Campus learns to depend on e-mail

Convenience: Students and staff at the University of Maryland, College Park rely on computer messaging to teach, learn, file homework or to talk to the folks at home.

April 19, 1999|By Alicia C. Shepard | Alicia C. Shepard,Special to the Sun

COLLEGE PARK -- Revolutions by nature are noisy. But not this one.

Quietly and without fanfare, academic life at the University of Maryland's flagship campus has changed dramatically over the past four or five years as students and faculty push the "send" button on their computers.

One day last month, 36,000 messages were delivered by just one of a dozen or so university e-mail systems. Electronic mail has become as much a part of college here and at universities across the country as chalkboards and calculators.

Professors who forget a critical point in a lecture can correct the omission by sending e-mail to their students. Some teachers use e-mail to deliver grades. A painfully shy student, afraid to speak up in class, may find it easier to approach a professor through e-mail than in person. Students who need help can e-mail a question at 10:30 p.m., long after office hours are over, and often get a timely reply.

"It's much easier to walk over to your desk in your room than to walk all the way across campus to talk to a professor," says Gidon Rosenthal, a Maryland freshman computer sciences major. "Half the time, the professor's not there anyway."

E-mail is more than a convenient method for transmitting term papers. For many courses at Maryland and other schools, it's required to keep up with classes.

"It's a universal trend at colleges and universities," says Mark Luker, vice president of Washington-based EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association of 1,600 colleges that promotes technology in education. "Not every campus has gone as far as Maryland, but the direction is toward universal access to e-mail and to replace paper communication as much as possible. Many faculty have embraced it and are using it extensively."

Although e-mail technology has been available since the 1980s, Dick Atlee, who runs the help desk for Academic Information Technology Services at College Park, said it began to catch on only about five years ago.

"I'm not sure you can understand what the atmosphere was like involving computers in 1994," he said. "People didn't like them."

In 1994, there were fewer than 20,000 university-maintained accounts. By December 1998, there were more than 34,000 accounts -- for 45,000 students, staff and faculty. But that total doesn't include departments and administrative offices that run their own e-mail systems.

"The number is imponderable," Atlee said. "There could easily be 60,000 to 80,000 accounts on campus. We have no way of knowing exactly."

Interviews with College Park students and faculty (some in person, some by phone and others, naturally, via e-mail) turned up many who said it had changed their lives.

Junior Olga Otieno's is one of them. The mechanical engineering major is usually gone from her dorm room by 8 a.m. and unreachable -- except through e-mail. Throughout the day, she ducks into one of the the school's 37 computer labs to check her messages. There might be mail from her mother in Gaithersburg, who hasn't heard from her in a few days, or a message from the engineering department announcing an internship, a speaker or the subject of a quiz.

"I got an e-mail today from the professor teaching Electronics and Instrumentation," she says. "The class was really confused about the schedule, since it was going to rotate each week. He sent an e-mail to all the students clarifying the schedule and explaining where we needed to be at a certain time."

Still confused, she sent an e-mail query back to the professor, who responded personally -- and quickly.

"Do you know how much time it would have taken without e-mail?" she said. "I would have had to go and find his office and he might not be there. Or call him and get voice mail. He might call me back and I wouldn't be there. I use it every day."

Christopher Callahan, associate dean of journalism, recalled a course taught entirely by e-mail by Jon Franklin, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for the Evening Sun in the 1980s. Franklin supervised six Maryland graduate students from his farm in Oregon, using e-mail to transmit the syllabus, conduct classes, receive papers and edit them.

While the idea was novel, the class demonstrated some of e-mail's shortcomings. Because they never met the teacher, heard his voice or got used to his style, some students wound up with hurt feelings.

"You didn't get his nuance and tone," said Callahan. "He'd say something on e-mail that appeared harsh -- but if you knew him, you knew that it was truly constructive criticism and not mean-spirited."

Users say the electronic medium is loaded with opportunities for misunderstanding.

"E-mail sometimes encourages people to be more 'frank' in their discussions and not always tactful," says Renata Lana, a writing adviser in the engineering department.

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