The Internet TESL Journal

E-mail in the Virtual ESL/EFL Classroom

Pieter S. Nagel
nagelp [at]


Many online ESL and EFL teachers make use of e-mail in their teaching. The question is just how effective are you in getting optimal results in your use of e-mail as an instructional or learning tool? This paper attempts to show how e-mail could be used more effectively by illustrating the difference between e-mail and academic writing, investigating how e-mail functions as an instructional and learning tool, and whether to use a LISTSERV or not. It also addresses a host of other problems such as: managing large volumes of mail, how to make workgroups work by dealing with problems of non-response, motivation and interpersonal relations, whether to use e-mail as an add-on or as core, the role of the learning facilitator and the future of e-mail in the educational environment.


This paper reports on the perceived differences between academic writing and e-mail exchange and suggests that e-mail exchange affords the learner a more liberating educational experience than the confines of formal academic writing. While e-mail exchange is a medium which strongly motivates participation in classroom activities there is still a need for a strong presence by the learning facilitator. The suggestion is made that mailgroups function almost as efficiently as LISTSERVs and can, indeed, replace the more conventional mailing list. With the help of work groups, greater collaboration among students could be achieved while these groups also effectively assist in managing large volumes of mail. The problem of non-response and poor motivation is also discussed culminating in the suggestion that e-mail be used as a central part of the course and not as an add-on feature. The paper concludes with a brief look at the role of the learning facilitator and the future of e-mail in the educational environment.

E-mail vs. Academic Writing

One of the questions which has constantly been on the minds of teachers the world over relates to the inherent differences that we either perceive or expect should exist between academic writing and e-mail writing when we (and our students) express our opinions or air our views on academic issues.

The standard of academic writing has long been entrenched in its own respectable niche and all aspiring academics try to live up to the already established norms which have been determined by past practice for it. However, take it out of its paper-based or paper-journal environment and cast it into the hypermedium of e-mail or web-based publications and it soon takes on another character.

Cory Lund (1998) has done research into the rhetorial differences between traditional academic writing and e-mail exchange and has come up with some startling comments. Lund notes that when specific tasks were to be sent to the teacher the writing style differed from the type of writing sent to their peers. Student writing to the teacher would typically rely on the third person, and, further, "there would be a complete absence of the student's own voice in the composition. This kind of writing would be impersonal, voiceless, the kind of writing which states what the text means (A) for some nameless and faceless person (B)teacher." (ibid.)

When students communicated with other students about the book over a network, their responses were typically written in the first person as they were attempting to relate the people and occurrences in the book with their lives. Other studies, such as the one done by Yates and Orlikowski (1993) who investigated the linguistic and textual patterns of electronic communication in an ongoing group of participants collaborating on a specific task show that, on the one hand,

the syntax and word choice often evoked conversational informality, emphasis, rhythm, and even vocalizations. On the other hand, the messages evinced characteristics of written discourse such as formal wording, careful composing and editing, and textual formatting. More interestingly, we also found evidence of patterns that seem more distinctively characteristic of electronic interaction. The messages displayed graphic, typographical, and subject line humor, patterns unlikely in written and oral discourse in organizations.

In a collaborative research study conducted by Weasenforth and Lucas (1997) about on-line and off-line texts of non-native speakers reference is made to an article by Tella (1992) who suggests that e-mail texts resemble oral communication. A very interesting finding by Weasenforth and Lucas is the observation made that the length of e-mail compositions differed for on-line (generally shorter) and off-line writing (generally longer). Their "findings show that there is in fact a distinct trend in the students' off-line writing for initial contextualization of information, unlike in their on-line writing...In contrast, in the on-line responses, writers tend to begin right away by providing their personal opinion; and in all cases the writers use explicit markers to signal their intent, for example by writing in my opinion, I think, I agree with the author, or I disagree with the author".

While e-mail writing is not subject to the degree of formality of academic writing it could in itself be a liberating experience for the student as suggested by Lund (1998) who tongue-in-cheek refers to the task of the author of academic writing to "lead the ignorant with certainty to enlightenment and actualization. This dynamic resists dialogue, insists on conflict, and assumes tension. One cannot state something without certainty, or waiver in his convictions because the jury of his readers will not find him persuasive, therefore, the writer is required to assume the pose of authority".

