Category Archives: Learning and Teaching

Why I don’t like email

Please don’t email me

Every semester when I start my undergraduate teaching I begin by setting the ground rules. Things like the importance of attendance, the need for extensive reading and so on. All what I would expect is fairly standard stuff. However, one area where I seem to differ from many academics is in my approach to student support. I tell all my undergraduate students not to email me.

This may seem unsupportive. I should stress that at the same time as telling students that they should not email me I do explain why and I also explain the variety of other ways they can and will receive support with their studies. However, this message can sometimes get lost. Given the increasingly consumerist nature of students and marketisation of higher education I thought it would be helpful to provide a blog post explaining my position on this issue.

The following provides a detailed list of my objections to email as well as touching on the other ways I provide support to my undergraduate students.

1. Email is distant

Email is an impersonal and distant mode of communication. This does have some advantages, for example with distance learning students. However, I see my full-time undergraduate students at least twice a week – once in lectures and once in seminars. The use of email can create a sense of distance where, in my view, it should not exist. Consequently I tell all my undergraduate students that, rather than send an email, they should rise any questions they have in class.

Now there is an important exception to this rule. I do think there is a need for use of email with postgraduate students, many of whom are either studying part-time or by distance learning, and so do not have the weekly contact that full-time undergraduate students have. It is also fair to say that email contact is useful outside term time for all students.

2. Email is individual and hidden

Students who receive significant advice or support from lecturers via email communication can, in effect, have an unfair advantage over those who do not receive this information. Rather than responding to individual students by email I devote the first 10 mins of class to an open Q&A session. This allows me to relay answers to all students at the same time – thereby eliminating any favoritism or the likelihood of receiving several separate emails on the same topic. Where any questions relate to assignments I make sure to upload the question and reply to our university Virtual Learning Environment in the form of FAQs so that all students can see the reply – and these FAQs are copied over into future years.

3. It takes seconds to send and minutes to reply

Sending email is very easy for the sender. It can take seconds to write an open-ended question such as “I am having difficulty understanding the distinction between concept x and concept y. Could you please tell me how these two concepts relate to the theory of z“.

That may be a very good question. But while it might take seconds to send, replying is likely to take some minutes. As a result we can find much of our time filled up with what many refer to as “dealing with email”. Alternatively, answering such a question in class is likely to take less time and importantly can stimulate a greater discussion among the students and so support their peer-to-peer learning.

4. Clog up inboxes

The desire to be inclusive when using email often leads to sending one email to multiple recipients. From one email you can then receive multiple replies which can very quickly help fill up an inbox. Alternatively using discussion forums or social media will also encourage replies but without the limitations of the email inbox.
Email, sucks.

Source: Kristiewells (available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kristiewells/6022279419/)

Ultimately email inboxes are never big enough. No matter where you work you will undoubtedly have, at some point in your career, reached a point where your inbox is full. This can block other emails from getting to you. As such it is best to encourage less use of email – as well as proper management of your inbox (which I must confess I don’t always do).

5. Lack of tone or inflection.

Part of the difficulty in replying to email is the lack of tone or inflection that is possible. In effect this means that we can spend significantly more time drafting an email in order to fully explain what it is we are trying to say than would be possible verbally. There is also the risk that students who write emails, potentially in the heat of the moment, send something which does not entirely reflect their particular concern(s). This can lead to an answer that does not entirely address their concerns – and so lead to follow-up questions and further email exchanges.

6. Email as a weapon.

There is also a sense that some people may use email in order to receive a written response with the intent that this can be used as “evidence” later. This places even greater onus on us to carefully craft emails. The excessive use of email in this way is also an indication of a lack of trust which should be resisted at every opportunity.

7. Computer security

Recently my personal email account was hacked. All my contacts were sent an email, seemingly from me, with a link which (I assume) was linked to a virus. This highlighted for me the inherent insecure nature of email compared with verbal communication. Social media is not immune to such attacks either and so again verbal communication can be preferable.

8. Casual formality

Emails have the immediacy of a tweet or a text but retain an inherent degree of formality more akin to letters. This makes it difficult to judge what is an appropriate tone. The immediacy of email also contributes to assumptions that all emails will receive a response – and an almost immediate response. In this sense social media can be easier to use as these platforms do not tend to have the pretense of formality that is often associated with email and responses are limited to (in the case of Twitter) 140 characters.

