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How Will Students Communicate?

January 6, 2011

Thus spake Zuckerberg: “We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail.”

The Facebook founder said so in November, when his company unveiled its new messaging platform: a system, sans subject lines, designed based on the assumption that in the future most electronic communication will come in brief, informal bursts. In December, Zuckerberg’s prognosis was essentially certified by the New York Times, which ran an article suggesting that among young people who are in college or about to be, e-mail is quickly going out of style.

Meanwhile, learning-management platforms — notably Blackboard, the market leader among nonprofit institutions — have been building more just-in-time messaging features with an eye to becoming the hub for student-to-student and professor-to-student communications around academic coursework.

All this has left campus technologists to ponder the future of institutional e-mail systems, which are still by and large the standard electronic medium connecting colleges with their students.

If students are in fact moving away from e-mail in their personal lives, institutionally provided student e-mail accounts will probably diminish in popularity over the next few years, campus technologists say, and that could force colleges to rethink the most reliable ways to stay in touch with their students.

At the same time, several technologists contacted by Inside Higher Ed say that e-mail is unlikely to disappear, if only because it remains the most suitable medium for the sort of official communications routinely sent to students from non-peer, non-professor sources.

Ed Garay, assistant director for academic computing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that while it is “superficially” apparent that Blackboard, Facebook, and increasingly sophisticated text-messaging platforms built into smartphones might amount to a death knell for institutional e-mail, there are certain types of communication — such as formal notices from financial aid, student affairs, and health officials — that might be too formal and detailed to convey effectively in a pithy text message.

“Texting and [instant messaging] works well when communicating with students about discrete pieces of information,” Garay wrote to fellow campus information officials on a listserv last month. “For reflective writing and substantive digital communications, email and threaded discussion boards are very effective, sorry, you must check your university e-mail or have it routed to your pocket.”

Colleges also still need formal channels that have archiving systems that are both reliable and secure, Garay says. If a student loses a phone, he points out, that student loses the text-message logs with it. Not so with e-mail. And while Facebook might keep good logs of messages between users, colleges that have struggled in recent years with the idea of having outside companies host their e-mail (even with carefully drawn-up contracts) probably will not be keen on ceding official communications to a company with a spotty reputation on privacy and no history of institutional partnerships. (Facebook did not respond to e-mails requesting comment.)

Still, the fact that students are increasingly using different mediums for different kinds of communications -- text messages for discrete dispatches to friends; Twitter and Facebook for sharing links and photos and organizing events; wikis and discussion boards for collaborating with classmates -- means that e-mail could fade into a crowd of tools that arrived with the social Web, says Patrick Masson, chief technology officer at UMassOnline, the online wing of the University of Massachusetts.

At the University of Maryland at College Park, one of the roughly 25 percent of nonprofit colleges that are currently reviewing their student e-mail systems, internal research indicates that while students don't much care for the university's in-house e-mail client, they still use e-mail in general, according to Tomek Kott, a graduate student there. Kott is part of a committee tasked with advising university officials on their next move on e-mail. The option of ditching institutional e-mail as obsolescent is "not part of the equation," says Kott. Yet the committee still faces a challenge in figuring out "how to best integrate the communications that go on between students and faculty into some coherent [stream] so there’s not ten places to go for contact," he says.

Jeff Keltner, a business developer at Google -- which hosts student e-mail for more than half of the 57 percent of the nonprofit colleges that have outsourced that service, according to the Campus Computing Project -- says his company has not seen a dip in e-mail use on those campuses. Students in fact are “using it at equal or greater rates” than they did in years past, he says. Yes, messaging among college-age adults has become more fragmented, says Keltner, but students still “want a place where all that communication comes together.”

Cameron Evans, a top technology officer at Microsoft, the second biggest provider of student e-mail, agrees. "The breadth of communications available to college students [does] not hammer in a death nail for e-mail," he wrote (in an e-mail). "In the higher education context, e-mail continues to be the most reliable and persistent form of communication for the work of the academy." Evans says that in the future, messaging software will probably evolve to determine intuitively the most appropriate destination for a given message. "Until then," he says, "we have the venerable e-mail and its new communications cousins to assist."

Keltner, the Google developer, also repeatedly mentioned that e-mail is just one of the features in the Google Apps for Education suite that it markets to colleges. There is also Google Sites, which students and professors can use to create and organize their own websites and wikis, and Google Docs, which enables them to compose and collaborate on documents remotely without having to store the files on their local hard drives. E-mail, he says, is hardly the only reason colleges subscribe to Google Apps; the product offers plenty of non-e-mail communication tools.

Masson, the UMassOnline technologist, says he takes Keltner at his word that use of Google’s hosted student e-mail is not in decline, but adds that he would not be surprised if the company is hedging against a future decline in institutional e-mail use by emphasizing the other tools in Google Apps for Education. The company got its foot in the door in higher education on the strength of its popular e-mail brand. But it and other providers, such as Microsoft, might soon have to lean more heavily on other tools to demonstrate their value to colleges, Masson says. “Strategically,” Keltner says, “we’re interested in making sure people are getting value out of the entire package, not just Gmail.” (That these companies provide the entire suite of services to colleges for free makes it unlikely that institutions will cancel their contracts just because students are using e-mail less.)

For Blackboard's part, it doesn't matter much what channel students use when communicating electronically, as long as it can be integrated with the company's learning-management system, says Jim Hermens, the senior vice president of product management and strategy there. Blackboard already offers an application that lets students get course information and updates through Facebook, and at least one client, Northwestern University, has developed an integration that lets students and professors use Google Apps features through Blackboard. The company says it is prepared to build bridges to any avenue of communication that students are using. “Whether it’s e-mail or not, Blackboard is pretty indifferent to that,” says Hermens.

Professors and staff would do well to exercise similar adaptability, says Theresa Rowe, the chief information officer at Oakland University, in Michigan. “I think students are going to push us into different messaging techniques and different user interfaces,” she says. “I think we’re all going to be pushed to use speedier messages, which will be a challenge to how we think.”

“We all [like to] sit down and compose this artful e-mail that nobody reads,” Rowe says. “The faculty are the adults here. They have to realize that if they don’t reach out in some way, there’s going to be a gap in their ability to deliver messages in a way that students are comfortable receiving them.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

 

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