In contrast with this view communication through the medium of e-mail is much less formal and more responsive, stimulating dialogue and the exchange of ideas, forever requesting response from the receiver.

E-mail as Instructional or Learning Tool

There can be little doubt today that e-mail forms an integral part of our daily communication via the Internet which by the end of last year already had over 100 million users with a predicted growth to just over 150 million users by the end of the year 2000. The technologies spawned by the Internet have had far-reaching effects on the way in which we think, conduct business and teach. The British Council report on the Internet and English Language Teaching (1996) reports that schools worldwide have used e-mail for international communication activities since the late eighties.

Some organisations, such as St. Olaf's University, offer teacher assistance in e-mail activities through their IECC (Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections) mailing lists as a free service to help teachers and classes link with partners in other countries and cultures for e-mail classroom pen-pal and project exchanges. Since its creation in 1992, IECC has distributed over 19,000 requests for e-mail partnerships. At last count, there were more than 7300 teachers in approximately 73 countries participating in at least one of the IECC lists.

Jack Pillemer (1997) in his article e-mail as a teaching tool makes the following observations with regard to e-mail as a teaching tool:

These observations are important ones and current as well as aspiring "e-teachers" should take note of the comments made. While there is a strong motivational appeal because of the personal nature of e-mail great care should be taken to ensure the continuous flow of messages among the respondents as a communication breakdown because of bad planning by the teachers involved in the project could lead to the project not succeeding or even worse, to students not reaching their expected learning outcomes.

Sound technical support and reliable connectivity remain essential if one wishes to keep to proposed schedules. The proposed schedule of teaching activities should be drawn in such a way that unforseen periods of inactivity due to technical problems or slow response by key-pals are planned for and buffered into the schedule. Teacher involvement by way of continuous monitoring of e-mail activity and guiding conversational threads should be practised to ensure that learning does take place in relation to the identified outcomes.

The type of communication envisaged by the e-teacher determines the nature of the collaboration and number of students involved in the learning process. The question whether to LISTSERV or to make use of mailgroups is important in this regard.

LISTSERV or Mailgroups? - Getting Set Up

A LISTSERV is a system that allows you to create, manage and control electronic mailing lists on your corporate network or on the Internet. LISTSERV® is the name of a commercial product which is distributed by L-Soft International, Inc. ( and should not be confused with mailing lists. The fact is that LISTSERV is a programme written by Eric Thomas which introduced the concept of a mail-based server back in 1986, which assists mailing list administrators in managing list subscriptions, maintaining archives of posted message, making associated documents available to subscribers or to the general public, optimizing bulk delivery, and so forth. Today, LISTSERV has become the standard for the management of electronic mailing lists.

A mailing list is a list of people's names and addresses which is managed by the list owner. When messages are sent to the list they are electronically distributed by means of a software package which sends a copy of the original message to each of the subscribers of the list. Copies of messages may be saved in files which are known as list archives for future reference. The owner of the list decides on policies regarding the use of the messages which he owns.

Using a mailing list is the best way to go about interactive classroom e-mailing as this also affords you the opportunity to follow different discussion threads by way of utilising the log files of the mailing list. A log file is a disk file containing everything that was written on the list in a given month or week. The database can be searched to return a copy of messages related to a particular subject or messages which match your search criteria.

The alternative route which you could go is to make use of mailing groups. You can easily send messages to a group of people by creating a mailing group (or "alias") containing their names in the address book of your e-mailer. Then, you just type the group name in the To box when you send messages. You can create multiple groups, and contacts can belong to more than one group. If your class is small enough, say ten to thirty students, this could be a cost effective way of managing your mail with the added benefit that the groups remain private. A potential problem would be that one cannot adequately sort the discussion threads.

By using the Inbox Assistant in Outlook Express, for example, you can have incoming messages that meet certain criteria sent to the folders you want (e-mail filters). For example, individuals using the same e-mail account can have their messages delivered to their personal folders. Or all mail from a certain person can be automatically routed to a specific folder. When using the Edit and Find message feature of Outlook Express in conjunction with the Inbox Assistant one can approximate the convenience of a classic searchable mail list as you can search the messages for key words.

