The decline of email?

In a post I wrote in July of last year I celebrated the availability of email as a communications tool and described how it had changed my working (and indeed social) life. Back then, and maybe until last month, I assumed that email would continue to grow and would also play an important part in the students’ learning experience. Indeed an Australian report of 2003 placed some emphasis on the academic uses of email.

But in this most unpredictable age, things may turn out differently. Last month at a meeting here in the university some colleagues explained that they had found that the use of email by students was in steep decline. Whereas in the recent past announcements issued by email would have reached the target audience quickly and reliably, their experience now was that a majority of students would not read the information in a timely manner or at all. Email was no longer a reliable communications tool.

At first this seemed highly counter-intuitive to me. I do not believe, on the whole, that technology is ever ‘un-adopted’. Once in regular use it is developed and improved, but not abandoned. So how could this be happening to email?

I suspect that it is not that students have  moved away from electronic communication, but rather that they have moved to other platforms. It is interesting, for example, that about half of all messages I get from students now come via Facebook rather than email. It is in many ways the same thing of course, but using Facebook allows the student to integrate their more formal correspondence with their social networking. Many students who are hoping to talk to me seem to wait until they see me log in on Facebook and then grab me there with instant messaging.

So if I am right, what we are seeing is not a move by students back to the age of paper and quill pens, but rather to newer and (for them) more exciting formats for electronic communication. This also shows that modern technology doesn’t stay modern for very long. And it suggests that we need to develop our online tools so that they have the look and feel and functionality of what students are used to and like in their social lives.

So if you’re an academic and you are not on Facebook, think again. You need to be where your students are, at least some of the time.

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18 Comments on “The decline of email?”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    I think the challenge is for universities to create their own rich interactive environments rather than depending on FB, which is after all not hosted by the university and with possibly incompatible privacy and user policies with university standards.

    It would be interesting to see what the HEA group of institutions could do if they put their collective minds to it and leveraged a commercial platform to do so but which is hosted collectively by the participating institutions. Certainly using any funding to do such a system to stimulate R&D within the various CompSys departments rather than paying a consulting firm or other provider to do it.

    To simply tell lecturers to “go on Facebook” is both cheaping out and losing control of the medium – and it’s worth keeping control of the medium because any failures of it reflect on those who endorse it.


  2. Thanks, Mark. But actually I wasn’t suggesting that Facebook should be the academic platform; just that academics should try it in order to understand what kind of environment works for students.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I agree with Mark. Email isn’t declining, it’s just declining as a social platform: for work purposes, it’s essential, primarily for reasons of privacy and confidentiality.

    I’ve noticed the decline of email usage among students for at least a couple of years now, and of course it’s because they use Facebook etc for socialising. But working environments still use it heavily, and students need to understand that in this respect, college is a work environment. I can hardly send them messages regarding their course-work, marks, or even just that I need to see them face-to-face through a social-networking platform.

    Rather than us adopting social networking sites to communicate with students, the students need to realise that adopting the communication platforms of the professional world is part of their university experience, in order to prepare them for the working world.

    Which doesn’t get us past the current problem, which is that lecturers frequently now find that students are almost uncontactable, because of their refusal to use email (especially official college email). It would be inappropriate for us to use Facebook, and I’m certainly not going to send texts from my private phone, as I don’t want students to have that number. So we’re now left with a really unsatisfactory situation where we just see them once a week in class, and can’t contact them in-between.

    But this is a situation where the students will have to adapt, rather than the lecturers.


    • Jilly, I’m not sure that will work. All the evidence is that if we insist on our methods we will find that students simply resist. I was not suggesting that we use social networking sites for our communications, but rather that we learn from those sites in order to create a communications environment that students find attractive. That’s something we’re working on right now…

  4. Iainmacl Says:

    re Mark’s comments, there are of course already many social networking platforms in use by universities that were either developed by them or others. Examples include Elgg (http://www.elgg.org/) and its various local customisations (http://community.brighton.ac.uk/), but also the feed based system of UMBC (http://be.umbc.edu/) and others.

