Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Email and the Void

I’ve worked at several different colleges now, and at every single one, I’ve heard the same discussion.  It goes like this:

“Why don’t students use their college-provided email?”

“Maybe if we forced them to, like by making important things available only that way…”

“But that could impact enrollment and retention.”

“Can’t they set their emails to forward to whatever address they actually use?”

“Yes, but they don’t.”

“Maybe if we texted them…”

For a while, many students didn’t have internet access outside of class.  At this point, though, mobile devices have achieved enough presence that I suspect most students could access email if they wanted to.  The issue is that they don’t want to.

Back in the paleolithic era, when I was a student at a small residential college, students had physical mailboxes in the student center.  We’d have to go there to get our snail mail, or as we called it, mail.  Official college messages could be dropped in mailboxes without postage, so we’d get whatever college notices we were supposed to, along with our magazines, letters, and care packages.  (Yes, we actually wrote letters, because we didn’t have email and long-distance calls were expensive.  You, in the back, stop snickering.  Also, get off my lawn.)  The system was slow and flawed, but reaching students wasn’t terribly difficult, and nearly everyone checked mailboxes on a regular basis.  Care packages were too valuable to leave behind.  Students might choose to ignore something, but they couldn’t really dodge it.

In the slang of that time, though, many messages now get sucked into the void.  

I’m thinking that the lack of something like care packages may be part of it.  Students don’t really use email to communicate with each other socially; they’ve moved on to all manner of apps for that.  Email is relegated to institutional communications, many of which are negative, dull, and/or irrelevant.  That’s not to say they aren’t important, but they aren’t enticing.  

When letters from the college were mixed in with letters from friends and brownies from Grandma, they tended not to linger in the box too long.  But if friends and Grandma weren’t there, and all you’d ever find would be the student equivalent of memos from HR, I wouldn’t be surprised if the mailboxes grew cobwebs.  

Replicator technology remains in the early stages, so we aren’t yet at the point where we can beam brownies over the interwebs.  We could do coupons, I suppose, but they aren’t exactly the same thing.  

I’d be fine with them forwarding it to whichever address they actually use, but many don’t even do that.  

Has anyone out there found a way to get students to use their college email on a regular basis?  Right now, far too much crucial information is falling into the void.

Some students may also be suffering from email overload, like everyone else. I get dozens of emails a day. The sheer volume of emails has made me much more likely to skim and default to "delete." That's an unfair default, but it's also one that I've resorted to in lieu of simple cognitive overload. Life is too short for everyone's "important" email.

I'm not disagreeing, but I am saying that triage happens, and sometimes the triage is wrong.
One way is to get them to use it is to use it for important things related to class, including reminders that something, such as an assignment, has been added to the LMS.

The problem is that, based on my best guess from the nature of things that I get from the college's PR office, they get more junk from the college than useful content.
I was at an undergrad panel today and asked this exact question to 3 undergrads. The (useful) response I got was to use a multi-pronged approach to communicating. They suggested I use both blackboard as well as e-mail, and added that "mention it verbally in class" as well.

The last part really stuck with me. During my grad student days, communicating grad student events (modern day equivalent of brownies from grandma) only worked if word-of-mouth was part of the strategy. Food and drinks by themselves were not enough. It had to come with a peer stamp of approval. Student associations/groups were a goldmine for word of mouth, because it's a forum of the most active and vocal students on campus.

The other thing you can do, with more limited success, is to restrict your e-mail frequency. My alma mater had a mass blast restriction of 1 per semester. Even senior admin was kept to this. Department admin send out 1 per hour, and they generally get triaged *nod to above comment*. Emails from senior admin were rare, and they got an actual read.

Lastly, e-mail headlines are key. Admin/legal types are especially bad for this. As a general rule: buzzfeed good, office memo bad. We used to get one about a racist incident on campus (always in September) from the president. "Notice about incidents of inappropriate conduct on our campus" is snoozeville. The admin's e-mail was usually entitled "racism on campus", which was much more effective at getting people to read e-mails.

