Face-to-face communication

Dealing with the introduction of the use of e-mail as a medium of communication between the teacher and his students, this article analyses data about e-mail exchanges collected over two years at the Higher Institute of Management-Tunis. It is also more of a description of adoption of a technology in a setting that has introduced IT in its curriculum but not in its culture since e-mail has never been fully suggested, let alone adopted, as a teaching supplement in Tunisia, yet.

Preliminary observations allow us to hypothesize that adoption is slow in a country which aims at integrating online technologies into the classroom, adopting distance learning and which has already launched several e-learning programs and even a virtual university. The passage of a country to an information society and subsequently to a knowledge soc iety depends on the will of its youth to adopt, among other things, IT and to at least be computer literate. Because the vocation of the Higher Institute of Management-Tunis is to produce future managers and white collar workers, the significance of the NICT course is based upon the belief that every future professional needs familiarity with computer and communication technologies. Acquiring new skills and being computer and IT literate and proficient in a simple medium such as e-mail is more than a prerequisite.

Yet, despite the fact that the course was clearly about IT and its use, and that it was optional, difficulties have been observed in the adoption of such a technology by fourth-year students. The root of these difficulties may be cultural since learning e-mail is, in itself, straightforward: oftentimes, it is the first Internet application students learn (Richards and Keppell, 1997). But reflexes such as checking e-mail regularly do not seem to be easy to acquire. Even students already owning PCs at home, having access to the Internet and having e-mail addresses do not check their e-mail regularly; most only do when the teacher advises them that he sent them e-mail or that course lecture notes have been dispatched.

Availability of computers and cost of access cannot be serious explanations for students’ apparent resistance to secure an e-mail address or to communicate it to the teacher since both could come at no cost at the Institute’s computer center. However, the fact that computer support was scarcely available in those facilities did not help in building students’ confidence; therefore, they did not feel encouraged to try this new medium on their own unless obliged to do so. Some instructors monitored their e-mail more closely and required their students to send a specified number of messages each week to get credit (Espinosa and Dennis, 1977). Students’ involvement would probably have been greater had we gone to such extremes.

The fact that the average communication content of messages in 2002 was significantly lower than in 2001 is somewhat puzzling. In fact, 2002 compares better in speed of registration than 2001 but worse in communication quality. The possibility that this could be more a reflection of the students’ nature or group culture is not to be excluded since we failed to find any other plausible explanation.

As Partee (1996) pointed out, e-mail should not be considered an alternative to face-to-face student-teacher interaction. Like other communication technologies (newsgroups, chat rooms, etc.), e-mail should be considered a supplement, an extension at best, of personal instruction. Thus, if face-to-face communication is limited in a given culture, it should come as no surprise that IT does not supplement it.

The realization that many students aged between 20 and 23 have never used a computer, let alone accessed the Internet or used e-mail, before this course comforts us in our belief that such courses should be generalized. Should this be the way to proceed, it will be necessary for schools and universities to provide students with access accounts and a short tutorial about how to use e-mail and other computing facilities. IT offers great potential, but in order to reap the benefits, institutions must first transform themselves in more fundamental ways.

Finally, the fact that IT could be used as a teaching supplement does not necessarily mean that it should be introduced piecemeal. We used e-mail only to communicate with students and to dispatch lecture notes but all other aspects of the course remained traditional. This might be a reason why students did not behave as expected.