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Electronic mail: Is it intrusive or invisible?

Anne Russell
Department of Communication and Resource Studies
Queensland University of Technology
This is the saga of how thirty qualified teachers came to grips with using Keylink during their full time post graduate teacher-librarianship course. The experience was intended to introduce the participants to technological change. It should also give them confidence in using an unfamiliar technology in an educational situation.

A participant must go through six stages before the technology becomes non intrusive and mental concentration can be directed toward creative application of 'invisible' technology to educational needs.

The Keylink project also provided an educational activity to promote International Literacy Year in schools. About three hundred children in at least thirty schools became involved in the project.

Information and technology

Access to information is power.
And since knowledge is power in liberal ideology, the information revolution fulfils two of the prerequisites of a democratic state: freedom of information and growth of literacy (Brants, 1989: 93).

To have access to information one needs to overcome the mental barrier of using the technology. Techniques for seeking information through indexes to books, electronic data bases, and other resources should become automatic. Technological phobia often makes technology or equipment intrusive and prevents some individuals from fully participating in the information of their culture.

Technology has changed the shape of time, space and culture. New transportation and communications technologies have altered our sense of distance. Information technology has distinctly influenced our sense of the present, the latter being no longer limited to one event in one place, sandwiched tightly between past and future and limited to local surroundings. (Brants, 1989: 81)

Electronic mail provides one method of communication using technology. Messages arrive immediately they are sent and wait for a convenient time for the receiver to read the message. "Computer conferencing systems are offering a 'time and space independent' way of communication." (Romiszowski & de Hass, 1989:8)

In order to cope with future sources of information today's children should be exposed to current hardware and software to access information. The library or resource centre can provide a gateway for reaching well beyond the local school environment. Murr and Williams look to the time when "Library," as a place, will give way to "library" as a transparent knowledge network providing "intelligent" services to business and education through both specialised librarians and emerging information technologies (1987:7).

Teacher-librarians and information technologies

Teacher-librarians, as information specialists, have a responsibility to teach their students how to access information from a wide variety of sources. Telecommunication technologies in the form of computers, modems, telephone lines and computer software provide just one source for connecting people with information.
Telecommunication sophistication will, more than any other single element, make or break the prototypical library of the future. (Murr Williams, 1989:19)

It is a responsibility of the teacher- librarian to understand how telecommunications technologies operate. They also need to know how to apply this knowledge to the school curriculum.

Learning technological processes

"For most teachers, 'educational technology' still implies devices - hardware and associated software" (Kerr, 1989:7). It is necessary for a teacher to realise some educational value for using the technology before it will become part of an instructional strategy. Meanwhile, teachers are feeling pressure to introduce students to computers and their use in the world beyond the school.

Learning to use technology can be a debilitating experience, however, the use of technology to access information is important. "Technology should be the means by which teachers and students are able to feel more empowered and in control of their lives" (Valdez, 1989: 38).

At the early stages of using technology to access or present information a teacher tends to be overwhelmed with the hardware and software - it is intrusive. Only after mastering the hardware can creative planning for meaningful learning experiences move to the forefront. Marker and Ehman found teachers cannot be expected to

learn how specific technologies (electronic mail, modems, learning circles) work, and invent their classroom applications at the same time, without wholesale confusion and frustration by many (1989:28).

In a project using Telecom's electronic mail system Keylink, adults learned to use and apply technological systems to communicate with children.

The project

Teachers and students used a Keylink based project Characters-on-Line devised by Jenny Gallaghan of the Queensland Education Department.

This project provided experiences with electronic mail and was implemented through the Teacher-Librarianship Course at Queensland University of Technology, Kelvin Grove Campus.

Thirty qualified teachers commenced full time study for the Graduate Diploma of Education (Teacher-Librarianship) at Brisbane College of Advanced Education (now Queensland University of Technology). Part of their Media Production and Use unit involves use of Keylink to communicate with school children. The Characters-on-Line project provided an excellent opportunity to practice using Keylink.

Teachers and teacher-librarians in schools throughout Queensland were advised the project could be used to promote literacy in this International Literacy Year. Within eight weeks of the commencement of the school year almost 30 schools from all over Queensland, and one from New South Wales, had used Keylink for students to send letters to Wilbur the pig. Wilbur is a character from Charlotte's Web, a popular primary school fiction book by E B White.

Messages with questions from students were sent to a dedicated Keylink mail box and the teacher-librarianship participants responded to the letters as the character of Wilbur. The questions and answers were uploaded to a Bulletin Board which was available to any interested Keylink user.

Selecting the participants

During the first week of the course a lecture to explain and demonstrate electronic mail and Keylink was given to the thirty participants. Only 10% of the participants claimed to have heard of electronic mail before this lecture!

