“I don’t know if this is true or not, but I received this message from a reliable source. Bill Gates is going to give $100 to everyone who forwards this message to someone they know.”

This turned up in my eMail in-box last week—right below another message about some kid in a coma who would get a hefty donation from a well-known company based on the success of a chain letter. Both of these messages had come from students, and both were sent to the entire school address book, including faculty and administration. I scrolled down through my eMail to find the obligatory complaints from faculty about student spam and one or two messages questioning why students should be given access to eMail at all.

This is a question I’ve had to look into recently at the request of our headmaster, after we uncovered several cases of eMail abuse in a short period of time. While the examples above are relatively innocent, we were beginning to see more serious issues of safety and security threatened by inappropriate use of eMail.

Specifically, we began to realize that some students were using the eMail system to circumvent the internet filtering system on our network. They would access the internet from home and download material that would have been blocked by our filter. Then they would eMail that material to themselves at school, where they could distribute it to other students.

Our concern over this situation quickly grew to alarm when several students complained to me about getting eMail containing sexually explicit material from an unknown person with a Hotmail address. In the end, it turned out that the owner of the Hotmail address was a student who was posing as someone from outside the school, but we didn’t know this at the time.

Because the person seemed to know some specific details about our students, we were immediately concerned for their safety. This prompted the headmaster to ask me to examine how students and faculty were using the eMail system and to evaluate the appropriateness of a policy which grants all students access to eMail.

The first step in my investigation was to poll teachers about how often they use eMail with their students, and how beneficial it was to them to be able to communicate with students through eMail. As it turned out, a significant percentage of our teachers do make use of the eMail system to communicate with their students. Some send their classes links to web sites or homework assignments. Others share PowerPoint presentations that they have used in class. Our ESL teacher requires his students to eMail him a note in English every day, and many teachers accept work from their students submitted by eMail. Additionally, students benefit from the ability to eMail documents to themselves to work on at home.

Despite these very useful applications, the student eMail system is also a significant source of wasted time and outright abuse. A casual observation of the lab indicates that the majority of student eMail traffic consists of personal notes and forwarded jokes, pictures, and hyperlinks. While this is not necessarily harmful, I question the educational benefits of these uses, and then I wonder about the money we spent on the eMail system and internet access.

Often, the biggest traffickers of frivolous eMail are the students who can least afford to do so. I once stood behind two students whose time could have been better employed studying and watched them exchange eMail for about a half an hour insulting each other’s mothers. What amazed me the most was that these students were sitting right next to each other.

Now, I suppose there is a school of thought that I don’t entirely disagree with, which says that sharing thoughts (or mother jokes) in writing rather than out loud helps develop writing skills, despite the informal diction and grammatical errors. While I haven’t seen any research in support or opposition of this concept, I can see how forcing someone to slow down to translate a thought into writing might result in better communication skills. Working without the benefit of tone and inflection inherent in oral communication must at least force clarity of thought, if not perfect grammar and diction.

While some benefits may exist, speculation of a marginal educational value does not, in my opinion, justify these frivolous student uses of eMail. In addition to taking the student’s time away from subjects he might be struggling in, it also prevents other students who have real work to do from using that computer. In an attempt to curb this type of activity, we considered several different options.

The first option was to deny all students access, and to use eMail for faculty and administrative communication only. This was certainly the easiest solution, but we decided against it for a number of reasons. Since many of our students do not have computers at home, we are their only source of exposure to technology, and we felt strongly that students should learn how to use this tool appropriately before moving on to college. Many of the teachers we polled also felt strongly that the ability to eMail their students was of great value to them. Additionally, we have a number of students whose parents live in other countries, and eMail is the most convenient way for them to stay in touch.

Several other solutions we looked into included granting access to juniors and seniors only, restricting underclassmen to local eMail only, and assigning eMail accounts upon faculty request only. Each of these ideas was rejected due to the enormous management overhead that would go along with tracking which students were supposed to have access, as well as the coordination of training for small groups of students on the proper use of the eMail system. Also, the teachers who use eMail regularly teach both lower and upper classmen.

We were further able to identify a number of non-academic uses of eMail which were perfectly appropriate. These included eMailing teachers to ask for a letter of recommendation, eMailing the registrar for a copy of a transcript, or corresponding with a parent during the workday.

As a way to reduce student spam, we considered restricting students from using the “send to all” feature in our eMail system, but we decided not to do this, either. While some faculty members find it annoying to receive unsolicited eMail from students, I have done my best to convince them that this type of expression of ideas to a large audience is exactly what students need to better prepare them for the use of the internet in the future.

Students are taught that chain letters and messages not pertinent to the entire community are inappropriate. I encourage students to make announcements about sporting events and club meetings, but perhaps the most interesting use of this feature of the system has been the ability for students to open discussions of issues that concern the entire community, such as racism, security, and behavior.

While mass mailings like these don’t generally spawn extensive discussions, they do force the student to put a fair amount of thought into his point. By sending the message to faculty and administration as well as his peers, the student opens himself to challenges and rebuttals from a wide variety of sources. In this way, the eMail system levels the playing field between students and teachers. Arguments can be judged on their merit and not on the age of the person presenting them. This is a big part of what makes the internet such a powerful tool.

In the end, we decided to keep our current policy of giving all freshmen an eMail account at the beginning of the school year. We chose to focus more on the ways that eMail should—and should not—be used in the Intro to Computers course that all freshmen take. The adults in the computer lab have also been instructed to be more vigilant in reprimanding students about frivolous use of eMail.

While I am sure that we will continue to have abuses, I’m also sure that we will continue to reap the benefits—both academically and socially—that our eMail system provides to our students and community.