email: confusing a misused tool for a measure of getting things done


Some jobs, it’s near impossible to know whether one is doing well because the flood of work never stops. This is the dilemma if you’re the local unofficial computer guy on campus when everyone comes to you for any little thing that can go wrong with technology in the classroom. The online equivalent is the flood of email from students asking questions about assignments that greets one every monday and every day. It doesn’t take long for one to make the mistake of assuming that one has done ones job or is doing a great job based on how empty one’s INBOX is. As much as I’ve been proud of having INBOX-Zero status several times in the new year, I have to admit that it’s a bit like the fourth grader who races through the reading assignment and raises his hand first only to not be able to answer the question, “What was the reading about?” What’s the point of all this email versus getting it done?

The Time Management Matrix by Stephen Covey

I love that Stephen Covey put mail and phone calls in the “Not Important” quadrant of his “Time Management Matrix.” There you go, straight from Covey himself, “Not Important!”Makes me laugh, when I left public education in 2008, my principal chided me for trying to get help from support staff through email instead of using the mailboxes in the front office. Email was something that the district used (once they realized that it was a hell of a lot cheaper to do then sending out paper newsletters that no one reads). I love how education is almost always a good ten-years behind the technology curve. And here I am, even though I’m on the computer all day (unlike classroom teacher who told me, “I don’t have time to check the email!”), thinking that there’s got to be a better way to get this done.

What started this quest was the somewhat inefficient practice of saving my emails in folders in my email client based on general purposes. I have folders for my coworkers, folders for my students with subfolders for various repeated tasks (like their capstone projects), then I have folders for social networks and entertainment and blogging, etc., ad infinitum. But sometimes the message doesn’t fit any single folder. Sometimes it’s a message from Dr. Bedard about a student’s capstone project. Do I store it in Dr. Bedard’s folder or the Capstone subfolder for my students? Alas, the search function requires that I know which folder the message is stored in before it can find it. I use iCloud (formerly MobileMe [sound of taps playing off in the distance]) because it’s IMAP and I can access my account(s) and stored messages on all of my devices and am not limited to which messages are stored on which computer, but there is that “which folder” problem. I much prefer the Gmail way of dumping everything into one single Archive folder and using tags to ID messages. Thus, if I were using Gmail I could put Dr. Bedard’s message into the archive with her name as a tag, the student’s name as a tag and “capstone project” as a third tag. Wonderful. But Apple’s Mail app on the computer or iOS devices don’t use the label/tag structure.

So, I decided to check out an email client called Sparrow. It’s very visual and has a “conversation” style. But guess what, it allows for tags and the like and has a unified INBOX but I can’t pull messages received via my iCloud accounts and save them in my Gmail label-drive archive folder. It might look like it’s more conversational and has a reduced footprint on my desktop, but it’s actually even more segregated than how I did email using the default Mail app. I really should have tried out the free demo version before buying the thing. Doh! FAIL. And… and this doesn’t really address the problem of measuring one’s efficiency by the tool instead of perhaps changing the tool to better serve the real purpose of working with students and colleagues.

It’s too bad that Google Wave died. Some have experimented with Google hangouts, but that looks like glorified video-chat. We’ve been experimenting with Manymoon (now called – scared), but it’s basically just a single-level task-manager where we check off when we’ve done an assigned task with no collaboration and no project building. And, of course, we get all of our notifications through our emails, so it doesn’t diminish that flood. Truthfully, we’re probably just not very good at using this tool. So, here you have a group of highly intelligent tech-savvy online educators, who actually really like to work together and we can’t seem to find a collaborative tool that is worth the effort of getting up to speed on.

Just to take this discussion up to a mind-blowing level, I’m reminded of a Net@Nite interview of Luis Suarez from IBM, who works in the Canary Islands with bosses in the United States and coworkers spread across the world and has virtually eliminated email as part of his workflow. Right. He’s using social media, blogging and collaborative tools to get the job done. Email has been reduced from the conduit to another form of texting, sending short messages. It’s taken all of this time, more than ten-years, for many educational institutions to get everyone on email and now we realize that it was never meant to be the main conduit/repository of our communication needs. It’s just a goddam useful tool meant to be a reminder of some task, not a measure of whether one is getting one’s job done or done well. Check out Suarez’s blog and vision for how we should be working (online) together:



  1. Mitch Canter

    I’ve been out of your class 2 months but insights like this are why I’ll continue to stay connected with the EMDT blog. Thanks.


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