The Marvels of Telematics (Hopkins)

The Marvels of Telematics ...
Electronic Mail for International Advisers

John D. Hopkins
The Advising Quarterly, Winter 1991

Perhaps the most important requirement for effective advising is reliable communications. Consider your advising day. Educational advisers may receive inquiries in fields ranging from circus technology to deep-sea mineral farming. Information and communications problems emerge. Where can you quickly find the information you are asked to provide? How can advisers verify the accuracy of information for fields in which they have never before consulted? And with the increasing demand to provide more specialized information more quickly to the growing numbers wishing to study abroad, how might advisers more efficiently distribute their new knowledge to their clients?

The answers to such questions are being found more frequently through "telematics," the convergence of telecommunications and computerized information technology. Put simply, "telematics" means using the personal microcomputers and ordinary telephone connections with which most advising offices are already equipped to obtain, verify, and distribute information more quickly and less expensively than through traditional manual methods.

Telematics is a freely-available resource with immense potential for educational advisers. Electronic mail (E-mail) enables rapid and flexible communications networking with colleagues at home and abroad. Telematics is also a research tool, enabling one to search databases and electronic library catalogues around the world. Information can be retrieved from remote computer archives, integrated into your documents, and swiftly relayed to clients. Information technology and advising requirements are a perfect marriage of supply and demand.

Personalized telematics could be one of your most powerful and cost-effective resources. More importantly, telematics will be vital to the future information needs of advising work.

NAFSA and OSEAS Support for E-Mail in Advising

International advisers are among the exchange professionals most able to benefit from computer technology, and organizational support is increasingly becoming available to enable advisers to use telematic resources. Since 1988, the Overseas Educational Advisers' "Professional Educators' Group" (OSEAS) in NAFSA: Association of International Educators has appointed regional liaisons to assist with the computerization of advising offices. Local computer training workshops have been sponsored.

The theme of the 1989 OSEAS-Europe Conference in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia was technology in advising work. Of primary interest already then was electronic mail. The telematics theme will be expanded in the 1991 OSEAS-Europe conference. E-mail was also featured in the 1990 conference of the European Association for International Education (EAIE) in Amsterdam, and an extensive schedule of E-mail and other computer training sessions is being planned for the May 1991 NAFSA Conference in Boston. E-mail is a technology of the present, not a dream for the future.

Many advisers are already enthusiastic users of electronic mail. In 1990-1991, NAFSA's MicroSIG group, which provides advice and training on the use of microcomputers in international offices, aims at increasing the E-mail capacity of a broader proportion of the NAFSA community, and assist those already on E-mail to use electronic resources more productively. A NAFSA electronic forum called "Inter-L" is entering its third year, and has established an increasing value as a rapid communications medium for the field of international education.

How can MicroSIG and Inter-L help advisers? How can advisers benefit from electronic mail? The following reviews how E-mail may be used for messages to individuals or groups, queries to electronic discussion forums, and requests for documents from remote computer archives. It describes the equipment needed to use E-mail, and shows how advisers may use individualized telematics to obtain, verify and distribute information.

What Is Electronic Mail, and What Can I Do With It?

Electronic mail (E-mail) is the core of telematics. E-mail is basically the sending of a message from one computer to another. It may be a brief memo typed directly on an E-mail system, or a lengthy document composed earlier with a word-processor and "uploaded" from a micro to an E-mail system for transmission.

E-mail is always in digital, or computerized, format. E-mail is sometimes confused with Telefax. Fax communication, where data on sheets of paper is transmitted by telefax machines through telephone lines, is not "E-mail," though the technology may seem similar. Electronic mail is more versatile. E-mail can often be sent to a fax machine or telex terminal, for offices who are not yet on E-mail but do have a fax or telex. A fax machine can only transmit to other fax machines.

Microcomputers can also be fitted with "fax boards" which enable the micro to both send digital faxes to, and receive them from, other fax boards and dedicated fax machines. Microcomputers can combine communications modes which would otherwise require separate, costly equipment. Micros are amazingly adaptable.

E-mail has two basic functions. An E-mail note may be information for a person using the computer at the receiving end, or it may be a command for the receiving computer itself to perform a task automatically. The latter might be an E-mail retrieval command sent to a remote computer on which documents have been archived. You might tell the computer to send you one (or all) of these documents. First, if you were not already familiar with the archives, you would probably tell it to send you a list of what documents are available for you to get.

How to Retrieve a Document From a Remote Computer Archive

A remote computer archive is one of the services that has been provided by NAFSA's Inter-L since 1988. This service exists now, is free of charge, and is instantly available to any adviser with an EMail connection to the "Internet" — the worldwide network of interconnected E-mail systems. How does it work?

