Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Negotiating learning patterns through little big data

Email Since last week I've had over 150 emails from students on the two first year modules I am teaching. I am aware that this is a nightmare scenario for many people (i.e. the combination of teaching and email), but it's exactly what I've been trying to achieve since switching from an open social to a dark social communication strategy a year ago. As expected, at least half of the messages have come from smartphones.

With a head count of approximately 500 students on the two modules, these emails amount to something like a 30% response rate, 30 times the response rate received via social channels such as friendfeed or Google+. They have come in response to verbal invitations in lectures, online help documentation and the weekly email newsletters I publish (via BCC) to students on the courses I am teaching. Of course, the use of email does not preclude face to face meetings for students with greater needs, providing a sifting mechanism for needs assessment. I am not using email to deliver teaching, only to support learning and the inevitable administration involved.

Although deliberately encouraging this volume of email is regard as lunacy by many, I find the killer attributes of email (ownership of your inbox and the convenience of everything in one place) makes it quite easy to manage. I do use canned responses (Postbox Drafts and Templates and a few macros) but these are overlaid with personalization (e.g. use of student first names) which is very important. Students feel that they have direct staff contact via the phone in their pocket or their treasured new laptops. I feel that I am in control of my communications strategy without madly checking many different social networks. Manageability is enhanced by training and management of expectations - students learn that email is not real time conversation through me not replying to messages until an hour after they have been received, and any student who shows signs of becoming over dependent is gently weaned by slowly increasing the response time.

Is this the best use of my time? It is hugely more effective in terms of response rate that the open social strategy I followed in previous years (Visitors and Residents: mapping student attitudes to academic use of social networks) and it is much more popular with students because of the personalization element - I am talking directly to them, not broadcasting. Email results in far less inhibition than public sharing of information, hence the much better response rate and hugely increased student satisfaction.

But this strategy really only pays off if I use the data collected from this channel to focus my efforts and attention. By grouping the requests and questions into categories, I can prioritize the information I feed back and can quickly spot and fix any bottlenecks or problems. By using this nano-scale "big data" in this way, the effort more than pays off. But from the perspective of a fresher taking their wobbly first steps in higher education, I am there for them via the device in their pocket when they need me.

Now in case you thought this post was just another of my ramblings about dark social, we can get to the point - what I have learned from the data I have collected in the last week. By far the most frequent category are the calls from students for practice assessments and resubmission of assessed work. Since these are not our practice, it is clear that we need to manage student expectations in this area. The majority of students arrive from secondary education with the experience of mark manipulation through resubmission and with this as their most important feedback channel. We clearly need to do a better job of explaining that independent learning in higher education is not managed by this route and they they need to pick up on the more limited formative feedback they will receive. We can do that by emphasizing the significance of independence in higher education and contrasting this approach with their prior experiences. And if that's not a good use of email, I don't know what is.


  1. Replies
    1. Only in the sense that a genius is never recognized in his own land.
      (Disclaimer: repurposed quote - used to be "prophet")