INBOX: MANAGING EMAIL WITH ADVANCED SUBJECT ORGANIZERS
It is not possible to restrict the amount of email in the course. It is the source of Information Acquisition: teachers research, read, interview and share information gathering and then synthesize what they have learned in their listserv postings and react to others' ideas. The listserv and email are also the source of Learning Application--teachers are guided as they develop Web-based lessons and provide peer feedback to each other and share their final module projects. We also use email for Self-Reflection--teachers assess their projects, new learning, ie: what they learned in the module and share that information via email with their instructor.
Because the focus of the class places so much emphasis on the benefits of group discussion/dialogue via the listserv, the list's message volume can be overwhelming. What seems to me a "light load of messages" sometimes is overwhelming to those who do not read their email daily. On the other hand, the email communication between participants and instructor and learner to learner has been highly rated in our end-of-course evaluations. Participants appear to rely on the group discussion list as the primary communication vehicle.
The syllabus for Teaching English with the Internet, http://www.uni.edu/profdev/english, is broken into an introduction and four modules: Teaching with Email and Videoconferencing, Efficiently Searching for Lessons, Designing an Online Lesson, and Creating Your Curriculum Web Page. Each module has a project/assignment for class participants to complete. When I taught this course for the first time, I had no particular method of organizing how I presented my instructional email to my students. I had the postings organized for myself in folders labeled by module. As I posted each mailing to our class listserv, I listed in the subject line a very brief description of the contents of the post. I did require my class to use a dollar sign ($) before each subject line, as did I, to help easily distinguish class email from all the other email each of us received every day. In retrospect, I should have expected the class participants to be overwhelmed. We had generated, with a class of ten students, approximately 500 email messages in the five weeks that the course ran.
The second time I ran the course, I made one small change: I sequentially numbered my postings. While this helped when we needed to reference a posting, it did not address the larger organizational issues.
ORGANIZATION FROM THE FACULTY PERSPECTIVE
First, I have organized all my mail into a folder system in my word processor, Microsoft Word. I have intentionally done this in my word processing program because it allows me the flexibility to manipulate the text more easily than my email program, Eudora. Also, if I choose to change email programs, I will not have to forward my 100+ files.
Once in Word, I set up a directory structure:
Introduction to course/ AdministriviaModule 1 (2, 3, 4)Administrivia
I copied each of my postings into a Word document. I made certain that the subject line for email was the first line of the document and that it reflected the hierarchical structure of the folders and a detailed subject heading (example: Mod 1 Q& A: What about auditory learners)? When I saved the file, I saved it by the subject heading only in the Module 1, Q&A folder (example: What about auditory learners).
Essentially, the Word documents will act as the email "masters." I can customize them when I post them to each section I teach, but my original document will stay intact.
In the two prior sections of my class, the students clearly demonstrated that they "mastered" the material, in spite of an undeveloped email system. If that is the case, why make the changes I have outlined above? Most students, even if they aren't overwhelmed by 500+ email messages in a class, will benefit from the advanced organizers in the subject heading.
The Advanced Subject Organizer functions similarly to a Concept Map, which "allows one to gain an overview of a domain of knowledge. Because the nodes contain only a keyword or a short sentence, more interpretation is required of the reader, but this may be positive" (Plotnick). The reader, while being "clued" to the content of the email posting, must also interact with the keyword subject line to interpret the keyword and relate it to a topic or concept. Therefore, the reader has a more active role in determining not only the content of the posting, but the importance of it as well.
The Graphical Organizer Homepage outlines critical questions one must address when striving to make material organized:
The chief suggestion on The Graphical Organizer Homepage is to "Use a top down approach, working from general to specific or use a free association approach by brainstorming nodes and then develop links and relationships."
This is precisely the structure that I have outlined above.
The class email list has the potential to facilitate the organization of activities for the online classroom structure as a whole. Advanced organizers in the subject line of postings can assist students in:
Using advanced organizer subject lines clearly establishes a consistent classroom routine. Students know from module to module that there will be certain categories of information (Administrivia, Q&A, Discussion, Tips and Links). Once the pattern is established within Module 1, the students can anticipate the organizational structure simply by reading the subject line. When they read "Mod 2 Discussion . . ." they will immediately prepare to participate, in this example, in discussion regarding the contents of the posting. In short, advanced subject organizers announce to the students the work required of them. In turn, this helps them fulfill the action or activity we are requesting of them.
ORGANIZATION FROM THE STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
When using Advanced Subject Organizers, I will still create student folders, but I will also create a separate set of folders in Word. These folders will be under the directory "Archives," and the folders will be labeled by the Module numbers and subject line, for example "Module 1 Project". As a student progresses through each module, I will continue to keep the most important email in the folder bearing their name in my email program. I find this step necessary because many times, projects are revised. The email "conversation" between us is the documentation of suggestions of changes and the discussions that ensue. When the project has been handed in, I can then delete the discussion from the student's folder. At the end of each module, I will copy and paste their projects into a document and save that document in my "archives." I will then have copies of all students' work for the class. I can then use the folder as the clearing house for the next module, clearing it again when I archive the next project. At the end of the class, I can delete all student folders and even the directory for the class. Note: I keep all vital student information, such as final grade, email address, etc., in a permanent Word document.
I will still maintain a folder with every posting that I make to the list while the class is in session. This will help me keep track of which postings I have already sent to the list and the date I sent it. When the class is over, I can delete the folder.
This method may seem cumbersome and specific only to Teaching English with the Internet. I'd like to address both issues. First, while the initial establishment of the folders may take a few hours, the rewards of presenting clearly organized information to my students far outweighs a few hours' work. Student frustration and confusion makes for an unhealthy learning environment. Organization and clearly articulated expectations, both achieved through Advanced Subject Organizers, eliminates both frustration and confusion. Secondly, This method could easily be applied to any class that is divided into sections. For example, I have written an online composition class (http://www.users.nac.net/abro/121.htm) for Middlesex County College (http://www.middlesex.cc.nj.us) which is based on five essay assignments and readings. Using the method I've outlined above, I will easily be able to organize a directory/folder structure in word processing that will allow me to organize my postings to the class in a logical method. At the end of the class, I've archived all student projects, retained student information such as name, student identification number, email address, etc., and I've also been able to delete past classes from my email program.
I look forward to implementing these techniques with my spring classes because one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that an overflowing inbox creates great anxieties for students and instructor alike.
Plotnick, Eric. "Concept Mapping: A Graphical System for Understanding the Relationship Between Concepts." ERIC Digest. June 1997. http://ericir.syr.edu/ithome/digests/mapping.html
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