Over the last 2-3 years I noticed that making students read email is almost as hard as making them do homework assignments on time – if not harder. It’s like pulling teeth. And yet, we sort of rely on this medium to communicate with the students to exchange information, and send out announcements. There are of course LMS which can facilitate communications but in my experience students only log into these things if they need to. For example, there is no way I could post an announcement that a class is canceled the night before, and expect all students to actually read it.
This is why we have email. The assumption is that most people check their emails quite regularly so if I send a broadcast message to all my students (via the LMS for example) about canceling class the next day, they will probably see it that save evening, or at the very latest the next morning. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Whenever I send an email broadcast to my 30 students I usually get 16-18 messages bouncing back to me saying that the user’s inbox is over quota. In MSU land of crazy this basically means that the student haven’t logged in to his account in few weeks, and it basically got filled with SPAM. Once the quota is reached the mail server won’t accept any new messages and will bounce them back to me.
Of course this could mean that college students simply don’t check their .edu inboxes which is not that surprising. But this is not the case either. My younger brother, who is a representative of the very same demographic that I teach these days lives without email. Our mother lives in Poland, and she recently got herself connected to the internet and discovered that she can use email to communicate with us much faster and more efficiently than via snail-mail and much more frequently than via phone calls. Only my brother never read any of her emails, because he only logs into his Yahoo account when he needs to confirm registration for some new service. The only effective way of reaching him was sending an email to his cell phone using Verizon’s Email to SMS gateway. It’s actually quite straightforward – you just send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I believe that my students share a very similar attitude towards email. As I said previously, this is especially prevalent amongst technologically inept students. Those with clue seem to be more likely to check their email regularly for some reason. Those without it, shun email. Their major modes of communication are social networks (such as Facebook and MySpace), IM and text messaging.
If we want to communicate with them efficiently, we probably should look into using their preferred media rather than trying to force them to use email which they do not understand, and which they fear.
There is a slight problem here though. While some professors successfully utilized social networks such as Facebook for in-class communication I’m not very keen on doing this. For one, the user base is fractured between different networks – each being it’s own exclusive walled garden. They all have cumbersome, clunky email-like private messaging systems. But of course they don’t offer any easy way to forward, poll, or aggregate your messages and force you to log in, and navigate through their interface to read them. It’s a communication nightmare, and I don’t want to deal with it.
IM is too direct – it’s a point-to-point, real time communication system and doesn’t really work for notifications, and broadcast messages that well.
So we are left with texting. But this medium is also problematic because just as I don’t want to give my mobile number to my students, they sure don’t want to give theirs to me. Still, texting my students with “Class canceled tomorrow” or “Remember to submit Homework 3 by Tuesday” would be the most direct method of communication – and one that guarantees the highest margin of success (and by success here I mean having the student actually reading the damn message).
The logistics of implementing this would be rather straightforward. You could simply set up a moderated listserv for your classes. Students would send a text to the listserv address using the format provided by their carrier. This would probably require some explaining, but there are only like 3-4 viable formats you are likely to encounter out of which two (Verizon and Sprint) are trivial and straightforward. Most popular carrier have SMS to Email and Email to SMS gateways these days. In my area for example, most people use Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile. I haven’t really seen any other carriers around here.
So I listserv would work for most people. A teacher could send a message to the list via his email, and have it broadcast to the group. Any replies would be forwarded back to his email but not to the group. This way we get two way communication between the teacher and students, each using their preferred medium (email for the teacher, text message for the student). Furthermore, students would be unable to spam each other via the list, and the teachers’ mobile phone would be safe from being overwhelmed by torrent of student inquires.
That still doesn’t solve the issue of privacy, since the teacher would be able to see the mobile numbers subscribed students. Then gain since most SMS gateways use emails of the form email@example.com this would not provide the teacher with a direct 1-1 mapping between a student and a number. So while the teacher would have a list of 30+ mobile numbers, he might only be able to associate a fraction of them to actual student names – and only when those students choose to reply, and identify themselves.
Ideally, I’d prefer to have the list maintained by someone like OIT, and have the reply-to headers mangled (perhaps replaced by a hash of some sort). This way both teacher and student could communicate via the listserv like service without ever seeing their actual mobile numbers. This would be a bit trickier to implement but not out of the realm of possibility.
Ideally it would be an opt-in service which and students would be able to unsubscribe at any time. There would be a guarantee of privacy and reassurance that neither the teacher not any other student will never see their actual phone number. And of course the instructor would have to keep the number of messages down to minimum to take it easy on those without unlimited texting plans. I’d like to average somewhere below 1 message per week.
What do you think? Could it work? Should we build something like this? Would there be institutional support for something like that? Would professors buy into it?