9. Antisocial

There is no substitute for face-to-face contact. At the same time there isn’t enough time in the day to meet with all students separately and so some ‘distance’ support is important. But in my view email is, among all alternatives, one of the worst forms of communication method. Again the closed and impersonal nature of email makes it, in my view, a deeply flawed communication method. In comparison many social media tools, such as Twitter, are open to all and so can stimulate a wider discussion and debate. In that sense I think the use of Twitter is actually better than email. It is also important for lecturers to have regular open office hours where students can simply pop in without having to set up a meeting (something which again usually requires email).

10. The idea that email equals support

Some academics may feel that being available (virtually) to all students 24/7 demonstrates a commitment to student support. But the impersonal and distant nature of email, combined by the lack of inflection or tone, can mean that important context can be missed. It may be that what the student is asking about is a symptom of a greater problem which would be raised through a face-to-face discussion. It is also important to stress on students the importance of attendance and that email correspondence combined with engagement with the Virtual Learning Environment does not represent a substitute for face-to-face contact. Finally it is important, in my view, to encourage students to be independent learners who have the confidence and aptitude to find information for themselves.

Final thoughts

Now all of the above is also qualified by the fact that when an emergency arises which cannot wait until the next class then of course students still can use email. It should not however be the default option for any and all queries. It is important that lecturers provide clear and full (and up-to-date) information to students via module handbooks and Virtual Learning Environments. These sources should help to eliminate the need for students to revert to email communications. Lecturers should also be available at the start and end of classes to address any ongoing concerns and to have regular office hours where students can ‘pop-in’. In my view the use of email is no substitute for these methods of support.

So if you are an undergraduate in one of my classes please note that you will find all relevant information about the module and assignment via the Virtual Learning Environment. Important information will be reinforced in classes. There will also be an opportunity at the start of every class to ask any questions you may have. But unless for an emergency please do not email me.

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Twitter and Student Engagement

Yesterday I had one of those experiences that remind me why I love my job. I met a group of academics from King Saud University, one of the world’s top universities. I had been asked to speak about the use of Twitter as a way to promote student engagement. The response was really terrific. Lots of debate was stimulated and my session ended up going well beyond the 20 minute time allocation – and could have easily continued for considerably longer.

It was encouraging to see so much enthusiasm for learning and teaching and so much interest in the use of Twitter as a possible way to enhance student engagement.

The key point from my presentation was that Twitter is a tool that offers a lot of potential in promoting student engagement. This is particularly so beyond formal class time. It is not, in my view, an alternative to formal class time. Student attendance and participation during formal class time is still critical to the learning experience. I also think that academics have a duty of care to students which can only be assured through regular contact. However, Twitter, and other social media, offers a valuable way to engage with students beyond formal class time.   

Anyway, here is a copy of my slides on the topic. Particular thanks to Anna Evely (@AnnaEvely); Stuart Hepburn (@stuart_hepburn); the LSE Impact Blog (@LSEImpactBlog); Anthony McNeill (@anthonymcneill); and Mark Reed (@lecmsr) for some useful sources which are listed at the end of the presentation.

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What is Blended Learning?

This vlog post is all about how I use blended learning in the delivery of my postgraduate teaching. I had intended the video to last 5 minutes but turns out to be closer to 10 minutes. Anyway, here it is…

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The perils of social media

Previously I have blogged about why PhD students should use Twitter.

This post has been motivated by a great post on spelling and grammar by Peter Matthews.

One of the common criticisms of social media is that it encourages, or at least tolerates, poor spelling and grammar. As such universities should steer students away from participation in social networking.

Another criticism is that by promoting the use of social media academics are potentially opening themselves, and their universities, to negative publicity.

The first thing to recognise is that social media is inherently social. In social settings we may all adopt a more casual form of language. So I don’t think we should be too strict about spelling and grammar on Twitter or Facebook.

The issue for me is where the rather lax rules of social language are applied in inappropriate settings such as a formal letter, email or student essay.

In terms of organisational risk I can’t help but think that this is to miss the point. Social media is out there. And surely there is more to lose by sticking your head in the sand.

So we should be actively encouraging students to use social media more-and we should support them to use it better.

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Why You Should Tweet!

