Tuesday 13 August 2013

The impact of email on the staff / student relationship

I used to be a high school teacher but I left doing that full time before the use of email became widespread. A lifelong friend who was still in mainline teaching by the time we’d all started using email told me it had become a bit of a nightmare. Yet I emphasize to my students that they should check their university email and Virtual Learning Environment regularly so I’m adding to the culture of us using it a lot.  

The disadvantages

  • Folk can contact you any time any day
  • There’s a habit of copying everybody into everything
  • One feels a need to respond constantly
  • You get a lot of “junk” email
  • Sometimes we try to communicate with students by the official university email and they fail to respond   
  • Storage is sometimes a problem
  • Too much information begins to feel like spam
  • Trawling through email accounts takes up a lot of our day

The advantages

  • A student can ask a question at any time any day – and will normally get a fairly quick response, more often than not within twenty-four hours though it may take a little longer at weekends, bank holidays and if the lecturer concerned is away at a conference or on leave. By the way – I’m no leave now and have been for a week and I’ve looked at my emails three times in that time.
  • Information can be got out quickly to individual students or groups of students.  
  • Work can be sent for formative feedback – which is easy either on the email itself or on an attached word document
  • Students do not have to suffer in silence – they can contact their lecturers and personal tutors as soon as a problem arises.    

Further comments

We can keep email under control using the following measures:
  • Consider whether you really do need to copy everyone into everything.
  • Don’t feel that you have to respond to everything.
  • Don’t worry about “junk” email – some of it’s interesting sometimes if you have the time to read it.  The “delete” button is very useful. You should read email a little the way you read the newspaper – selectively.
  • If our students aren’t using the official university email we really need to make it a requirement. It would be expected in the workplace.


  • Storage should never be a problem. Digital storage is getting cheaper (doubling the amount you get for the same price each year) and digital content is actually taking less and less space. Retrieval can be a problem – where did I put that message from the dean? – we need to file effectively.  
  • Email is there to help us not enslave us.  I personally never start on mine until after I’ve finished my day’s writing quota and any other urgent business.  Then I’ll do a general sweep through. However, once it’s on I’ll answer anything urgent or relatively simple straight away.      

A modern day evil or a useful tool?

In the context of what I’ve described above, I’m coming down on the side of it being a very useful too. But it must be managed effectively.  

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