Communicating With College Students Using Their Own Media

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

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 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?

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11 Responses to Communicating With College Students Using Their Own Media

  1. 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.

    I don’t see any problems with that..
    I’m pretty sure this would be no problem via Jabber, maybe its time to get an jabber-server for your university and tell the students how to use it.
    It would integrate nicely with the mail-addresses most universities already give out for every student.
    You could build subscription-systems via jabber too.. so everybody could recieve news about the university or groups he is interested in. This would be much more effective than spamming whole courses to the whole university about anything (as they did at the university of applied sciences zwickau, where i studied)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    It is a great idea on paper, and I’d be all over it if I didn’t see how things like that pan out in practice. What I wanted was to engage students using the medium they all know and are addicted too. Introducing something new is almost always an insta-fail.

    Students would never log into the Jabber network because they already have a better, more comprehensive network for communicating with their buddies – namely AIM.

    Also, if I shut down my IM client, I won’t get the notification which sort of defeats the purpose of this whole thing.

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  3. The problem what i allways had with Jabber was that all the other students used different im-protocols.
    There was never a problem that protocol-X was unable to do Y, the whole time the problems were “how was the im-adress again?” and “shit, he uses [insert any proprietary protocol here] and i would have to create just another account”.
    Of course here the most used protocol is ICQ and of course most of the others used icq, but jabber got rid of the last problem, i could use transports to talk to other students the only thing that stayed was “which f***ing adress?”. we could get rid of this last problem by implementing a index of im-adresses where students COULD leave the university-intern jabber-address or just place an adress for any other network.
    The generated contactlist would look something like: – studentA foo – studentB bar – sudentC foobar – StudentD Smith

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  4. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m normally a regular email-checker, but my college email goes unchecked for much longer periods of time… basically because there’s rarely anything of value in there…

    Most of the messages are mass-mailed and not worth the electrons they’re written on (no I don’t want to buy tickets for $some_event, I haven’t seen your lost folder/watch/brain and I’m not interested in volunteering for your psychology coursework)

    On the occasion that there’s something I want to read, I probably knew in advance it was coming, and hence checked more frequently… and the college actually has a much better internal messaging system for a lot of stuff. Oh, add the fact that I can’t access it from home, and often can’t be bothered to use my breaks to go check email…

    Would be so much easier if I could set it to forward everything to my Hotmail account so I could see all my email in one place… and if we could access Hotmail instead of hitting the ridiculously tight web filter.

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  5. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Another version of what Matt` said above: school email has a really high noise to content ratio. If I need something, I will use the search function to find it. It is not worth my time to go through the dozens of messages every day and check to see if they’re something I should be worried about (they’re not). At least from my point of view, this is an offshoot of the problem where you’re signed up to a billion different email groups, and you can’t unsubscribe because:

    1. The person in charge of that group stopped paying attention years ago.
    2. You might miss something important!
    3. Hey Undergrads! I hope you all enjoyed the recent concert, let’s meet in the … AAARGH!!

    They way to deal with this, of course, is filters. Or at least that’s how I dealt with it (as poorly as I did). As soon as a message arrives from your professor, or any one of his graduate students, or any one of his graduate students’ buddies because the grad student was over at their house when they remembered that Homework 14 is due tomorrow, you redirect to a folder for that class. The rest gets dumped to /dev/null.

    All of this takes about an hour to set up each semester, and requires some technical savvy. This explains why your technically inclined students get their emails more often: they know they can put in the hour at the beginning of the semester and not worry about things. The non-technical people just panic and give up.

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  6. Fr3d UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    While using SMS or IM is a good idea, and is worth looking into, I think it’s essential not to drop email – the other two options should be an extra, not a replacement. If students can’t be bothered to check their email (of course, they should be given OWA or some other webmail to do this) and delete the spam that’s filling it up*, and therefore turn up to cancelled classes, that’s their lost time ;)

    Getting them used to using and checking email merely gets them ready for the “real” world — email is central to pretty much every company these days. Also, as phones get smarter, and smartphones get cheaper (and both get more sophisticated), students could probably setup push email notifications, so they don’t have to manually check their mail.

    * Do you not have any anti-spam measures?

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Matt’ and @Daosus – yup, I’m the same way. I check my email regularly, and I set filters to flush the garbage down to /dev/null.

    @Fr3d – Agreed. I wouldn’t drop email – I like email. I just want to reach out to the students who stubbornly refuse to use it. :)

    Oh and we do have spam filters. The problem is that the university itself does a lot of spamming. By default you get subscribed to mailing lists like:


    Those you can unsubscribe from I believe but the crafty administrators also set up their own private mailing lists which they can use to spam people who do that. Then there are people who blatantly abuse LDAP servers sending broadcast emails to everyone with their silly annoucements.

    The lists above usually average 10-20 emails per day (sometimes more) so you are looking at 100-120 mailing list emails every day. Then there are the stuff you can’t unsubscribe from – that ends up being 20-30 emails per day as well. And there is a regular spam.

    So it is not uncommon for an email address to get close to 200 emails each day, with over half of it being legitimate (but unwanted) university emails.

    The only way to deal with this is to unsubscribe from as many lists as you can, then figure out who sends pointless broadcast emails to the whole university every day, and filter them out.

    Oh, and I think before this semester students had a ~20 MB email quota which meant that if they didn’t clear their inbox over the weekend, the messages would likely to start being bounced Monday morning.

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  8. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The computer systems here are pretty insanely locked down… won’t let me block any of the shit that comes through.

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  9. e UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Hey, how about a classroom community on Twitter? ;) I’ve done it and so have @academhack and @hrheingold at their universities.

    According to the PEW report on teens & social media, in particular in the component dedicated to writing, email really has such a limited role in their life.

    I have read about teachers using Facebook and MySpace as well as some other social media with limited success. The issue is whether students can accept that social networking can be transformed to educational networking.

    I don’t know if you heard of “creepy treehouse”. It has become a prevelant reaction of students to educators who are trying to reach them via one of the platforms that many students already use. I’d like to hear your comments on this phenomenon

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @e – hah! Creepy Treehouse is why I felt reluctant to reach out to students on Facebook. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it was somewhat undesirable. Now I know why, and have a name for it.

    Re: twitter – I’m not sure if I want students follow me on it. I don’t think my Twitt’s tend to be appropriate, vulgar or just plain silly. Also, this is another creepy treehouse territory.

    Not to mention that I have surprisingly little luck convincing people to join Twitter. Last time I mentioned it in a classroom I got blank stares. When I explained how it worked the students looked at me like I was from space. They were like “why the hell would anyone need a service that works like Facebook status but is not a Facebook????”

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  11. Jon Fletcher UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Hi there,
    the system is on the way! we have developed a system that can exactly what your article talks about plus more!

    Watch out for it at a campus near you of if anyone would like me to explain more then please feel free to contact me directly.

    jon (dot) fletcher (at) bluepodmedia (dot) com

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