Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Practical digilit 101

Recent discussions stimulated by posts I made here on the topic of Dark Social communications, and specifically about email, are starting to tie in with my thoughts on the topic of digital literacy.

I'm still struggling towards an accessible definition of digital literacy, but my current thoughts look something like this:Digital Literacies
You can view this diagram in two ways - bottom up (skills are more important than literacies) or top down (literacies are more important). Either way, in the case of email the one thing everyone seems able to agree on is that it's not going to go away. This means that we need to do a better job of dealing with it, and issues of skills and literacies come into play.

Years ago, we used to cover email in our first year key skills I.T. course, but the topic started to feel irremediably naff, and having grown up with it, it was very difficult to convince students that that had anything to learn (even presented in the context of building a professional identity). Yet clearly they do, such as the importance of a suitable subject line (competency), knowing (and being able to apply) the difference between CC, BCC and Reply to all (skill), and not making yourself look like a prat to a professor by over-familiarity and textspeak (literacy).

Email is easily the most successful digital innovation of our time, dwarfing the puny achievements of social networks, and there is much to praise - the distributed architecture of email and the resulting sense of ownership and direct personal contact. It's clear to me that there is still a need for email training for students and colleagues alike, but how to convince others that they have stuff to learn? My answer is to teach skills but stress literacies. By way of illustration, here are three approaches to email that I use which I think others could benefit from:

1. Reply to all c.f. BCC
I make extensive use of BCC in communicating with student groups of up to 300 or more. It works well, is easy for me to manage and generates a sense of personal contact in recipients that I often reinforce by including audio or video in the message, resulting in high response rates and threaded conversations which are easy to index and archive. In contrast, it's easy to talk about Reply to all disasters, and the importance of knowing the difference and of visualizing the recipient when composing email.

2. Training expectations
When students (or colleagues) become over demanding and over dependent on email responses, I train them by gradually lengthening my response time, and by including links to the content they are requesting in my answers rather than the content itself. Depending on the nature of the relationship, it can be advantageous to develop your sig file into a user agreement which defines what response times your correspondents can typically expect and maybe email office hours (for your own sanity). This is so much better than the dreadful Out of office reply, generating dead letters.

3. Occasional bankruptcy
I work on an Inbox Zero policy with email, but several times a year, when returning from email-free vacation for example, it is common to find nearly a thousand messages in my inbox. (And those have made it through my spam filters, which typically reject 60-70% of the email I receive.) On these occasions, I take a deep breath and spend two to three minutes scanning the subject lines (not the content), flagging any messages I think I might want to read or respond to (typically very few). After that, it depends how brave you are - either archive the rest or simply delete them unopened. On the rare occasions you make a bad decision, the recipient will send the message again if it's important to them. I've been doing this for years and it's never let me down yet, in fact - it's a part of my vacation I look forward to :-)

4. *Most Important*
Don't do what institutions do and let email become a channel used solely for bad news, or when you want something. Use email socially so the recipients are on the lookout for your messages. Email your tutor or your boss to tell then what good progress you're making on your project. Email your partner with a suggestion for your next vacation or the recipe you're going to cook then at the weekend. But at all times use restraint - email is too powerful a tool to be in the hands of fools.

I challenge anyone to tell me they don't have students or colleagues who would benefit from such training :-)

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