On Email in Schools

A discussion with a colleague about “the death of email” led me to think about why he is wrong… here is the argument I presented to him:

The first tool for technology-mediated interaction to gain widespread use among educators was electronic mail (email); and the number of messages (along with attachments) sent between accounts is astounding. Most messages that arrive at one’s inbox in a given day are SPAM (unwanted email). The work of separating the important messages from the noise of the SPAM has led many technology-savvy individuals to adopt other methods of interaction for important messages. Most colleagues know the best way to contact me in a way that will get a quick response is to send me a text message, others know to contact me via FaceBook Messenger, and still others via Twitter or LinkedIn. Despite the decreasing importance of email for professional communication, it is expected that email will continue to be an essential method of interaction for both internal and external communication.

An email inbox points to a location on the Internet; and like all locations on networks, it is unique. Information is sent to this location, then read (or ignored) by the person who has been given permission to see the messages (and send similar messages to other inboxes). Digital records, including those central to web services, are stored in databases, and a requirement of every database is that each record contain a unique identifier. Because they are all different, email addresses serve as unique identifiers in the databases of users for participatory web sites. Also, email address can be used to manage identities, so passwords for participatory web sites can be reset through an email account. For these reasons, email will continue to be a vital, but less important, method for technology-mediated interaction within school populations. In addition, email accounts are likely to be assigned to individual regardless of the degree to which they are used to send and receive messages.

Because email has not been completely replaced as a tool for digital communication, and because many adults choose to separate their professional and personal communication (in some cases they seek to separate multiple professional and personal identities) school IT managers provide email accounts to teachers, staff, and some students. They also tend to articulate expectations regarding how responsive teachers will be to messages received via email. Many parents, vendors, community members, and others expect educators to have access to email accounts and they expect to be able to communicate with educators through email. There are other implications of making email accounts available to members of their communities that school IT managers must recognize and plan to address.

First, school IT managers must decide how to make email accounts available to the public. While it may seem reasonable to publicize email addresses of faculty and staff who are public employees, there are software bots that troll the web searching for that “@” and “.” within a word that characterize email addresses. Once these bots find email addresses, they become the target of SPAM and other threats. While this may seem innocuous, the additional messages can place excessive demand on both IT infrastructure and on professionals’ time as they seek to manage these messages. Minimizing these demands is particularly important once one recognizes that SPAM is a significant point of entry for viruses and other malware into an organization’s LAN.

Second, school populations include those who are under 13 years of age, and their personal information is protected under Children’s Internet Protection Act and the Children’s Online Protection Act each identify actions IT manager and school leaders in the United States must take to protect this information. Regardless of the laws in any jurisdiction, most school IT managers feel a professional responsibility to protect all students from threats through email. At the same time, educators have a responsibility to give students who are young adults experience using email and managing interaction. Further, some students may have no access to an email account outside of school, and this is an important tool for the transition to post-secondary education or to work.

Third, electronic communications can become evidence in legal proceedings; as a result, school IT managers are expected to archive email and other electronic communications. The length of time such records are maintained depends on the local policy and procedures, but five years is generally regarded as the length of time email and other electronic communications are archived. Such records are kept for the protection of both the sender of messages as well as the recipient of messages. Some school leaders are taking steps to ensure those who contact individuals through school email addresses or other electronic means understand the messages are archived and may be used in legal proceedings.

While email will continue to be a part of school IT used to facilitate interaction within internal audience and between internal and external audiences, the asynchronous nature of these messages interferes with some communication. The number of messages we get can overwhelm us. But email is here to stay.