In short: Send e-mails infrequently, with a VERY succinct headline, and complement emails with word of mouth.
I think most of my (software engineering) students read/forward their university email. Sometimes they like to get advising from me by means other than email. I originate most communications with them by email (some non-critical things get Tweeted).

One interesting thing I've heard is that they would like to hear about things like the add/drop deadlines from me on their class email lists, even though they get email from the Registrar's Office about it. Seems like a custom email is more effective than the institutional one.
Like others have said, students get far too many mass emails from the college, just like faculty. This makes them unlikely to pay attention to campus email, and especially unlikely to pay attention to emails from people that they don't know and have a reason to pay attention to. Thus an email from a friend will have a better chance of being read than an email from somebody that they're taking a class from, which will have a better chance of being read than an email from the registrar.

Supposedly they pay attention to text messages, but the moment we start migrating everything to text and they get too many texts, you can count on them to triage that communication channel.
Don't students still get care packages? After all, grandma can't send her brownies over the Internet either. And, I mean, bills and whatnot as well. They probably at least check their snail mail periodically. Of course, they live off campus, so you would have to pay postage. Could you send out reminders for the most time sensitive things, and include in those a digest of all the other notices they may have missed?

Alternatively, do you have an actual bulletin board somewhere prominent on campus, where you can post notices with large fonts on colorful paper? Or, as a last resort, a PA system? I wouldn't use it for a whole list of "announcements" but "Attention students. Tomorrow is the registration deadline please check your university email for more details," seems reasonable, played a couple of times per day.

For the most important messages, you probably ought to do all of the above.
If it's not important enough to pay for singing telegrams with brownie delivery, you don't really need to say it.
Why force them to use campus e-mail? Just get an e-mail address from them that is their personal e-mail. Also, to facilitate sorting, start each e-mail with some sort of tag so that they can direct it to a folder. CalStateCom or somesuch.
Ivory has the right idea. In a previous post you mentioned that IT departments make up a large portion of the administrative growth at community colleges:

"The actual growth has occurred mostly in three areas: IT, financial aid, and students with disabilities. The former is a predictable outgrowth of technical change, and the latter two are entirely compliance-driven. Critics of “bloat” are invited to specify which of those three areas is inessential."

I'm specifying IT. If our IT department can't provide a product superior to the multitude of free email services available then they should stop providing that service. Forcing our students to use it is antithetical to our eleemosynary duty.

I agree with you up to a point on using email to make reminders of important class-related information. However, my experience recently in a summer class I teach has indicated to me that a fairly significant number of them either don't read (or worse, don't care) what they're being sent. In a class of approximately 30 students this summer, 21 of them did not submit the first assignment by the due date. With the first reminder, that dropped to 8, then 5 with the third reminder. I still have two students who have not done so.

I sent those reminders with read receipt on them--they're reading them, but just not doing what they're supposed to, either because they haven't done the work or because they think that it doesn't apply to them (I have been reluctant to send 21 separate "customized" emails to individual students). I've had at least two tell me "I thought I already submitted it." And then STILL not come up with the assignment when I indicated that they had not submitted it.

Some of it's lack of maturity, other priorities, but I think a good portion of it is that

a) they often don't check their college email regularly


b) when they do check it, it's on their phone, so they're less likely to be able to follow up, and once the email is "read", it's as good as deleted (because they've forgotten it by the time they're at a laptop).
I agree that it seems like a custom email is more effective than the institutional one. I guess students would like to be closer to their professors, in a right way, of course (at least I wanted that feeling when I was a college students). But to be honest, I do not understand what is the problem with checking their emails, as they do check their personal ones like 15-20 times a day which is a lot considering they have so many things to do. But yeah, of course they need to check whether their homework assignment was delivered.
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