  1. Share
    I will #livetweet on use of twitter in research next Wed at 1215. Using #phdtweet. Please join in. More info to follow. #highered #loveHE
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 05:03:39
  2. Share

    Fri, Apr 27 2012 08:24:29
  3. My initial tweet on the subject attracted a lot of interest and was RT’d several times including by Guardian Higher Education.
  4. Share
    RT @ian_c_elliott: I will #livetweet on use of twitter in research next Wed at 1215. Using #phdtweet. Please join in. More info to follow. #highered #loveHE
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 05:25:18
  5. Share
    Thanks to everyone for your interest in the #livetweet #phdtweet event and for your RTs. More to follow next week. #LoveHE #highered
    Fri, Apr 20 2012 07:58:43
  6. In advance of the presentation I posed a few questions so that others could participate in the discussion. Tweets using the #phdtweet were displayed live on screen during my presentation. The questions and a few interesting responses are listed below.
  7. Share
    #phdtweet Q1. How has twitter helped you with literature searching?
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 06:51:11
  8. Share
    @ian_c_elliott Continually distracted me. Occasionally led to something useful. Allowed me to stalk favoured writers.
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 07:55:28
  9. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I’d say it’s helped me make contacts that have led me to new literatures #phdtweets e.g. @DrDaveOBrien & @Localopolis
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:26:57
  10. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I search for and collect tweets relevant to my case studies – many politicians and all public agencies tweet #phdtweet
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:39:33
  11. Share
    #phdtweet Q2. Has anyone used twitter to help with data collection? #highered #LoveHE
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 09:56:51
  12. Share
    @ian_c_elliott I’ve sourced many participants from twitter – general (members of the public etc.) & specific (certain professions etc.).
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:00:50
  13. Share
    #phdtweet Q3. How can twitter help with dissemination of research findings? #highered #LoveHE
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:39:00
  14. Share
    @ian_c_elliott absolutely brilliant for dissemination. Got twice as many hits as avg. for: http://bit.ly/II0iiS thanks to @amcunningham
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 10:54:41
  15. Share
    @ian_c_elliott re Q3 #phdtweet @QMUeResearch tweets automatically when new papers are put into it. A small thing, but hopefully helpful.
    Mon, Apr 23 2012 11:32:02
  16. Share
    #phdtweet Q4. How can twitter help with career development for early career academics?
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 03:38:32
  17. Share
    @ian_c_elliott Q4 opens up so many opportunities to work w/ those outside your uni, good way to learn about how unis “work” too #phdtweet
    Tue, Apr 24 2012 10:22:36
  18. Share
    @ian_c_elliott gave confidence to even consider doing PhD, &in response to other q, you can see beyond yr immediate surrounding #phdtweet
    Tue, Apr 24 2012 10:26:21
  19. Share
    #phdtweet Tweeting can help find co-authors & perhaps lead to an award-winning paper: http://bit.ly/f6FFI6
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 07:15:00
  20. The presentation was to be recorded for iTunesU but unfortunately technical problems meant that the recording did not work. However my slides are available here: http://storify.com/ian_c_elliott/why-you-should-tweet
  21. During the presentation lots more suggestions were made as to how Twitter can help with the development and dissemination of research such as this tweet from Brian Kelly:
  22. Share
    #phdtweet A tweet can take you to Catalonia! http://bit.ly/dNQlmW
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 07:30:03
  23. As well as the fairly instrumentalist rationale set out in the main body of my presentation I also highlighted what I believe to be the moral case for use of social media by academic researchers.Queen Margaret University was founded with the aim of extending educational opportunities – specifically to women who in Victorian Britain were excluded from Higher Education. Today social justice remains a key part of what we do. In addition, the creation and sharing of knowledge is ultimately what academia is all about.

    Twitter, and social media in general, provides new ways to both create and share knowledge. As such we should all consider how these new tools can help. I really like the following blog post from Brian Kelly on this subject:

  24. Share
    #phdtweet Do you want to observe the world or change it? If the latter, Twitter can help: http://bit.ly/IkDp6J
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 09:00:11
  25. Following my presentation there were a number of questions including how to reference a Tweet and the discussion continued through the afternoon.
  26. Share
    hears question on referencing tweets. Yes it can be done – just another source of information #phdtweet
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:01:22
  27. Share
    @ian_c_elliott @QMULRC Doesn’t a reference need to provide info that allows validation (e.g. a link)? or doesn’t this matter with tweets?
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:48:03
  28. Share
    @Localopolis @QMULRC useful guide available here: http://www.mla.org/style/handbook_faq/cite_a_tweet
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 08:39:04
  29. I believe there are great benefits to PhD students in engaging with Twitter. I would recommend that you get an account and, as a starting point, search for the #PhDchat. You will find it easy to make contact with other PhD students and academics.
  30. Share
    @qui_oui yes, #PhDchat is a really good resource. I would highly recommend it to all PhD students. #phdtweet
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 09:41:55
  31. A lot of people have asked if there will be another #livetweet event – perhaps one focused on use of Twitter for learning and teaching activities. This is something I would certainly be interested in facilitating if there is sufficient interest.Watch this space!

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