A study of communications between subject matter experts and individual students in electronic mail contexts



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This study examines the nature of exchanges between subject matter experts and individual students when using electronic mail for educational discourse on specific curriculum-related topics. Teams were selected from those that communicated using the Electronic Emissary between February 1993 and December 1999. A team is defined as a group of people who exchanged at least ten messages about a curriculum-related topic, and is comprised of a subject matter expert, a teacher, a student, and an on-line facilitator. A collaborative process based on qualitative analysis of message functions/speech acts was conducted on exchanged electronic mail. Frequency of occurrence of each type of exchange was calculated, and patterns of exchanges by participants, according to their participant roles and over time, were charted. After message function/speech acts were determined, informant-centered, semi-structured interviews of all team members who could be contacted were conducted. This added participants’ perspectives of the process of Emissary-facilitated interchange to the previously identified patterns of flow and functions, thus creating a richer understanding of one-to-one telementoring. Themes that emerged included the effects participants’ schedules can have on their communication habits, how different age groups have different priorities and schedules, how technical circumstances influences communications, and how participants’ roles shifted during discourse. The younger students were more available for open-ended discourse and had the time to sustain the communications. These sustained exchanges evolved into substantial mentoring relationships. The project-based matches remained question-and-answer dialogs and the participants were less satisfied with their experiences. The willingness of participants to shift roles had a major impact on the quality of discourse. When one or more of the primary roles were absent, the match, while still successful, suffered in some form. As the Internet and other telecommunications media become more accessible and affordable in the home, exchanges involving students using electronic mail to communicate with subject matter experts will become more commonplace. It is important to understand this individualized exchange dynamic. These results could be used to enhance communication and learning opportunities by classroom teachers and home schooling parents who want to provide subject matter experts as mentors for individual students.