    As for the universities getting together to ‘leverage’ commercial companies. Well Ireland is a small country and has fewer universities than some US states. Much of this kind of discussion also took place a number of years ago around VLEs/LMS (virtual learning environments/learning management systems – eg Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle, etc). There were also huge numbers of systems, indeed not only did most IT/CS departments have someone who’d developed their own system, but they often had rivals within their own department!

    Anyway, Ferdinand’s point is simply about knowing where the students ‘are’ and opening communication channels to them, not about trying to coral them into a system that they probably won’t use anyway.

  5. Vincent Says:

    It may be that almost all of the mailminders/messenger are very annoying.

  6. Perry Share Says:

    Given that nearly every single student has a mobile phone, I’m surprised that educational institutions don’t make greater use of texting as a communications medium – especially for event/lecture cancellations, changes &c. There should be more use of group text mechanisms and I’d be interested to know if there are good reasons for not doing this.

  7. Wendymr Says:

    I’m with Jilly: students need to learn and become accustomed to the modes of communication and behaviour in a work environment. If that means emerging from their Facebook and messaging-dominated environment once in a while to interact by email and face-to-face, then that’s what they need to be encouraged to do.

    Yes, there may be some work environments where social networking and messaging applications are the media of communications, but I sincerely doubt that every student dreams of working in a call-centre or complaint-resolution centre…

  8. ryankharisma88 Says:

    Useful info, thanks . Friendship greetings …
    (By: http://ryankharisma88.wordpress.com)


  9. Although email usage may have reached its peak and is now in decline, rumours of the death of email are not accurate.

    Luis Suarez is a social software evangelist for IBM and for the last 2 years he has been attempting to survive without email. While ha has succeeded in reducing his email usage he has never got even close to eliminating it.

    You can read a detailed account of his experiences at http://www.elsua.net/tag/a-world-without-email/

  10. Niamh Says:

    Email is definitely not going, but as a current distance learning student I hate checking my ‘official’ college email address. All it’s used for is weekly eshots of events that are irrelevant to me (because I’m not on campus) and I would much rather be able to use my own email to contact lecturers etc. It’s not like a work environment where you need an official contact address from which to send messages. It’s yet another place for us to have to check, without ever having anything worth reading (except when my assignment results are back, of course!)

    Most institutions now use the likes of Moodle, don’t they? Surely the logical solution is to use this for all general announcements and to use the mail service there to send out individual student results etc, rather than sending a notification to my Moodle Mail to go to another webmail service to check for my assignment results? It’s too much unnecessary duplication. I think things were different when I started my undergrad in 1999 because only a few of us actually had email addresses before then. At this stage student mail services are unnecessary and yet another excuse for a power trip for IT departments.

  11. Niamh Says:

    I appreciate that – my point is that the mail section of Moodle could be used for that purpose, reducing the number of places a student has to check. We’re *obliged* to check this other email weekly despite the fact that most messages are put on Moodle and I’ve had a grand total of three relevant emails (apart from assignment marks) in my college email account over the last three years.


    • Niamh,

      One advantage of having a college email address is that people receiving the email can be confident that the email messages are coming from a bona-fide student. If you sent an email to a lecturer or your fellow students from niamh.whoever@gmail.com it is likely that many of them might assume it is SPAM rather than a genuine message from a DCU student.

      Maybe it would meet your needs if the college email account had a feature to automatically forward all received emails to your personal email account. Many email services support such auto-forwarding, I am not sure if the DCU email system does or not.

      Brian


  12. Dear Ferdinand

    Many thanks for your comments on the CAO and secondary schools. As a former teacher of 10 years, now working closely with those in initial teacher education I found them insightful, but for those of us long in the game, they were nothing new unfortunately. My observation is simply this; given the new emphasis upon learning outcomes, measurement criteria and so on that the university community has become victim to, is it not only a matter of time before those LC students enter university with the same mentality; ticking outcome boxes, bereft of any semblance of intellectual inquiry as a human endeavour worthy in its own right? And, as importantly, why do universities continue to tie themselves to the CAO as a means of measurement at all?
    Brendan Walsh, School of Education Studies.


    • Thanks, Brendan. The CAO issue would in theory be easy to resolve, as the universities own and control the CAO and could change the whole set-up at a stroke. But that would require consensus, which may not be easy to achieve.


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