Here’s some of what people are saying about email:
- The Pew Research Center 2015 report “Teens, Technology, and Friendships” states, “64% of all teens use email with friends; 6% do so daily.” This trend is a continuation of the Center’s findings in 2011: “
- The Verge says, “Slack is killing email” but independent email marketing strategist Jordie van Rijn argues http://www.emailisnotdead.com/
- PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman from the podcast Reply All, declared April 30 “Email Debt Forgiveness Day”:
If there’s an email response you’ve wanted to send but been too anxious to send, you can send it on April 30th, without any apologies or explanations for all the time that has lapsed.
It doesn’t matter how long it’s been. Just include a link to this explainer, the one you’re reading right now, so that your recipient knows what’s going on.
- The protagonist millennial hacker Marcus Yallow says in Cory Doctorow’s Homeland:
I’ve never been much of an email user — it’s not like my friends and I used it to figure out when to hook up, we all used Twitter and Xnet’s Facebook overlay (which scrambled our updates and messages) — but all my profs had used it while I was at Berkeley, and then everyone I was hitting up for work expected me to give them an email address. God, but email was tedious. People expected you to answer all of it, and there was: So. Much. Spam. When it came to Twitter and Xnet, I could just take everything that had come in while I was at Burning Man and mark it as read, and no one would get pissed off at me. But people who sent you email took it personally if you didn’t reply. It was just how email worked. Even I felt put out if someone didn’t reply to my email.
Download download download. Spam spam spam. Delete delete delete. The stupid email ritual, so beloved of my parents. So boring.
And yet, email is one of the primary modes of communication between employees, and between online teachers and their students. Again, “so beloved of my parents.”
During #BFC530 last week, one teacher asked
Do I find resistance? With some students, yes, I think so. It’s difficult to differentiate between resistance and neglect when online.
Is email a necessary tool? Perhaps. Is adults’ insistence on email weighing down the younger generations’ ability to imagine a better way of sharing information and connecting socially? Or is part of a teacher’s job to help students learn email etiquette as part of being “College and Career Ready”?
Finally, being an online teacher means keeping communication open and frequent, and ideally, this creates a relationship, or at least a pattern of correspondence. So, to what extent should the teacher use email and for what purposes?
Starting with “snail mail”
To understand how we use email now, we should look at some background. The ability to send a lengthy missive to anyone with an email account, quickly followed by spam, has replaced physical mail, for the most part. So much so, we now call the physical object with postal stamps and return addresses “snail mail.” Not only did we have to rename mail because of email, but we renamed it with a negative connotation. When American families began to use email for personal use, and “You’ve got mail” messages invaded everyone’s computers and televisions, snail mail still delivered subscription discounts on CDs. Thankfully, bandwidth now affords larger and faster downloads, and there are fewer reasons to send discs in the mail. Email helps cut down on paper, too. Banks and credit card companies prefer to send statements to users’ email addresses, or just host them within the user’s account on their websites, despite the possibility their site will be hacked.
So here, email essentially replace three things: the letter (a form of social correspondence), the delivered product (no more CDs, since we can receive links to downloads in an email), and financial and business transactions (bills, bills, bills). And each is just one of two forms of communication: social interaction or information exchange.
Social media, first MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and various messaging apps, accelerates the rate at which we can exchange social updates. People are social animals, so our need to be socially connected drives faster methods of staying in touch. When it comes to being socially connected online, everyone prefers the fastest method possible. Yes, teens send more texts and post more frequently on social media sites than they send emails, but so do adults. Where does that leave email?
Employees, both office based and non-office based, rate email a valuable communication tool. The Pew Research Center in 2014 found, “Six in ten (61%) American workers who use the internet say email is ‘very important’ for doing their job.” Email is so important in some businesses, like Amazon, that managers expect instant replies to emails sent after midnight. In addition to our need to socialize, we also need to provide for our families and to be respected in our chosen field, and for many that means getting a J-O-B. And since email allows people to send the same message to multiple recipients and leave a paper trail, managers will probably hold on to email as long as they can. Which means most students will need to know basic email etiquette before entering the workforce.
Email isn’t only for work
As I mentioned earlier, we use email for information exchange. In addition to receiving financial information in an email, many apps and websites send email alerts: your library book is due soon, your child is doing well in school, you have a dentist appointment coming up, your favorite local restaurant is hosting a new event. Facebook, Twitter, and Meetup alerts fill my inbox daily, but frequently these alerts aren’t the actual message from a friend, but a notification that the message happened.
Not all email is nagging reminders, however; more frequently, emails are newsletters. The newsletter does for information what Facebook’s Timeline does for social connections: it provides a list of links, articles, updates, and summaries the subscriber might find interesting. As one popular newsletter company states, “Send better email.” By defining what is meant by “better,” we can figure out how companies and individuals use email. Mail Chimp offers users the ability to send custom emails with images and links to many subscribers, but it also collects data on subscribers and recipients and analyzes this information. What information do they care about? Length of subject lines, who opens email, when people open email, how many people click links embedded in emails, and which features engage readers, i.e. click links.
After analyzing the success rate of spammers, Mail Chimp offers the following recipe for email newsletters that get readers to click and open links:
- Provide your readers relevant content
- Add more relevant content if you’ve got it
- Accompany links with concise statements
- Add images. Not too many, just enough for flavor.
- Cook 45 minutes on 350. Cool before eating.
So, what have we learned about our emailing habits from email newsletters? We want content and links to more content in email. Information.
What does this have to do with teaching online or in the classroom? How does this inform my practice in communicating effectively with students and maintaining relationships and teaching students to be “college and career ready?”
Communication has four lanes.
We’ve heard that communication is a two-way street, but if we acknowledge both social interactions and information exchange as types of electronic communication, we must recognize that there are different channels we use for each. It’s clear that social updates are best through social media, and information is best exchanged through email. This is partly why it is more common and socially acceptable to include emoji and to ignore grammar and punctuation in texts, but this style seems juvenile in emails.
Since most adolescents are primarily concerned with their social lives – who they are; who their friends are; and how those friendships are built, maintained, tested, and broken – it makes sense that most teens neglect email and prefer social media. If they are working on a school project, they will probably do so within the school building or within the learning management system. Likewise, they expect grade reports in emails; although FERPA restricts teachers from releasing grade information in emails, FYI. Teachers should then try to meet students’ needs and expectations.
Online teachers must form relationships with their students, and they should use any channel of communication that effectively reaches students. Teachers should use text, phone calls, social media, instant message within the LMS, and email. The student will respond in the preferred channel, and the conversation can continue there.
Yet, online teachers must also help students become college and career ready, and that means training students to get into the habit of checking their school or work related email daily. So, online teachers, send emails. Since email is best with information, keep it short and include links to help students with their assignments. Maybe include an image, maybe not. The key is to provide meaningful information.
Students must also learn email etiquette and that means responding to emails and knowing when to send an email. The online teacher can provide templates to help students. One such is my check-in email template. It provides a structure students can work with. See it here: