21 Carat E-Mail

I have been encouraging my mother to check her e-mail more often, but it has not beeneasy to get her to be a regular. Since she has been in India, she has been checking her e-mail much more often. Her sister has e-mail in the house (as does my mother), which makes communication very easy. In the U.S., phones are so convenient and inexpensive, that they are a natural communication tool. Also, no one is more than a few hours off of your time zone. When in India though, people in the U.S. are 10.5 hours behind, so phoning is often a problem, not to mention it is expensive, and often there is a poor connection. So, e-mail becomes a natural choice. My mother has been e- mailing with my father and others in the U.S. and is quickly becoming more comfortable than she was with multiple computers back home in the U.S.

This evening she was replying to an e-mail my father sent, and pulled me over to ask me a question, “Why do dad’s e-mails always have those nice little things on them?”

“Nice little things,” I wondered? She was talking about carats— > (the greater than symbol). So I explained that the some computer programs put carats to show the original message, and then you write your reply above that area. She was shocked and went on to explain that she has been manually typing them at the start of each line because she thinks they look pretty! My brother and I couldn’t help but laugh. Something which we found so functional was something that was aesthetic to her. This little symbol had never really explained itself.

How does one learn what the conventions of e-mail are without really being explained them. One would have to discover when they appeared and when they didn’t. You might think you would discover it without being told, but think about it: the carats never appear when you type a message. So as far as a new user is concerned, carats are not part of your e-mail system. You do sometimes see them on other peoples’ e-mail (when you reply or forward them, or if you are forwarded something), but you can never cause them to appear. Only once you understand the logic can you necessarily see its usage.

This problem makes me think of how young people communicate with my electronically. Often when students e-mail me it looks like this,

“heyz mr g, whas our hw for tonite, i didnt write it down in class and i don wanna get no points off for being late, k? email me back as sooon as u get this. thx!!!!”

While this is a perfectly valid way of communicating with a 13-year old peer, we must make sure students are able to communicate appropriately online. You often see the same type of thing on electronic bulletin boards used for class discussions. My rules for those are to direct students to more formal writing, rather than social writing. There is a place for each, and we must help students understand those lines. How are people teaching appropriate voice online?

arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (EdTechTalk.com/21cl), a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.