E-mail is an easy technology to use. Its use in a classroom settings is no longer an innovation. Yet, fourth-year undergraduate students at the Higher Institute of Management-Tunis showed reluctance in adopting it as a medium of communication with the teacher. The same was observed in two consecutive years. Although the pace of adoption increased from one year to the next, the quality of the messages decreased. Keywords: e-mail, teaching, information and communication technology, Internet, communication quality, Tunisia.
1. Introduction Learning and knowledge dissemination using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools and universities around the world. Most institutions of higher learning now invest heavily in technologies such as the web and e-mail for students, staff, and faculty. ICT use is set to rise in emerging countries eager to move towards an “information society” where learning and knowledge is accessible to all. This paper reports on an experiment conducted at the Higher Institute of Management-Tunis1 over two consecutive years and involved the use of e-mail for communicating with and distributing lecture notes to students enrolled in an elective course offered in the Spring semesters.
Several universities around the world are integrating technology into the classroom. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considered a pioneer in making available course material not only to its students but also to the world at large (Goldberg, 2001) and aims to offer freely nearly all of its 2000 courses online by 2010. Web sites such as those of Texas A&M2 are renown for virtual spaces such as the World Lecture Hall (WLH); WLH contains links to pages created by faculty worldwide to deliver class materials such as course syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, exams, class calendars, and multimedia textbooks. According to IDC (2000), about 47% of all U.S. colleges in 2000offered some form of distance learning. This figure is expected to increase to almost 90% by the end of 2004.
Using IT as a teaching supplement has become such a phenomenon that there are presently 10 millions online courses worldwide and more than 700 institutions practicing e-learning in the US alone (Capper, 2001). This development is extending to other parts of the world: Africa, Asia (including China), Latin America (Potashnik and Capper, 1998). Urdan and Weggen (2000) predict that the distance learning market is doubling yearly and will reach $11.5 billion in 2003 and, in 2001, IDC had forecast that the European e-learning market will be worth nearly $6 billion by 2005. Moe (2000) estimates that services related to knowledge dissemination, including training and organizational learning, is already a $2 trillion industry.
Several teachers have made judicious use of e-mail as a teaching and communication supplement (D’Souza, 1991; Lind and Hall, 1995; Poling, 1994; Richards and Keppell, 1997; Geer and Au, 1998). E-mail enables students and teachers to communicate more often since it allows communication at any time. Carlton et al. (1998) described an experiment in which they placed online versions of their course slide presentations on the Internet. They noticed that the added convenience of having courses available day and night was an incentive for students to use the Internet.
Based on the results of an experiment, Newlands and Ward (1999) discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using online technologies (Web and e-mail) as alternatives to traditional teaching. Though the results suggest that use of these technologies can yield benefits to students’ learning, potential problems such as inadequate access to computers and loss of contact with the faculty were identified. They conclude their paper by suggesting that with time, students should adapt their learning behavior and strategies to new technologies. Scarce (1997) observed that 94% of students had a positive attitude towards the use of e-mail in a classroom setting even at the beginning of the course. 96% of the students thought that e-mail should enhance their learning experience.
Since excessive use of e-mail can yield less than desirable results such as information glut on the part of the receiver, Knezek and Christensen (1996) devised a ratio, Virtual Influential Person (VIP). This ratio is obtained for a given period by subtracting the number of messages received on a system from the number sent and dividing the difference by the sum of sent and received messages. The resulting ratio thus ranges from -1 to +1.
Because a system must be interactive to be useful, the authors suggest that, for faculty, an ideal VIP ratio should be equal to zero. From the point of view of an individual using it, e-mail becomes unbalanced when the ratio deviates far from zero. As the ratio approaches the lower limit of -1, it can be said that the system is more of a nuisance to the individual. Conversely, as the ratio approaches the upper limit of +1, it can be said that the system is becoming more of a tool used by the individual to influence other people. Overall, the ratio could be used as a measure of professional utility.
The structure of the paper is as follows. First, we present a brief overview of the overall IT situation in Tunisia. The course and experiment are described in section 3. Section 4 seeks to provide possible explanations for the observations made in the experiment. Finally, section 5 presents the key conclusions. 2. The situation in Tunisia Shortly after its independence in 1956, Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa, knew that it had little choice but to open up to the global market and liberalize its domestic market.
In 1995, Tunisia was one of the few Arab and African nations to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is also the first country along the Southern Mediterranean coast to sign an association agreement with the European Union. This agreement will gradually establish a free-trade zone over a period of 13 years, and places a much greater emphasis on Tunisian companies to be competitive.
As a consequence, Tunisia’s immediate strategic goal is to be fully prepared for the 2008 free trade zone agreement with the EU. Due to this and to the establishment of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010, the promise to reduce trade barriers and to boost free circulation of capital will cause many protected, inward-oriented Tunisian businesses to disappear3, overall entrepreneurship and export-orientedness should increase with the help of substantial EU credits for infrastructure upgrading and industrial restructuring (Dillman, 2001).Since the mid-1990s, a post-structural adjustment agenda has been put in place for the manufacturing and services sectors, mostly composed of small and medium sized businesses.
The Tunisian government is well aware that globalization and modernity are intertwined and that, today, modernity is linked to education and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Like other Arab countries, Tunisia needs to close a “growing knowledge gap” by investing heavily in education and promoting open intellectual inquiry (UNDP, 2003). Actions to popularize ICT as a tool for knowledge acquisition should focus on boosting computer and Internet literacy and using ICT as a tool for life-long learning (UNDP, 2003).
How is this being achieved in Tunisia? 2.1. Education According to the World Bank, Tunisia’s investment in education is one of the highest in the world; it spends 25% of its annual budget on education and training – a critical factor in its economic growth and progress. Education is mandatory for girls and boys till age 15, and public education is free to all children. School enrollment (6 to 12 years) is 91%. The literacy rate is presently equal to 68.3%. English is mandatory from 7th grade to university. Internet access is available in all universities and secondary schools. The number of students has more than tripled over the last ten years from 68,000 in 1990 to more than 200,000 in 2000; the growing number of new students is expected to grow from 60,000 in 2001 to more than 120,000 in 2008 (see Figure 1).