April 19, 2018

Email? Texts? Still Searching For the Electronic Path to Students | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellThere’s never been an easy way for academic librarians to establish a direct communication channel with students. With fewer students checking email, texting is a better option.

When it comes to figuring out the best way to electronically communicate with college students no one seems to know what works best. Despite what we anecdotally know about students moving away from email, it’s less certain what the best method is for reaching them. When a researcher tracked students’ computer activity, out of 123 minutes spent online on average, only six minutes of that was spent on email. Then there’s the story of the faculty member who delighted students by indicating he would communicate by text message. You can imagine their disappointment when the professor’s first text message was “Check your email for an update.” In my own pursuit of a better way to connect electronically with students I’ve asked faculty and students what works best. What I’ve learned is that there is ambiguity about any single best option, and that we need to experiment more with the tools we have.

Twitter or Texting

While attending a presentation by faculty at my institution who participate in an information literacy project, I heard one discuss efforts to find ways other than email to communicate with students. In his experience, email was insufficient. Students were ignoring his messages. He decided to use Twitter to reach his students. Like Facebook, a fair number of college students have accounts, but they are using these platforms less than Snapchat. Twitter did not go well. I suggested using a technology like Remind to text message with students—they typically send over 100 text messages a day. He thought texting was a better option but was reluctant to give or ask for phone numbers. The beauty of Remind is that no exchange of personal numbers is needed. I’ve tried Remind a few time with classes, hoping students will sign up to receive reminders, search tips, and other forms of post-instruction reinforcement, but there are very few takers. Despite that, I believe text messaging is a better option than social media. Why? No guessing about which media students use. They’ve all got text messaging and they use it, frequently.

Would You Give Out Your Number?

Here’s what a library instruction workshop leader recommended to me and other attendees as a strategy for building trust with students and a bridge for post-instruction communication: Give them your cell phone number. It’s a point well taken if you want to let students know you are there to help, but I could tell from the non-verbal indicators that it left more than a few attendees with a high level of discomfort. Do I really want students I hardly know to have my cell number? We want students to feel free to contact us, but not necessarily in the middle of the night. This is slightly reminiscent of the early days of Facebook, when academic librarians debated the etiquette of friending students. Perhaps we can learn the best ways to connect with students from some recent research on their favored communication channels—and whether there is any truth to the belief that when it comes to anyone under 25, email is dead.

Not So Fast

Since students are said to no longer use email we tend to believe it. Researchers at Bowling Green State University surveyed 315 students about their social media, texting, and email habits. For faculty the good news is that 85 percent of students report checking email everyday and will open course-related messages from faculty. The bad news for librarians is that more than half of students said they ignore email from other campus entities, even their advisers. Librarians’ best bet for email is to connect with specific courses and ask the instructor to send it to students, but that’s not particularly convenient. Texting is students’ top-ranked primary communication vehicle, followed by social media, with email in a distant third place. Voicemail messages? You might as well send a carrier pigeon. Since getting through to students via texting is no easy task, experts suggest taking every opportunity to have students sign up to follow you on social media. That means creating separate accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and others designated strictly for library-related communication.

Stepping Over the Line

If the research and data about student habits for communication channels tells us that texting is the best option, does that mean we should go there? Some faculty, such as Karen Costa, report much better results with texting than other channels. She prefers the immediacy of texting for connecting with students despite its limits on message size, and finds it succeeds as a nudging tool. Other faculty disagree and are concerned about entering into a texting relationship with their students. Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, author of a study about texting, is adamant about not texting students. In addition to concerns about giving out his number and having to respond to easily answered questions around the clock, Kuznekoff said texting “creates a more informal relationship with students” that he would not be comfortable with. Beyond a few faculty here and there, there is scant evidence that higher education administrators and academic support service providers are texting with students. Where does this leave librarians who want to reach students in the most effective way possible?

Limited Options

While there may be no one clear path to connecting with students via their preferred communication technology, it seems more apparent than ever that email is the wrong choice. According to a survey of student technology usage and patterns at my own institution, conducted in 2014 and 2015, students say they won’t read email, although messages with relevant subject lines have a better chance. That seems to support the research finding that a course-related message from faculty is most likely to get read. A message from the library or a librarian has much less hope of being viewed. Our students also reported that they don’t follow any institutional Facebook or Twitter accounts. The options appear quite limited. Perhaps embedded librarians, or at least those who are working directly with classes, have the best shot at reaching students, especially if faculty agree to share their messages with students. That still depends on email, students’ least used communication technology.

Tech and Time Limitations

I still think the right path is text messaging. I find many faculty are not aware of Remind, and are open to it when they realize they can text students without needing to supply their personal phone number. Once the faculty open that channel, librarians should seek faculty’s cooperation in using it to send limited but key reminders to support research skills. That still leaves the library, as an organization, in search of good options that allow us to electronically connect with students. Yik Yak, Pinterest, Snapchat, and other anonymous or highly personalized social networks, while popular with students, fail to offer the connective capacity or ubiquity of texting. Even texting, according to experts, offers a limited number of years as a good vehicle to reach students because it will eventually morph into the equivalent of today’s cluttered, spammed up, and burdensome email mess. Something else will come along. There’s no certainly about when or what it will offer. Whatever it is, academic librarians will try to figure out how to exploit it for that long hoped for ability to electronically tether ourselves to those we serve.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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