Internet radically changes the college experience


In the quiet of his office at Newins-Ziegler Hall, University of Florida wildlife ecology and conservation professor Ronald Labisky wades through the massive amount of e-mail he receives

daily. Jon M. Fletcher/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, October 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, September 30, 2002 at 11:54 p.m.

With the exception of test days, University of Florida sophomore Alexa Dix said she didn't go to classes at all last year - an admission that 10 or 15 years ago would have doomed her to the kind of grades no one writes home about.

But with a big assist from computer technology, the 19-year-old biology major said she managed to earn all A's and one B-plus.

"The Internet is extremely helpful," said Dix, of Lake Mary. "All of the information from my classes is available on the Web, including the professors' lecture notes. I didn't go to my classes at all."

While Dix's story may be a bit extreme, there's no doubt that the Internet and e-mail have radically changed the way some college students learn class material and interact with their professors and advisers.

Today, the University of Florida requires faculty members to post their syllabuses online, and many do much more than that, posting lecture notes, bibliographies and links to helpful Web sites.

And instead of dropping by a professor's office hours to ask questions or chat, students are increasingly sending e-mail missives.

"I do everything online or by e-mail," said Melissa Klein, a 24-year-old from Fort Lauderdale who earned her bachelor's degree from UF two years ago, but enrolled in post-baccalaureate pre-veterinary classes this semester.

"It takes a lot of time out of your day to go and see the professor in person," Klein said. "It's a pain in the butt."

Klein said she also thinks some professors "hide behind e-mail" because it gives them more time to think about students' questions than when asked in person.

"It's easier for them to blow you off that way, too," she said, "if that's what they want to do."

Many professors - especially younger professors - welcome the new wave of e-mail interaction, said Richard Hollinger, a sociology professor and his department's computer contact person for faculty.

"I know from talking to my colleagues and looking at my own e-mail that there's a lot more communication between students and faculty members, and I think it's for the better," Hollinger said.

"I think students' schedules sometimes don't correspond with office hours, and if they just have a simple question, it may not be worth a trip to campus," he said.

"A lot of students will come up after class with questions or just drop me an e-mail later."

The faceless nature of e-mail can also open the door for students who may be too shy to ask a question during or after class, said Morgan Pigg, a professor in health science education.

"I've watched this evolve over several years," Pigg said. "Overall, I think e-mail lets in students who otherwise have not felt comfortable speaking up or coming into the office.

"Sometimes, the e-mail interaction becomes an icebreaker, and I'll see that student come into my office later in the course."

But the immediacy of e-mail can also lead to unrealistic expectations from students, Pigg said.

"You look at your messages, and they've sent them at 2 a.m.," he said. "Some of them expect an answer that minute. They'll give you until 6 or 6:30, but then they begin to wonder why you haven't answered them."

"Sometimes students are a little upset that we aren't sitting by our computers at all hours of the day waiting for their questions," Hollinger said.

Especially with large classes, the e-mail convenience for students can stack up to inconvenience for the professor, said Ron Labisky, professor of wildlife ecology and conservation.

"It's convenient, but e-mail is also a pain," Labisky said. "Each day, I'll get between 20 to 80 messages, and it takes me an hour and a half in the morning to clear the deck."

David Julian, a physiology professor, said he prefers not to use e-mail to discuss course materials with students.

"I use the Socratic method, where you answer a question with a question," he said. "After a few exchanges like that on e-mail, I'm sure the student would put his fist through the computer."

Labisky, who said he has been teaching for 47 years, said students are missing out on more than they know when they use e-mail as a communication shortcut.

"Students today don't get to know their professors at all," Labisky said. "Back in the old days, it was important to know the people around you who can help you down the professional path.

"I learned more from my professors sitting in their office and walking across campus with them than I ever did in class," he said. "I think students today are totally missing this, and I think technology is part of that."

FYI: ONLINE TIMELINE

  • FALL SEMESTER, 1992 - Students are able to register for classes online.

  • FEB. 15, 1995 - UF launches its first Web site.

  • FALL SEMESTER, 1996 - UF launches its Integrated Student Information System, which allows tracking of financial aid, registration and academic progress online.

  • 1998 - Students begin applying to UF online.

    FYI: By the numbers

    Asked how many e-mails are sent and received each day on the UF campus, Vice Provost Chuck Frazier wrote, "As of (Monday) morning there were 763 mail systems managed by colleges, departments and centers units, labs, work groups etc.

    "A wild guess in this regard would not be much better than me trying to estimate how many conversations there have been today about Saturday's UF-Kentucky football game."

    On UF's main mail server, he said, on an average weekday, 350,000 to 370,000 e-mail messages are sent and received.

    Carrie Miller can be reached at 338-3103 or millerc@gvillesun. com.

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