The "home" of Inter-L is "VTVM2" — a computer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. VPI&SU has generously helped NAFSA develop its E-mail communications network. Anyone who sends the three-word E-mail message, "Get Inter-L Filelist," to VTVM2 will receive in return (normally within 2-3 minutes from Finland) a complete list of all document files which have been archived for automatic retrieval from Inter-L.

You would see that one of the files on this list is "NAFSANET Directry" (filenames may have only 8 characters!), the electronic mail addresses of NAFSA members, catalogued by institution and country. If you wished to have a copy of this directory, you would simply send the message "Get NAFSANET Directry" back to VTVM2, and in a few minutes you would have received in your electronic mailbox the entire directory file.

Messages can be sent at any time, independently of local working hours, holidays, or international time zones. VTVM2 operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Whenever it receives a message, it will automatically respond. No human assistance is necessary. Whatever files you request will be sent to your own electronic "mailbox." The next time you check your mailbox (which may be minutes, hours or days later), you will see a note saying "You Have 'X' Mail Messages." You may then proceed to read your E-mail at a time convenient for your schedule.

Advantages of Electronic Mail

Several of the advantages of electronic mail might already be apparent. One is that it is extremely fast, particularly for communications with other countries. A second is that it is largely independent of different world time zones. One no longer has to worry about staying late to phone someone 11 time zones away, only to find the person you want still asleep or in the shower. With E-mail, you send the message when it is convenient for you, and the recipients read and respond when it is convenient for them.

From my office in Finland, I often E-mail requests for information to the U.S. at the end of the day. Finland is 10 hours ahead of California. My request would arrive before the beginning of the working day in San Francisco. A reply might be sent from San Francisco during the day. This response would be waiting in my electronic mailbox when I arrive at my office the next morning.

But the advantages of E-mail are greater than simply speed and convenience. One of the most important benefits is that letters or documents received via E-mail are useable with one's own word- processor. E-mail files arrive in digital (computerized) form, just like the files we create with our word-processors. Unlike with faxed information, where we would need to re-type the data in order to use it in our own documents, an E-mail file can be retrieved into a word-processor, any necessary editing done, and a revised document printed minutes later.

The reverse applies for sending E-mail messages. To send a long word-processed document I have produced, I do not have to print it first, and then spend half an hour feeding pages into a fax machine. I can E-mail the digital file directly from my computer, with significant savings in both my time, and paper and printing costs. I also save the cost of the fax call.

E-mail is also ideal for quick and inexpensive mass distributions: it is as easy to send an E-mail file to 100 persons as it is to send it to one. The E-mail "address" I use may be that of a single user, or it may be a special "list" of an unlimited number of users which I have created and saved. By E-mailing a file to either an individual address or an individual list of many addresses, I can distribute it to either one or many recipients, with no extra time or work.

E-Mail Can Provide Remarkable Cost Savings

E-mail is remarkably cost-effective. As one is actually only sending and receiving small units of electricity, there is an immediate savings of postal costs for paper, envelopes, and stamps. One saves on Fax costs by eliminating printing time and cost, and gaining in the "useability" of the electronic file. Moreover, the telephone connection for E-mail access is usually only a local call, compared to the cost of a direct long-distance or international call required for Fax access.

E-mail is also more precise and cost-efficient than telephone conversations. More (and more accurate) detail can be sent in written, machine-usable form, without the normal telephone time wastage of getting the right person to the phone on the other end, waiting while he searches for the information you need, and then listening to inquiries about the weather or your health while your phone bill is rocketing ever upward.

Sound too good to be true? What in fact does E-mail cost, and what equipment or other resources does one need to use it?

Equipment Needed For Electronic Mail

Beginning an E-mail connection is often simple. If you now have a microcomputer and telephone in your office, you already have most of what you need for E-mail. Only two things are missing: a "modem" to connect the computer and telephone, and "communications software" to send and receive messages. Both modems and software are easily and inexpensively available.

A modem connects your computer to the telephone system. "Modem" is an acronym for "MOdulate/DEModulate." The modem modulates ("changes") the digital signals from your computer into precise sound-signals which are transmitted over a telephone line. At the receiving end, another modem will "demodulate" these sounds back into digital form for the receiving computer.

One can purchase internal modems (which fit inside the computer) or external modems (which stand outside the computer). Both work the same. You connect your modem to the computer, and telephone to the modem. All telephone signals will then go through the modem. The phone will work normally except when you wish to use the modem. Your computer does not need to be turned on for the phone to work normally. You only need to turn on the modem when you wish to use it.

Most modems today have speeds of either 1200bps or 2400bps, with "bps" meaning how many "bits, or pieces of data, per second can be transmitted. A 2400bps modem is preferable for three reasons. At full speed, the transmission time is sigificantly faster and more cost-effective. Even at less than full speed, (2400 bps modems automatically switch to 1200 or 300bps if the "receiving" modem is slower), 2400bps modems have greater accuracy due to their more advanced technology. And the technology of 2400bps modems allows them to operate with both the U.S. "Bell" and international "CCITT" telephone standards, for which separate 1200bps modems might otherwise be necessary.