At the conclusion of the lecture six female participants volunteered to be members of the first group to explore the technology and use Keylink to communicate with children. The remainder of the class opted for introductory sessions on word processing.

As expected, the group of six were all somewhat computer literate and had varying degrees of word processing skills. Three owned a computer and one had her own modem. This was a great advantage as there were difficulties accessing Keylink in the early stages.

Later in the semester these six participants wrote a users manual and instructed the next group who took on the role of another character. By the end of the semester all participants had experience at least three weeks of Keylink interaction.


The Mathematics Department provided a laboratory with fifteen terminals connected to a mini computer and one modem access for the Department and this laboratory.

During the first week of classes five hours were timetabled in the laboratory where word processing and Keylink access were demonstrated. The six participants were encouraged to prepare and send messages. It was suggested they work as a team to learn skills and devise strategies for communicating in the role of a Pig.

Excitement was high and the participants decided Wilbur would arrive earlier than advertised as they were keen to make meaningful use of the technology. Sending and receiving letters was exciting.


A week ahead of time the following message was put on the Bulletin Board in response to an expression of interest from several schools:

Wilbur is so radiant about the enthusiasm shown by your response 
that he has decided to leave his manure pile earlier than 
expected ("some pig").~

He would love to receive your letters as soon as possible.
The first set of questions and response follows:
Posted: Fri Feb 23, 199012:37 PM EST M:sg: MJJA-1994-5484
From: ILY.PO
To: ss.bohlevale.std
Subj: wilbur answers

We have some questions for you Wilbur.~

What's it like in a manure pile?~

What's it like being chased by lots of farmers?~

What do you get for dinner?~

What's it like being a pig?~

When and what were you given for the fourth meal?~

How did you like it with so many people around?~

What's it like leaving Fern?~

What's it like being sold to Mr. Zuckerman?~

Did you like it in the muddy pig pen? ~

Dear Daniel, Ben and Thomas,~

So nice to hear from you. It's good to be in Queensland and to 
meet lots of new friends. The manure pile was warm, comfortable, 
good to lie on and especially good to jump 

I didn't like being chased by the farmers; I was scared and 
frightened and all my friends were confusing me with all their 

Mostly for dinner I get slops. They're delicious, and I 
especially like the days when I get warm milk, potato skins, 
toasted cornflakes and wheat middlings.~

Being a pig is fun, you get to lie in the manure pile, get fed, 
and meet new friends in the barn.~

I enjoyed having so many people around as I was lonely when I had 
few friends.~

I didn't mind leaving Fern as she is really always with me in my 

I was a little sad and lonely at first, but then Fern came to see 
me quite often, and I did get to know Charlotte, which you know 
was a very important part of my life.~

I was given milk and slops for my fourth meal, I think. (When you 
get to my age, your brain is not as reliable as it used to be.)~

I liked the muddy pig pen, it was my home and I didn't like being 
away from it.~

Well, I sure enjoyed talking to you, hope I have answered your 
questions. Please get in touch if you have any more.~

Bye for now,~

After the initial responses the participants became less conscious of the technology and their correspondence became more interactive as they asked questions of the students which required follow up letters to Wilbur.

Some restraints

The participants were studying full time and heavily committed to preparation of assignments for other units of work. The Keylink project appeared to take extra time and effort. Certainly extra mental effort was required to learn new skills and understand the technology, this involved continuous hours of concentrated time.

In the schools a program was already in operation. Especially in the secondary schools it was difficult for teachers to adjust their timetable to accommodate a non-programmed fiction book. Primary teachers needed longer time notification to introduce students to the book and arrange letters to be written to a particular characters.

Many schools did become heavily involved in the project and arranged themes around the selected book. Several libraries produced a spider web and attached Keylink responses to the web for the children to find.

In these cases it was often the school secretary who had the pleasure of sending the messages and receiving the responses. Some children were not fully aware of the intervention of the computer and operation of Keylink.

The results

The Teacher-Librarianship participants wrote of their experiences and ideas for possible educational uses of electronic mail. Some responses showed the students had not moved beyond a concern with the technology itself. The Technology was still intrusive. Other students experienced excitement and anticipation of further curriculum applications for electronic mail. The technology was invisible.

Of the initial group of six participants, three were still excited about the project after six weeks of accessing Keylink. Initially these participants were 'phased' by the project and there were technological teething problems which only stimulated these individuals to rise to the challenge. They now find Keylink easy to use and the technology has become transparent.

The use of Keylink to communicate with students provided meaningful interactions and the use of this technology has already been transferred to other technological situations. One participant has gained confidence and overcome her 'computer phobia'. Another said it still allowed her to communicate with children even though she was attending full time study.

The other three participants could not cope with the technological problems and lack of direct constant guidance. They maintain the technology gets in the way and the experience was not worthwhile for them or for the school students.

