Monday, November 11, 2013

Students vs email

I read with great interest this article from the New York Times: "Technology and the College Generation." It discusses the current generation of students and their preference to use texting to communicate with friends, rather than email. Many students don't even bother to check their university email accounts. And that's different to how faculty and university administrators expect them to use email:
“Some of them didn’t even seem to know they had a college e-mail account,” Dr. May said. Nor were these wide-eyed freshmen. “This is considered a junior-level class, so they’d been around,” he said.

Universities now find themselves mandating that students check their university email every day. At the University of Southern California, Nina Eliasoph’s Sociology 250 syllabus reads: “You must check e-mail DAILY every weekday,” with boldface for emphasis.

The article focuses on how faculty and students use email, asking “How are they going to learn to use e-mail when that’s the model, and why would they want to?”

Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina, does not think they should have to. “E-mail is a sinkhole where knowledge goes to die,” said Mr. Jones, who said that he gave up e-mail in 2011. But in his quest to eliminate e-mail, Mr. Jones may have a surprising obstacle: students. Canvas, a two-year-old learning management system used by Brown University, among others, allows students to choose how to receive messages like “The reading assignment has been changed to Chapter 2.” The options: e-mail, text, Facebook and Twitter. According to company figures, 98 percent chose e-mail.

But I see this as the leading edge of a new trend. Rather than focus on how to get students to use email we need to look at how students communicate, and reach them there. What are the ways in which your campus is changing how you communicate with students?


  1. Of course, the problem with figuring out how students communicate is that it changes at Internet speed. At Berkeley, when we first rolled out the ability for residential students to get their housing contracts via email, we immediately were asked if they could get them via IM instead. Of course IM is not what 18-year-olds are doing this year, so today it'd be text message or Facebook. Two years from now it may be Snapchat, and how will that fit into a communications strategy?

    I don't think the question is "how can we get students to use email" as much as "what kinds of communications are appropriate for email?" For some kinds of official communications, email is going to be the best mechanism, and "getting the memo" has to be the responsibility of the recipient.

  2. Hi Tom. You are absolutely right. Some communication has to be via email, and others via other communication methods. And it does change quickly. To some extent, we are in an arms race as students change how they communicate.

  3. I think less of the technology, and more about what's drawing people to different communications mediums. The death of email as a communication medium to anyone under 30 is old news. I'm "old" at 41, and mostly use email at work, and hardly at all for personal communication.

    Workplace email is a bit of a nightmare since so many people use it for inappropriate things. When I first started at my current job, people would send out notices to all 50-70 people in the company about when they were on vacation. Email overload at work is a huge problem, and workplaces are slow to adapt.

    In that case, the right question isn't "how do you want me to tell you about when I'm in/out of the office" it's: "How can I find out when someone is out of the office when I need to (and ONLY when I need to)?"

    The question is going to be the same for different forms of communication. Sometimes if something is really important, a text message needs to be sent. Sometimes a web portal message is appropriate (do Universities have this?), or sometimes, email. The knowledge about the content, and timeliness of the message is only known by the message sender, so the sender should choose the medium dependent on the message.

    Tom brings up a good point, namely that "technology of the day" changes like the wind. For something important like a housing contract, a web portal seems like a better way to go than email or IM. Frankly I'd risk losing the damn thing if it were emailed to me. Email makes a TERRIBLE TERRIBLE filing system. If you ask me, Universities should get some skin in the game when communicating with students rather than outsourcing this to some 3rd party like Facebook or Twitter.

    Having one means of communicating with anyone is a means of disaster. Choosing the appropriate medium for the message is key.

  4. Totally agree » "Choosing the appropriate medium for the message is key."

    The U of M is doing a major upgrade, due next year. This far out, I opted not to get their email updates. I subscribed to their blog's RSS feed instead, and check the feed every week or so. That's enough for me—as a customer—to track what's going on. I don't need email updates clogging my inbox. I get enough email already. They still send an email when there's something we need to participate in or respond to, and that's fine.


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