I previously wrote about two of my observations regarding use of email among the young and technologically clueless college students. First observation was that none of my students ever had a straight POP3 or IMAP email account in their life. Every single email account they have ever used had a webmail interface and so in their minds, email is something that you do on a webpage. Email client to them is an oxymoron or some strange archaic piece of software, about as useful to them as a floppy drive.
Their primary mode of communication is IM, texting and naturally Facebook/Myspace. Email is something you when you need to send Christmas wishes to your grandmother, or complain about your grade to your professor.
Second observation was that if allowed, most of my students (as well as my coworkers) will try to avoid ever managing the file system directly. They use their desktop or My Documents folder as a big Temp file, and either delete files from it afterwards, or just ignore them and live with the mess. Very rarely do I see thought out directory trees or any hierarchical sorting in the file system on their machines.
My third observation is a direct outgrowth of the second one, and is related to the first. Since students no longer really use email as primary communication tool they decided to use it for something else – storage. They understand email, but do not understand the file system. So whenever they want to save something for later, they just email it to themselves – and i t becomes instantly available to them from anywhere via an easy to use web interface.
I think this mentality is heavily influenced by student mobility. Since not everyone owns a laptop, some people find themselves working on computers they do not own – for example workstations in a public computer lab, a laptop borrowed from a room mate, their home desktop and etc… How do you easily transfer files between computers in such an environment? You could use a flash drive but these are easy to loose or forget. Online storage is the only reliable way to handle it. And what is the easiest way to implement online storage? Via email of course.
I have to admit that I’m guilty of using my email this way as well. Each day I alternate between my home desktop, my work laptop, and one of the 3 or 4 teacher workstations at school. When I’m in a hurry I will sometimes send something to myself to pick it up from a different machine later because it is often the fastest, and least complicated thing to do. That of course doesn’t mean I approve of this behavior. To me it just doesn’t feel right. Email was not meant to be used this way and the whole procedure is silly. Your file ends up being stored twice – once in the inbox, once in the Sent Mail folder, and it makes a short trip between the webmail server, the outgoing server, the incoming server and back to the webmail. It’s a waste of bandwidth and it bothers me.
Are there alternatives? Yes, but none are as convenient or n00b friendly. Ideally, you would want a web service which is as easy t use as email whose sole function would be providing you with online storage. One such service I have been using recently is Xdrive. It’s not perfect though. Their online interface is horrid – cluttered, counter intuitive, and way to busy with buttons, panels and color. It insists on showing you your files both as a list and as a tree at the same time. It also has an impressive array of buttons, links and controls which are often redundant. It is the quintessential AOL school of design – seeing how these are the folks behind the application.
While I’m on the topic, I wanted to mention that there are two distinct ways to design your UI. There is the interface driven way, and the content driven way. The former puts emphasis on buttons, panels, levers, switches and blinkenlights and then stuffs contents into some small view port hole surrounded by interface elements. The later shows you content, and tries to minimize interface elements handling interaction in context aware way. Google excels at making context driven interfaces both for the web and for the desktop. Everyone else seems to be falling short in the web based area. AOL was always notorious for creating horrid interfaces that looked sleek, but were barely usable.
So it’s surprising that Xdrive Lite client is a content driven application. It sports a much cleaner interface, with much fewer buttons. There is virtually no clutter and the app is extremely easy to use. You copy files to your online storage space by simply dragging and dropping them from your file explorer application. It is actually working fairly well in Linux but not thanks to AOL or Xdrive naturally. It works because Adobe Air now runs on linux and so, accidentally the Xdrive client does too. File manipulation and downloads are done via clear, intuitive context menus.
I must say that I really like this app. So I often use it to shuffle small files between my work computer, my home desktop and my laptop in a hassle free way. It works great, it is light on resources and feels much more appropriate than spamming my own inbox.
Still, this is not a perfect solution for my rather clueless students because they inherently despise client software. Installing something is always a hassle. AIR apps install rather quickly and easily, but you need to have AIR installed first. So it is at least a 2 step procedure. Not to mention that public lab computers often do not have admin privileges that would allow them to install stuff. The web interface on the other hand is just to clunky to be useful. They’d have to learn to use it, and I’m sure that this would be a nuisance.
All our students naturally have Novell Netdrive accounts but the web interface for that thing was also designed by professional contortionists. I make them use it when they create HTML websites but I often must walk them through the process 4 to 5 times before it starts sinking in. Not that it is hard, or complex – it’s just new, and not very intuitive. Or rather what is intuitive to me (public websites go into PUBLIC_HTML folder) is alien and incomprehensible to them. Logging into webmail and emailing themselves is just more convenient, straightforward and familiar. I could try to break this habit, but then again who am I to say how people should use technology that’s available to them. If they want to use email as storage, then more power to them I guess… No matter how that annoys me. :P
[tags]email, webmail, xdrive, adobe air, air[/tags]