Expectations, Use, and Instructional Impact
An exploration of e-mail communication between faculty and students at
UNC Chapel Hill identified issues surrounding the use of e-mail to advance instructional outcomes
By Meredith Weiss and
E D U C A U S E Q U A R T E R LY •
Number 1 2008
he more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate,” claimed theologian and educator
Joseph Priestly.1 Born in 1733, Priestly could hardly have imagined the Internet, e-mail, and instant messaging, although his prophetic statement presaged a dilemma now faced on college campuses worldwide. The popularity of and reliance on emergent computermediated communication technologies such as instant messaging, blogs, and social networks have arguably widened
the generation gap between faculty and traditional undergraduate students.
Marc Prensky defined this generational technology divide by coining the terms digital natives and digital immigrants.
The single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital
Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the predigital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.2
© 2008 Meredith Weiss and Dana Hanson-Baldauf
The purpose of the study reported here was to explore differences between professors (digital immigrants) and undergraduate students (digital natives) at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill regarding their expectations and use of e-mail and its perceived impact on instructional outcomes and student success. The ubiquitous nature of e-mail presents an ideal opportunity to investigate its use along this generational divide. Additionally, the study of e-mail practice and perception in the context of higher education might foster more meaningful scholarly communication between teacher and student and, in turn, positively impact instructional outcomes and student success.
Regardless of the context and medium, the process of communication is complicated and multifaceted. Over the years, many have sought to better understand and explain the phenomenon. Ernest Pascarella, for example, has spent much of his career exploring faculty and student communication and its impact on academic achievement and the college experience.
Although not set within the context of the digital environment, his studies reveal a strong association between student outcomes and the degree and quality of one-on-one communication between teacher and student.3 These outcomes reflect positive trends in academic achievement, personal growth
(both intellectual and developmental), the degree of effort extended to studies, student connection and satisfaction with academic coursework and the institute, attrition, and attainment of educational and career goals.4
How does Pascarella’s work fit within the context of a digital instructional environment? Recently, Robert Duran,
Lynne Kelly, and James Keaten5 investigated faculty use and perception of communication via e-mail in correspondence with students. They found that faculty (n = 257) received more than
two times the number of e-mails they produced (faculty received an average of 15.15 e-mails per week compared to
6.72 e-mails per week they sent). Excuses for late work or missed class sessions were the most cited reasons for student-initiated e-mail communication.
Despite some faculty dissatisfaction (n
= 13, or 21 percent) with the amount of time and effort spent on e-mail communication, faculty overall perceived benefits (a mean of 3.05 on a 5-point scale) and liabilities (2.95) as roughly equal.
Faculty found they could communicate better with reticent students (3.25) and relay pertinent and timely course information to classes using e-mail.
A 2003 study conducted by Michael
Russell and his colleagues