CTI Textual Studies
Q & A

I n t e r d i s c i p l i n a r y

Q I am thinking about using an email discussion list or a newsgroup for a course but I don't know much about the details. Can you help?

A Lecturers who create discussion groups for a particular course usually do it in one of two ways. The first is to use an email discussion group based around a piece of software like Listserv or Majordomo, the second is to create a local USENET group.

Listserv and Majordomo are much the same in their functions. Both are software which usually sit on your institution's mail server and both are designed to manage an email discussion group. An email discussion group is simply a list of names and email addresses held in a database and read by the listserv software. The list of addresses have a name - the name of the email discussion group. All email sent to the group is then forwarded onto each member of the list. Individuals can respond to postings and thus a conversation ensues. Every email group has a listserv address to which users can send commands such as 'subscribe' or 'unsubscribe', and each email group has a listowner who is responsible for the running of the list.

If, for example, you were to set up a local discussion group for teaching Scottish literature then you would first think of a name for the group let's say SCOTLIT. You would submit this name to the local manager of the Listserv software (perhaps the Postmaster@your.institution.ac.uk) who would create the group with you as its listowner. You might then write a short welcome message which could be sent out automatically to new subscribers. Once it's in place your students could send a message to an address like majordomo@your.institution.ac.uk with the words 'subscribe SCOTLIT Roberta Burns' and have their email address automatically added to the group. Alternatively, it is possible for you as listowner to manually add email addresses to the group (or mailing list) with a similar set of commands.

The advantage of something like Majordomo or Listserv is that it usually archives all postings sent to a particular group. It is also quite easy for students to subscribe themselves (and leave if necessary). Another advantage used by others who have set up classroom discussion lists is that it would be possible to invite scholars from outside your institution to join the list - as guest contributors perhaps; or maybe consider a joint project with colleagues within another department or at another institution. Being able to discuss a recommended book by email with its author could be quite an experience for some students (and for the author)!

There are plenty of other commands associated with Majordomo and Listserv but most are to do with retrieving archived messages and files associated with the group. The disadvantages are that every student will require an email address; your email increases as students write to both you and the list; you have to do some maintenance of the list (removing email addresses which bounce etc).

USENET or Newsgroups are slightly different. Whereas Listserv sends all list contributions to an individual's email inbox to read newsgroup messages an individual usually has to 'login' in somewhere else (i.e. the messages are all stored on a central server). It is relatively simple to set up a local newsgroup for a particular topic though you would need to speak to your local newsgroup manager about it. It would normally have a name something like 'local.courses.scotlit'. The advantage is that there is no maintenance involved for you. The disadvantage is that some students might forget to check the newsgroup whilst being quite happy to check their personal email. Also, noone from outside your institution will be able to contribute to a local newsgroup.

I hope I haven't confused you further. Please reply with any questions you have. I would recommend you have a look at how Prof Jim O'Donnell has used a combination of email discussion lists and the World Wide Web to teach his courses on Augustine and Boethius. He explains it all at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/teachdemo/


Q & A

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HTML Author: Sarah Porter
Document created: 12 May 1997
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The URL of this document is http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/enquiry/lit01.html