Rethinking (Student) Communication

When Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook's new messaging system last year, he started the press event with an anecdote about his girlfriend's little sister and her friends -- how high school students use (or rather, don't use) email. That's not a surprising revelation to those of us who work or live with teenagers.

A recent Pew Internet study found that only 11% of teens say they use email to communicate with friends, and even that figure seems a little high. For many students -- both in high school and in college -- email is not their preferred mode of personal communication; rather, it's the mode they're forced to use for professional purposes (i.e., for school).

In its attempt to become the central hub of communications -- personal and professional -- Facebook's new messaging system was seen as an attempt to "kill" email. ("Take that, Google!" is the subtext here, of course.) There are plenty of reasons why doing so makes sense (I mean, ugh, email), and even though it hasn't killed email -- not remotely -- there's a lot to like about Facebook's new messaging system: it's real-time. It ditches the formality of email. It can be synchronous or asynchronous, depending if the person you're talking to is online. You can respond via email or SMS, so you aren't force to visit the site in order to respond.

Rethinking Communication via the LMS

All of the things that make Facebook's messaging system appealing for students and for schools -- something I wrote about back in November last year -- are largely absent when it comes to the traditional learning management system's communication offerings

In fact, many LMSes don't even integrate with email. Rather, they have replicated email, of sorts, with their own internal messaging system. Send someone a message via an LMS and you get a message in that LMS. You have to log in to view it. You may or may not notice the flag that says "You have a new message." Heck, if you're like many students, you only log in at the beginning of the term to download your syllabus. You aren't going to visit the LMS website (unless your grade somehow depends on it). So you aren't going to see messages there.

Instructure's New Messaging System "Conversations"

At its first annual conference, the upstart LMS Instructure (who didn't get the memo apparently that all the other LMSes hold their annual conferences simultaneously) announced that it was adding a very Facebook-messaging-like system to its offering.

Called "Conversations," it's a new tool that takes that under-utilized (and/or unchecked) LMS inbox and turns it into something that's both something more forward-thinking in terms of education and in terms of technology.

Rather than mimicking email -- with subject lines and formal greetings -- "Conversations" looks much more like "chat." It enables private messaging (between students and teachers and among students themselves) but can be expanded to include groups as well. Users' address book includes classes, classmates, and so on. "Conversations" also keeps track of all your interactions with the people you communicate with -- so, for example, when a teacher receives a message from a student, s/he can easily see all past communications, feedback on assignments and so on. And as with all notifications sent via Instructure, users can decide how they want to receive their messages -- via email or via SMS, for example. Even better, people can also respond that way.

It's all about "lower barriers to communication," Instructure co-founder Brian Whitmer told me. And while rethinking how you can message students or teachers within an LMS might not seem like a big feature or a huge change, remember: Zuckerberg called Facebook's revamp "next generation messaging." So hey, it's good to see just that thing in an LMS.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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