Managing Large Volumes of E-mail and Workgroups

The issue of managing large volumes of mail is a tacky one, especially if you subscribe to a public mailing list or if you have exchanges with other institutions who have student groups exchanging ideas. From the start you should organise your own students into collaborative work groups to reduce the number "identities" within your own course. A group of thirty students can quickly be reduced to six groups of five students each who correspond internally within the group. One of the members can be made "group representative" (or spokesperson) who would be the outgoing link with other group representatives. In this way you can have high frequency deliberations within each group who then formulate a specific opinion which is then posted to the other group representatives who cascade the message down to the individual members within the group. With the help of your e-mail filters you could automatically forward any incoming mail from each of the groups to the members within your group. This technique would keep the volume of traffic down on the general mail list but would keep individual members collaborating with one another within the groups. The teacher could decide whether s/he wants to have his own e-mail address added to only the larger groups or whether s/he wants to be privy to the discussions within the group itself.

The teacher's greatest concern when working with mail groups is the fear that s/he will not be able to keep up with reading and responding to the messages. The advice which I normally give is to set up the class into groups as outlined before and when they run into difficulties ask them to discuss their problem with two other groups before contacting you directly. In this way they could potentially solve the problem themselves without the teacher having to provide answers continuously.

Non-response and Motivation

One of the most frequent complaints or issues raised in mailing lists is the issue of non-response. What to do when you get no reply from your study partners within your group or from other groups?

The starting point in overcoming non-response is to ensure that students and teachers have regular and easy access to the Internet. Problems with unreliable networks and downtime of the 'Net have been reported as reasons for not responding to e-mail. The bottom line is, do not engage in "e-teaching" if you or your students do not have access to the medium!

Secondly, and just as important, make sure that you have a firm commitment from your students and participating teachers that they will stay committed to the programme and will respond regularly to messages received. When I set assignments for my students I remain firm about the submission date and alert them to the fact that they could expect an e-mail message from me by a given date to enquire about their progress prior to the due date of the assignment.

Some "e-teachers" are very draconian about the measures they set up to ensure response from students with deadlines and so forth and it seems that most are in agreement that you have to expect some students to "drop out" of the course.

Another possible reason for the problem of non-response could be that teachers do not realise the importance and effectiveness of e-mail as means of communication and a teaching tool within electronic education. They regard e-mail as just another interesting addition to the course and this being the case, how could you expect your students to take it seriously?

While e-mail is a very stimulating and dynamic means of communication you have to ensure that you keep your students highly motivated throughout.

The question is what works? Motivation means being involved in the process. You cannot motivate students if you are not seen to be involved and setting an example yourself. Regular messages on a weekly basis to start off with shows students that you have an interest in what they are doing and these messages should also prompt them to take action as well as remind them of what is expected of them.

It is also important that you set the parameters very clearly on netiquette as some students could be discouraged by unruly or unsympathetic classmates. Coach them on responding on a personal basis to messages by using the first names of correspondents. Encourage short messages which react to what has been said before and which states what they think in return. Aggressive messages (flaming) which state what you think of someone else's insight or level of intelligence should be discouraged as this causes the more sensitive user to loose interest in the medium.

Setting them up with "study-buddies" within each group also assists them to collaborate better. After overcoming their initial fear of the medium you will find that it is difficult to keep them off-line!

Getting it Right: E-mail as add-on or E-mail as core?

A crucial decision to make is whether you want e-mail to function as an add-on to your course as you would when inviting a guest speaker or using and audio-visual aid when demonstrating a concept, or whether you want e-mail to form part of the course as any textbook would. This decision is very important as it will determine how much time you are prepared to spend on e-mail activity. Keep in mind that the level of e-mail proficiency of the student is very important in this case. You cannot expect to spend little time on e-mail and get the desired results if your students are not comfortable with the medium itself.

However, should e-mail form a central core component of your course you will find that students incorporate discussions in their home-work and classroom interaction into a more integrated approach which will assist in realising the educational goals which you may have in mind. If your objective is simply for them to make contact with other students you will find it a very empty and frustrating experience.

If e-mail is a core component of the course the success of the course depends on the quantity and quality of electronic traffic generated. Continuous teacher involvement is very important in this regard as the teacher has to steer with pedagogical leadership on issues and ensure constant participation and active encouragement.

