The Epiphany Project
Session Notes: Authentic & Ersatz E-Mail for Instruction

Donna Reiss, Tidewater Community College-Virginia Beach,,
Cathy Simpson, Northern Virginia Community College
William Fleitz, American University

January 10, 1997

We modeled an informal conferencing activity designed to encourage reading, writing, reflecting, and developing support for arguments. Our objective was to demonstrate the use of electronic mail as a medium for discussion, allowing students to form learning partnerships synchronously or asynchronously. In addition, we intended to suggest ways to simulate e-mail even without the Internet or networked computers.

We were able to achieve these objectives—and we enjoyed an unexpected social benefit when we learned (incorrectly it turned out) that our conferencing package was unavailable. Using a word processor, we simulated an e-mail exchange, walking across the room to reply at our partners' computers instead of e-mailing the components and chatting with our "classmates" throughout. Instead of using real e-mail and describing simulations as alternative platforms, we used a simulation and described real e-mail as the alternative.

The assignment we used is adaptable to writing, literature, and courses across the curriculum. Students in pairs read a text assigned by their teacher or self-selected. They write a short summary of the main points of that text and briefly state and support their opinions of the issues or language of the text.

Then they ask a question of their e-mail partner. The directions for the workshop read:

Ask your partner a specific question about an element of the article that you would like clarified, explained, or illuminated. You can focus on content, on the argument, on the language, or on the style—so long as the question can be answered with further information rather than a vague opinion or a simple yes or no. You may quote briefly from the article if you like.

All participants answered their partners' questions, reflecting further on the reading and on their own critiques of the reading. After sending an answer to their partners, everybody wrote a follow-up "thank you" in which they referred specifically to the ways in which their partner's response was helpful to them in understanding the reading or the issue. This third message is intended to synthesize the ideas of the exchange and to affirm every writer's position as important.

Our reading was an article by syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell on ebonics, an issue which seemed likely to interest educators in general and English teachers in particular and likely to be familiar to most participants because of the recent Oakland schools controversy.

Because the workshop was only an hour long, we had little time for discussion; however, issues like slow readers and slow typists when this exercise is done synchronously during class were of particular, legitimate concern among participants. As an actual practice for a class, the three parts can be split among classes or can be assigned for out-of-class asynchronous mail.

In addition to printed copies of their exchange with their partners, participants received handouts on using letter writing as a collaborative active learning technique in poetry classes and in courses across the curriculum as well as "Cybersimulations," with ideas for computer-supported writing even without networked computers.   said  
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