There are plenty of enhancements to such a use of e-mail lists. If you require students to have accounts and participate, you can then think of ways to transfer some discussion from the classroom to the e-mail list. Some people will find e-mail daunting at first, but there are always others who have found the traditional classroom daunting and only find their voice when in the perhaps less threatening atmosphere of e-mail. This can be particularly useful in very large courses where discussion in the classroom is hard to begin and sustain. Best in this case to have very specific assignments that don't overlap classroom work, and to be persistent about encouraging participation.
Second, what several faculty have found useful is to require students to submit written work to be read by the whole class, working this into the term schedule. Of particular value is to encourage written exercises that respond to other students' writing. (So, for example, assign two short papers several weeks apart, and require that the second paper be written in response to another student's first paper.) In this way, the act of "writing a paper" becomes a real exercise in communicating with one's peers. If a respondent misreads a student's paper, the author of the original paper then has a precious new motivation for improving his or her work -- not to live up to the lofty expectations of a professor, but to get through to a real live audience. The teacher in this situation becomes a collaborator, not a judge.
Third, bringing some of the discussion out onto the network makes it possible to imagine linking different classrooms of students. Suppose there were a Shakespeare course and a dramaturgy course going on simultaneously at Penn -- why not have two or four weeks of term when those two groups of students would be reading similar texts and discussing them with each other in this medium?
Fourth, you can create new opportunities for TA's (teaching assistants) to work with their students effectively. Each TA in a large course could have his/her own list for contact with students; but there could also be one large list common to the course, and TA's could take turns as "duty officer" monitoring that list and responding to queries. This would improve communication and use TA time efficiently; moreover, the senior instructor could monitor that list, see the most frequently asked questions, and adjust plans for spending class time accordingly.
A TIP: Send your TA's to work through this page and encourage them to think of further ways to enhance their contributions to your courses.
Fifth, there is an almost infinite number of such lists in operation all over the world, covering a myriad of topics. Many are all noise and no signal, but some are of quite high quality and interest. My favorites are CLASSICS, MEDTEXTL (medieval literary/textual studies), IOUDAIOS (Judaism of the first century of the Common Era, with particular reference to Philo and Josephus -- a curiously cumbersome designation until you realize that this is the tent in which the serious students of New Testament-era culture and history have chosen to inhabit, while other lists with names like NT-GREEK are more popular with a less scholarly audience. For Renaissance students, there's FICINO, for French literature BALZAC-L, there are many many history lists, there's a list associated with the ongoing on-line collection of ancient and medieval texts dealing with music and music theory run by Thomas Mathiesen at Indiana, CAAH caters to art historians, PMC-Talk to students of "postmodern culture" of all stripes in conjunction with the e-journal "Postmodern Culture", and so on down to the most specialized lists like ADORNO, PAGLIA-L (ugh!), and SLLING-L (for persons interested in the linguistics of sign language). How to find lists in your field.
There are several applications for such lists:
Go on for information resources from the Internet or go back to the start of this guide to new tools for teaching.