The Role of the Learning Facilitator

It is expected of "e-teachers" today to be knowledgeable in computer applications which relate to teaching. They, therefore, often have to work together with staff from Information Technology Divisions to lead in the educational field, making e-mail classrooms work successfully.

It is expected of them to elicit learning and stimulate progressive skills development which flow from the basic to more complex notions while retaining clarity of understanding throughout. One of the biggest problems here is that newcomers to the Internet and even more experienced hands do not know how to react in some situations.

This is why a high priority should be placed on the clarification of goals as they inform future action as well as reaction. Working out objectives and assessment techniques to complement the overall course objectives require careful planning to ensure that the course remains meaningful and stimulating.

Learning facilitators are also expected to establish and maintain professional contact with other "e-teachers" in their specific disciplines to ensure a continuous flow of information, especially with regard to useful sites to further academic activity ad collaboration.

In order to maintain the interest of the student the learning facilitator has to utilize existing techniques and also be inventive in encouraging and motivating students to take responsibility for their roles as active learning partners in collaborative e-mail exchanges. While little traditional teaching takes place the learning facilitator now becomes the "guide on the side" instead of the "sage on the stage".

The Future of E-mail in the Educational Environment

While e-mail still remains as a first generation communication technology it has undergone many changes to accommodate new multimedia developments. Bruce Cohen, General Manager of M-Web Interactive, says that e-mail is the "killer application on the Net, and will continue to be so because e-mail is the unifying force of the global village. Without e-mail, the wired world would untangle and wither." (1998:6)

The most significant developments in the past years are notably the coming of age of web-based mail services which provide free web-based e-mail services and the development of videograms to supplement and surpass animated e-mail messages.

Many services such as Hotmail, Freemail and Webmail now offer e-mail addresses which allow access from cybercafe's, any connected pc at school, university or friend's house. The downside is that you have to negotiate web-traffic every time you wish to collect mail from the server. Added to this is the fact that security is compromised - anybody who operates the pc after you may read your mail if you have not deleted it. Net accelerators like Netsonic which builds a cache on your pc's hard disk also interfere with the process of collecting mail as you have to remember to reload the page from the server every time you log in to refresh the page.

This service remains a solution in cases where you have to go through a lot of red tape to get permission to establish student e-mail address on your local network - in short, you do not need to tax your own institution's server/s in setting up e-mail accounts. The most important goal would be to provide students with access to the Internet.

The technology brought by video mail or videograms brings added multimedia capabilities to your e-mail message. This technology is very similar to Desktop Conferencing which is still plagued by bandwidth problems. You do not have to include video, you may decide to include only a sound clip, for example.

Eric Benhamou, CEO of 3Com, claims that the future of networking is "a single converged infrastructure able to support multiple data formats in the common application of voice, video and data" (1998:46). He sites an example in education where "network convergence will enable distance learning to deliver real time video, voice and instructional text from a clasroom to a remote student, and even allow collaboration on a virtual white board." (1998:47).

Possibilities in utilising satellite technology is now also becoming available in South Africa since the advent of DSTV. Connections to the Internet is still made via landbased modem but with the help of a special satellite receiver/decoder the information received via satellite is 10 to 100 times faster than reception via landbased modem technology.

While the speed at which you Internet depends a lot on the speed of the Internet backbone and the speed of the servers you are connected to you may gain some advantage with a cable modem, that is, if you reside in the US or in Europe of course! Cable modem speeds vary considerably. Their potential is very high. A cable modem itself can go as fast as 30Mbps - in theory. In reality, they are usually connected to a 10Mb ethernet card, so you can't go faster than that, and the real world limit is somewhere even slower. Real speeds which have been recorded range from 500kbps to 1Mbps on a cable modem service.


While much remains to be done in further research on the effectiveness of e-mail in the virtual classroom we can follow the lead of the more entrepreneurial souls like Johannes Cronjé and Patsy Clarke who have recognised at an early stage that the potential of high-tech communication is yet to be unlocked in the educational field. Their research pointed out that students were of the opinion that more contact was maintained via e-mail than might have been possible in face-to-face contact and further, that the experience served as useful scaffolding for further learning.

I hope that academics in around the world will recognise the advantages that may be gained from (by now elementary) communication technology such as the humble e-mail which, when properly harnessed, could make the difference in your classroom!


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 7, July 1999