High-quality 2400bps modems are available in the U.S. for as low as $150.00. Prices may be higher if purchased outside the U.S., or if special models are needed to match your computer or telephone system, though standard modems are usually readily available for all common computer models and telephones.

The communications software enables your computer to use the modem, and allows you to transfer E-mail files between computers. One of the most common communications programs, the "Kermit" software developed by Columbia University in New York, is free, and may usually be obtained from your nearby university computing center or local computer users' group. Commercial communications software includes such names as "ProComm, "SmartCom," and "BitCom." Communications software is often included in the purchase price of a modem.

Connection to an Electronic Mail System

Once you have the necessary hardware and software, you will need to subscribe to an electronic mail service system. Such systems are the physical structures which connect all the different computers and individual users into a unified network, just as telephone company services connect individual phone users. Depending on your country and institutional affiliation, there may be a variety of systems and costs from which to choose.

The backbone of international electronic mail systems is the "Internet," a combination of thousands of different, individual E-mail systems which use the same technical standards and may all exchange messages with each other. Since the Internet is predominately a university-based network for the exchange of teaching and research data, university-based advisers will usually be able to establish an E-mail connection very easily. In principle, anyone in a university may obtain Internet access just by asking for it (if you already have a computer to connect), and the service is completely free. E-mail users do not have to pay for either incoming or outgoing messages.

One's electronic mailbox has a unique name on one of the systems connected to the Internet, such as Bitnet/EARN, NetNorth, GulfNet, Arpanet, or UUCP. Sometimes mailboxes have alternate "names." My mailbox address is "Hopkins@FINFUN (FINland; Finnish University Network)" on EARN (the European Academic & Research Network), or "Hopkins@CSC.FI" (CSC = Center For Scientific Computing, the Finnish National SuperComputing Center; and FI = Finland) on the Internet. The "@" sign means "at" in E-mail addressing. "Hopkins@FINFUN" means (and is pronounced as) the mailbox of "user" Hopkins "at" the FINFUN computer.

Most OSEAS advisers currently on E-mail are university-based, and have free access through an academic network. However, a number of Fulbright Advising Offices have established "guest" accounts through a nearby university, which provides the account to the Fulbright Commission either free of charge or at very low cost.

If your advising office works closely with local universities or the Ministry of Education (which often subsidize national university E-mail networks), it is worth checking whether a guest account can be established. This may be the simplest and least expensive way of connecting into an E-mail system.

Commercial Electronic Mail Services

There are also commercial E-mail services, available through private corporations or national Postal and Telecommunications Authorities. Regardless of who provides the service, as long as it has a "bridge" to the Internet, it should function perfectly for all E-mail functions. The only differences will be user cost and ease of operation.

The services of telecommunications corporations such as MCI Mail, Telenet, and CompuServe are also available outside the U.S. One might subscribe, for example, to CompuServe, which would provide you an individual electronic mailbox on its international network for a small subscription fee (currently $10 monthly outside the U.S., free inside the U.S.). You could connect to this mailbox to send or receive E-mail, using your computer and modem, from almost any telephone in any country.

CompuServe and other such corporations may offer "on-line services" in addition to basic E-mail. One may access databases and special-interest bulletin boards, make airline reservations, purchase goods to be delivered by mail to your home from on-line catalogs, or check international news and weather or the latest currency exchange rates. Educational resources such as the Peterson's College Guides are also available on CompuServe; the Guides can be searched and the desired information retrieved.

Each such service would have an on-line fee, billed monthly to your account, based on the number of minutes you used it. On top of the user-time charges and basic subscription fee would be the cost of your phone connection to the service itself.

If one only uses electronic mail, and not the on-line services, the costs are low. One pays only for the outgoing messages that one sends, not for incoming messages others send to you (or documents which you request to be sent). Costs of outgoing messages are low, pennies per page.

E-mail messages may take many forms. Basic E-mail may be sent to persons at other electronic mailboxes to read, or to computers as requests to send you something. Some systems also allow E-mail messages to be sent to fax machines or telex terminals, for offices who are not yet on E-mail but do have a fax or a telex. E-mail communications are amazingly adaptable.

Your national Postal and Telecommunications Authority (PTL) can advise you what E-mail systems are available in your country. Nearby university computing centers and local banks, businesses, and computer users' clubs may also be of help.

MicroSIG, though a project with the International Office of the University of Michigan, is currently cataloging E-mail connection information for countries outside the U.S., and this catalog will be made available to NAFSA and OSEAS.

