved in RTF format. Spreadsheet formulas and much of the formatting is preserved when the spreadsheet is sent as an SYLK (‘symbolic link’) file
  • Avoid sending attachments that are larger than a Megabyte or two – many e-mail systems have limits on attachment size

Giving feedback to students

  • Always acknowledge receipt of assignments as soon as they come in. It takes a few seconds to reply and paste a standard two sentence message into your e-mail and it sets the student’s mind at rest
  • If a student has sent an assignment in and you can’t mark it for a day or two, include an honest and realistic date by which you can send feedback to the student. Duggleby 2000 gives specimen text for various kinds of e-mail to students. It may be that you give the feedback on the assignment at the next face to face session
  • Keep follow up e-mails short. Two questions in a message can be confusing.
  • Use the phone for bad news or feedback on behavor. Tone of voice and listening are very important in these cases and text messages are easy to misunderstand, especially if the recipient’s emotions are running high
  • Assignments sent as attachments can be annotated using a different font and a different colour. MS Word has sophisticated annotation tools and other drafting and proofing facilities; by all means use these if you know that all your students have access to Word
  • Gently warn students that messages with a blank ‘subject’ line may be trapped by spam filters (even though that may not actually be entirely the truth) and remind them that using the name of the course and perhaps an assignment reference as the subject is a good idea

Questions for the course team

  • Are students expected to take part in e-mail exchanges as part of the course or is e-mail support an additional affordance. If mandatory, how can we ensure that all students have regular access to e-mail?
  • What assumptions can we make about the student target group: literacy, IT skills, access to proprietary software, and time for work between face to face meetings?
  • How many e-mail messages are we expecting to receive and respond to? How will this impact on tutor work load? What do we gain in terms of course outcomes and enhanced skills for this investment of time?

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