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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

It's never too late for e-mail

With professors under pressure to be available to students outside the lecture hall, the Net is becoming an integral part of the education process.

By Caroline Alphonso
The Globe and Mail

As she worked late into the night, Shannon Harwood found herself struggling with a homework assignment. So she sent her professor an e-mail with a question.

To her surprise, a reply landed in her mailbox within half an hour. “It was amazing,” the Queen’s University student said. “When you get to university, you get the whole myth that you're going to be a number. It’s very wrong. The profs really try to be accessible.”

From responding to e-mail to having an open door policy, professors at Queen’s received rave reviews from students for being available outside of classroom hours. Schools such as University of Guelph, Brock University and Wilfrid Laurier University followed closely behind, while larger urban universities got less favourable feedback.

One Queen’s student wrote: “I think that a real effort is made by professors to have an open door policy. In fact, I have talked to a number of them who would like students to drop in more often.” Other students echoed similar sentiments in the University Report Card survey.

But at a time when universities are enrolling more students and the use of e-mail to communicate is growing in popularity, having professors available for one-on-one time will be put to the test. This is especially true for professors at Queen’s, and those at other Ontario institutions, who have seen more students arrive on campus this fall. With the provincial government's move to eliminate Grade 13, twice the number of students graduated from Ontario high schools this past year.

Being able to instantly communicate with students through e-mail has greatly improved the learning environment, but professors admit that their days have now become even more demanding.

Still, Ms. Harwood, a 22-year-old Queen’s biology student, was taken aback at first to see professors in action at the Kingston, Ont., campus. They gave out their home numbers; entertained students in a get-to-know-your-professor night; and one teacher even invited students over for a wine-and-cheese party at his home.

“I’m thoroughly impressed by how approachable our profs are,” she said. “[They are] always there for us - it really is a family setting.”

Chemistry professor William Newstead admits that being available to students can, at times, be overwhelming, especially when trying to leave the university in time to make it home for dinner.

Through the course of a week he receives, and responds to, in the neighbourhood of 200 e-mails. He’s also answering students’ telephone calls and seeing them in his office.

“What I try to do is make myself available pretty much anytime I am not in class,” he said. “It’s sometimes difficult to give students the amount of time that they want. So you'd like to give them as much time as is possible.”

Guelph University president Alastair Summerlee understands all too well the pressure on teachers to make themselves accessible to students.

He acts as a role model for other faculty, having an open-door policy to students. Walking past his office, it’s not unusual to find a student talking with him about an issue or a homework assignment. He tries to keep the e-mails he hasn't responded to down to 10 by the end of the day, understanding the immediacy that is expected with this new technology.

“Teaching and learning exists 24 hours a day. And students tend to operate more toward the end of the day into the next day,” Dr. Summerlee said. “So I start my day at 4 in the morning, answering the overnight questions [on my e-mail]. So when they wake up, there are their answers.” ROBTv Workopolis