The NAFSA "Inter-L" Electronic Forum

Once you have established an E-mail connection, you may wish to subscribe to the "Inter-L" electronic forum run by MicroSIG for NAFSA. Inter-L is completely free of cost, and open to any international educator or adviser, whether or not a member of NAFSA or OSEAS. And what is "Inter-L," you might ask? xInter-L is a "list-server" running on the Bitnet/EARN system on the "VTVM2" computer at VPI&SU. A list-server is a computer program that automatically manages the distribution of mail to a certain "list" of subscribers. The E-mail address of the "listserver" itself is "Listserv@VTVM2" (remember, 8 characters, thus no "e" on "Listserv"). The list-server software can manage dozens of different lists simultaneously. The E-mail address of the Inter-L list is "Inter-L@VTVM2".

To join the Inter-L list, just send a short E-mail message to "Listserv@VTVM2" saying "SUB Inter-L your name." The VTVM2 listserver software would then automatically add your name to the Inter-L list. From then on, any message sent to "Inter-L@VTVM2" would automatically be distributed to ALL subscribers on the Inter-L list (currently over 400 individuals).

Recipients of your message may choose to respond only and directly to you (your E-mail address is automatically provided by the system when you send a message) or else back to the list, in which case all 400 subscribers (including you) would get the response(s) as well as the original message.

The names and E-mail addresses of all persons subscribed to the list can be retrieved from the listserver at any time. By selecting from these individual addresses (or those of others who are on E-mail but not on this list) you are able either to mail separate messages to individual(s) on the list, or mail one message to the entire list.

Inter-L can be very useful for advisers' questions. A client may ask for advice on a field which is new to you. "Where can one study this? What are the requirements and costs?" The answers are not in your reference books. Your client needs the answers quickly. Where do you turn for help?

You could send these questions to Inter-L — to be distributed to the entire subscription list. The chances are good that some of the 400+ Inter-L readers, who are experienced exchange advisers with different specialties, would know the answer and respond. The next day you may have 15 responses to your questions, from which you can compare and combine the results, and pass them on to your colleagues and clients. Should you wish to verify your synthesis of the different responses, one command could relay your interpretation back to the 15 "experts" for comment.

Such querying of a list of "electronic colleagues" may often be the only practical means of determining or verifying quickly information that is new or recently-revised, or details which are unavailable in standard educational exchange references. Further, the value of such rapid networking for planning regional workshops or publishing (electronic?) newsletters is obvious.

Standard Services Provided by Inter-L

What standard services does Inter-L provide? Each week NAFSA prepares for Inter-L a "Weekly Update," a summary of governmental activity related to international exchange, pending legislation, proposed and actual changes in immigration and visa regulations, news from the USIA and State Department, and interpretations of and answers to often-asked government regulations questions. These Updates arrive in Inter-L subscriber mailboxes seconds after they leave Washington. Much of the information will not be published, for reasons of time and cost, in paper forms such as the NAFSA Newsletter.

U.S. State Department Travel Advisories are posted and updated regularly for countries where travel may be endangered. Inter-L is also a forum for job openings, announcements of forthcoming conferences, calls for grant proposals, and other information of general interest to NAFSAns.

But perhaps the main value is the rapid information "networking" enabled by E-mail and the Listserv. Advisers may ask about credentials equivalencies, check the status of "unknown" institutions, receive news of personnel or fax number changes the different universities or sponsoring agencies, or relay information quickly in emergency situations, such as with China in June 1989, or more recently with Kuwaiti and other students from the Persian Gulf area.

Inter-L also archives dozens of reference documents in a broad range of international education fields which can be retrieved at any time of the day or night. These include the NAFSANet and NAFSAFax directories, taxation guidelines for foreign students and scholars, and contact information for some 500 overseas advisers in the OSEAS Advisory Database. Further documents of general interest are being added continuously.

An electronic archive such as Inter-L's also would be very useful for the specialized subject-field and other advising documents in demand by advising offices worldwide. It is possible that the near future will include an "OSEAS-L" list, or a series of lists specialized by advising fields or geographic regions.

E-Mail and Telematics in Future Advising

Electronic mail is the foundation of telematics. E-mail is a powerful resource, yet simple and inexpensive to use. By helping advisers obtain and distribute more information more efficiently, it enables the advising profession to serve more capably.

More importantly, telematics is vital to the future of advising. Resources such as the TRACE (Trans-Regional Academic Mobility and Credential Evaluation Information Network) database, which is already in operation, assume (and require) an E-mail capability for access. Powerful telematic resources of the future, such as the NAFSA "KnowledgeBase," may be available only by direct electronic connection. E-mail is already of significant value for advisers, but in future an increasing amount of the best and quickest information may not be available except by E-mail.

Electronic mail and telematics are tools on which much of our future advising work will be based. Our preparation for this future should begin in the present, by enabling E-mail to become one of your most effective advising resources.

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