Teaching via Email Alone? Yes, It’s Possible.

you've got mail

This post is the second in a series on alternatives to live video sessions with students.

You can teach the remainder of your course using nothing but email.

I’ll repeat: you can teach the remainder of your course using nothing but email… and maybe you should.

We’ve been saying it at the CAT in subtle ways: Keep it simple. Use the tools you already know. Set Realistic Expectations.  I am not sure that our message is rising above all the noise. Instead you keep receiving signals that you need to “tech-up” for the coming days. It’s in the crowd-sourced lists your national disciplinary organizations circulated, in the Chronicle’s opinion pieces, and the blogs of top-notch pedagogues.  Heck, I’ll say it: that message is in our own team’s new emphasis on the power of Zoom and Canvas.

An Example

What would it even look like to remote teach with only email?

Let’s consider a seminar course with a heavy emphasis on reading, writing, and in-class discussion. Say that the students have two short response papers remaining this semester. In addition, they have to submit an initial draft of a research paper on a question we’ve covered in class, then a final draft at the end of the term. They do a peer review of the initial draft. I had planned for them to discuss the readings in-class for 7 of our remaining class meetings.

What would it look like to complete this class using only email?

  1. First, I would send an email to my students. I’d ask them to check-in with me—where are they? How are they doing? What are their concerns? What limitations do they have because of these unanticipated changes?
  2. Second, I’d write and send an email, describing how the original course syllabus has changed in light of the move to remote learning.
  3. Before the emails start flying, I’d develop a system for organizing them. One option is to create folders in Gmail for each class I’m teaching. That way, I could assign them to the folder when I receive them. Better still, I could set up an email filter so that students’ emails automatically are sorted into the appropriate folder.
  4. Readings: For readings I haven’t distributed, I’d find digital versions using the ZSR Library journals search bar. I’d email the ZSR links to the students. If something isn’t available there, I might have to drop it. If it is really important to me, I’d first reach out to our great team of librarians about my options. 
  5. Lectures: Lectures are words. If I can say words in front of class, I can write them in an email. I can use bold and highlight to emphasize terms or phrases that I normally emphasize on the board. If students want to remember something later, they can search for old lectures using Gmail’s search bar
  6. Papers: easy peasy.
    • For the short response papers, the students would write their responses as an email to me. I’d write up a little feedback in an email along with the grade I assigned.
    • For the initial draft of the research paper, I’d send them an email with peer review pairings. I’d instruct them to send the paper to their reviewer in the text of an email, copying (cc-ing) me when they do it. I’d ask the reviewer to copy me when they send an email back to the writer with their feedback.
    • For the final version, I’d ask the students to send the paper in the text of an email. Yes, it would be a long email. At the start of the email, I’d ask them to write 1-3 paragraphs discussing the changes they made in light of their peer’s feedback.
  7. Discussions: Great news! We don’t write emails to ourselves, for ourselves. Email is a way for us to communicate (i.e. have a discussion) with other people. In my seminar, Sam could share a paragraph of her thoughts in an email to the class. Jay could select reply all, then write a response to Sam within the text of her original email. He can write in blue so it’s easier for the class to distinguish his writing. Asif would read Sam and Jay’s thoughts, and reply all to defend Sam’s point. He could write in purple. This approach becomes confusing when too many people are responding, so I’d sort the class into three groups. Each group is responsible for a conversation on two of the remaining discussion days. On the seventh day, I’d ask all three groups to have a conversation among their group, cc-ing the rest of the class. It’s an important day, and I don’t want anyone to miss it.

Email with Attachments

I limited myself to ONLY email in the above example to prove a point. Let’s make it more realistic.

You can follow the “email-only remote teaching plan” and use your existing work. You may have presentation slides, worksheets , exams and quizzes, and readings saved on your computer. If I had to guess, your work is saved as a file type that opens through Microsoft Office programs or Adobe Reader (pdfs). If not, we can save the file as a pdf. Promise. Your students can open these file types, easily. They’ve been doing it for years.

All of your students know how to record and send video, communicate digitally with each other without email (e.g. text messages, instant messaging, FaceTime), and take and send photos. Many of them have other digital competencies based on their interests. You can permit and evaluate student work produced with these skills even if you don’t share those skills. That is, students can make and send you video (mp4), audio (mp3), or photo (jpeg) files in an email attachment. You’d click on the attachment, then your computer’s default video/audio/photo programs take over. Similarly, students can post their work on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter, and provide links to the work in the body of an email to you. What does all of this mean? It means that presentations and final projects are still on the table in the “email-only remote teaching plan.”

Addressing Your Doubts

But Bethany, the students won’t like it!

First of all, if we force them to do live sessions in Zoom and we aren’t sophisticated enough to run the session effectively (with all the technical malfunctions that inevitably happen), the students will be frustrated. If we force them to do live sessions, and they can’t sign on because the system is over-taxed and they don’t know that and can’t reach you to tell you why they aren’t there, they will feel really frustrated.

Don’t forget that these students have been in-class with you for weeks! They came into your office and saw all your physical books and articles. They remember the trouble you’ve had with the  projector that one time. They’ve noticed how your notes are hand-written! You’ve never written them an email before the crisis! Do you think they are expecting a tech wizard to emerge in the two weeks since they last saw you? Your digital prowess isn’t crucial to student learning. Your relationships with students are.

But Bethany, the discussion isn’t LIVE

Yes. I don’t want to minimize that. It feels great to leave an in-class discussion that went better than you could have hoped. I live for those moments in my teaching.

Even so, discussion is usually the means to an end and not the end itself. Did I want them to discuss because I hoped it would help them to see the complexity of the research question? Did I want them to take a position and defend it? Was the point to give them experiences with civil discourse? Live discussion is a great way to achieve these goals, but it is not the only way.

Whoa. That’s a lot of emails. How will I keep track?

Yup. It’s a lot of emails and, when we include Word docs, slides, and other attachments, it’s a lot of files. That’s what LMS software (Sakai/Canvas) does. It organizes lots of files and information in one central place.

Here’s the thing:  you already have your own organizational approach for keeping track of your students’ submitted work and grades and your course materials. I’m suggesting you continue using that organizational approach. Save the big rehaul and move to Canvas for a less stressful and pressing moment.

My class isn’t a seminar

Everyone thinks that their class is a special case. That teaching in their discipline is different from other disciplines. This model probably won’t work for a handful of classes, but don’t assume yours is one of them! I bet you one bottle of premium hand-sanitizer that we could find a way to teach your class through email in one consultation.

I mentioned presentations and projects above. Exams? You can write them in the text of an email. If you already have a digital file of the test,  you can send it as an attachment. If students need to write out an answer, they can take a photo of their work and send it to you in an email. (But Bethany, they could cheat! Yes, they could cheat in an email, just like they could cheat in Canvas/Sakai. They are smart and digitally savvy. They know how to take screenshots and pull out their devices to check the internet or phone a friend).


You’ve been receiving a lot of messages, both direct and subliminal, that you’ve got to tech-big or go home. Maybe with all the noise, you hadn’t even considered the option of teaching your remote class through email. This is just to say that it is a real, legitimate option. It’s an option you can adopt at any time if you feel overwhelmed by plan A. It just might be the best option for you and your students.

 

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