For these participants, facsimile is a better medium, with its ability to instantly send messages which are immediately received in the school. In addition, appropriate formatting and children's drawings can be sent with the written message. Another failing of the Keylink system, in their minds, is the access within the school. Normally the modem and computer are located in the administration office where the secretary types and receives the messages at her convenience. The children are not involved in the technology.

In some schools this equipment is available in the Resource Centre and students directly access the electronic mail system as part of the educational curriculum where they explore communication systems and technology in society.


Valdez identifies "three stages that most people experience when learning to use technology for educational improvement" (1989:37). They are "awareness", "adoption" and "refinement/adaptation". The current research suggests six stages adult learners experience as the technology moves from the intrusive to the invisible:
Stage 1: Awareness

Stage 2: Learning the process

Stage 3: Understanding and application of the process

Stage 4: Familiarity and confidence

Stage 5: Adaptation to other contexts

Stage 6: Application to new contexts

Stage 1: Awareness

Information about electronic mail and an explanation of Keylink was presented. Only 10% of the participants had heard of Electronic Mail.

Some felt bewildered, fearful and concerned about their compulsory involvement in hands on use of Keylink. Others were eager to become involved. At this stage they became aware of some possible uses for electronic mail.

Stage 2: Learning the process

The time consuming process of assimilating new information and mastering new skills epitomised this stage. Instructions were often misleading for the novice who did not understand the process .

Frustrations with technology failure rendered the equipment intrusive in the eyes of the user. The technology overpowered the curriculum application.

Some participants, without extensive computer experiences behind them, were afraid of damaging equipment. Others, in hindsight, enjoyed this challenge and persevered to ably move beyond this stage. There was general agreement that the benefit of working with a team was extremely important. Moral support was essential.

Stage 3: Applying the process

Everyone reached this stage. Though 10% did not seem to fully understand what was really happening - they learned to follow instructions.

At this stage the rigorous following of instructions is relaxed as the participant began to understand what was happening and realise the meaning behind the instructions.

Stage 4: Familiarity and confidence

The technology became transparent as the participant felt the sense of satisfaction and excitement which comes with successful achievement. Problems were no longer major distracters, they became "hiccups".

Stage 5: Adaptation to other contexts

Now the participant reached new understanding with confidence to move from concern about the technology to thoughtful creative applications for educational purposes.

Experiences learned are transferred to other contexts. One participant reported a new sense of confidence when she assisted school children as they learned a word processing package; especially as this was a package she had not experienced herself.

Stage 6: Application to new contexts

This stage will be reached by those participants who use electronic mail in the future to satisfy an educational problem.

Knowledge that success has been reached in the use of this previously unknown technology will empower the participant to explore the educational potential of new technologies as they appear on future horizons.


Teacher-Librarians are increasingly finding themselves using computers for access to information. Some have automated library circulation systems, others are looking to CD-ROM data bases being readily available to their students. The use of a computer with a modem to communicate over distance is a technique for taking learners beyond the confines of their physical school environment.

The experience with Keylink has been a success for the Teacher-Librarianship participants and also for the teachers and children who took part in the project. The participants are aware of electronic mail and many of them are looking forward to implementing their educational ideas in the future. They also have an understanding of how to explore new technologies and most will be willing to participate in educational innovations involving technology.

Schools participating in the project have developed related themes of work and extended the learning experiences to areas beyond characters in the novels.

Does technology intrude upon the process of communication? For some participants the technology was difficult to manipulate and their whole mind was immersed in trying to 'do it right' rather than explore the educational implications. The technology remained intrusive.

There are a number of stages individuals need to go through before technology becomes invisible and creative applications can be incorporated into the educational curriculum. Once these stages have been transgressed the benefits of the new technologies can be applied for the benefit of learners.

In the future the technological innovation may not be electronic mail, but another technological application which will need to be explored before it automatically becomes incorporated within the educational environment.


Brants, K. (1989). The social construction of the information revolution. European Journal of Communication, 4, 79-97.

Kerr, S. T. (1989). Technology, teachers, and the search for school reform. Educational Technology Research and Development, 37(4), 5-17.

Marker, G. and Ehman, L. (1989). Linking teachers to the world of technology. Educational Technology, 29(3), 26-30.

Murr, L. E. and Williams, J. B. (1987). The roles of the future library. Library Hi Tech, 5, 7-23.

Romiszowski, A. J. and de Hass, J. A. (1989). Computer mediated communication for instruction: Using email as a seminar. Educational Technology, 29(10), 7-14.

Valdez, G. (1989). Mind over machine: Lessons learned from staff development efforts. Educational Technology, 29(3), 36-38.

Author: Dr Anne Russell, Department of Communication and Resource Studies, Queensland University of Technology.

Please cite as: Russell, A. (1990). Electronic mail: Is it intrusive or invisible? In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 108-115. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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