Monday, February 25, 2013

Evidence and emotion

Email Yesterday I pointed at an article which argued that email is not the problem, it's the people that use it who are broken. I publicized this with the heading Saying that email is broken is as dumb as blaming your obesity on food, and it caused quite a discussion.

The social media addicts (been there, done that) could not accept that email has a place to play in a communications strategy, insisting that it was, essentially, "evil". I was amused rather than annoyed by this anthropomorphism of technology, and not at all surprised that the biased sample discussing this issue on social media could not produce any evidence beyond anecdote (Well it works for me), of the effectiveness of social media. The reason spammers use email is not because because it doesn't work. That does not mean email is "evil", any more than road accidents mean that cars are "evil". It means that humans are imperfect.

I'm just coming off a multi-year experiment where we forced students (through assessment) to communicate via social media. (This grew out of the Small Worlds experiment.) This year, we stopped forcing them and gave them a choice. And they stopped using social media to communicate with us (#DarkSocial - The Results Are In). Since I focused on email as my main (non-assessed) communication tool for students (and colleagues), the number of comments and questions I receive is up more than 10 fold, and it's a lot easier for me to manage than obsessively checking social networks for fleeting content. Student feedback says they feel the same way and the data supports that. Interestingly, this academic year we are seeing a big upsurge in email from mobiles (Sent from my Blackberry/iPhone, etc, and even without the sig, the terse nature of thumb typing is easy to spot).

The strength of email is that users "own" the content, both intellectually and physically, in a way that is not true of content posted to facebook or Google+. One trick I have learned is to use Blogger as an easy multimedia authoring tool so that I can quickly produce attractive multimedia emails with a reusable archive which will come into its own in terms of reuse in future years. Email still has to compete for user attention in the clamour of the online space. As I said, using email badly doesn't prove that email is bad. But DarkSocial is not simply email or nothing. It's about recognizing that we cannot force others to do what we want them to do if they want to do something else. All the evidence shows this clearly.

I wasn't surprised at the vehemence of the blinkered response from some of the contributors to the discussion. As far as many people are concerned, it's full steam ahead and damn the icebergs. It was useful to remind myself of these emotions though, and to think again of how I tackle a number of speaking engagements over the next few weeks where I have essentially been booked to big up social media in education. When I've figured out how I'm going to do that, you'll read about it here :-)


  1. Just received this via the feedburner email! My use of email and social media has certainly changed over the last 18 months or so. I think you are going with the evidence rather than your own preferences. Nice work

  2. AJ,
    Interesting stuff mate. I've been doing my own social media research over the past couple of years which has been interesting.
    I encouraged students to sign up and use Twitter but it was completely voluntary, so they could use it for comms if they wanted, and I embedded Tweets in Moodle so non-users could still see Tweets.
    Only small proportions actually used Twitter (58% of respondents), but those that did, were overwhelmingly positive about its use. Also, every Facebook user (78% of respondents) had discussed Uni work on Fb.
    So it certainly demonstrates that it's not for everyone, but it does have potential for those that want to use it, but it has to fit into their 'digital lifestyle' (for want of a better phrase).

    As an aside, I personally don't like to force such tools/tech onto learners as I think they are more likely to use it long term if they see the benefits and make their own decisions as to what to use, why, and when.

    Would like to hear your thoughts.


    1. The issue of forcing use is a very difficult one. the majority of people find that if they do not mandate social tool use (e.g. through assessment), the majority of students will not use it, rendering it ineffective. That's not limited to social media, the same holds true of lack of student uptake of formative assessment in many cases. In contrast, you don't have to force students to use email.

    2. You're right - don't force it, the majority *may not* use it. And they haven't in my study. BUT, I don't believe you can read into social media usage amongst students if they're being forced to use it for assessment. Just like many of the studies looking into online social constructivism in discussion forums. So there's an ulterior motive, whereas I'm more concerned with seeing how students use such tools off their own bat, with their own motivation. That's the only way to see how students truly value such tools.

  3. I think you are right - email has a place and a role like all other forms of communication.

    Mind you, every time you use HTML in an email, god kills a kitten. If you must make a webpage, send me a link to it!

    1. I have to admit I've cracked on the HTML email, after many years of regarding it as the Devil's work. And that has made a significant difference in my acceptance of email as a much richer communication channel. Ultimately though, it was simply giving in and accepting the inevitable.