Will university webmail ever die?

Despite drop in usage, email remains most reliable way for universities to keep in touch with students

If the university webmail at my school, the University of Manitoba, is any reflection of how inconvenient university webmail can be for students, it may not paint a very good picture. It frequently goes down, students don’t often check it, and seems very rudimentary compared to the sophisticated messaging systems most students are used to.

This may not be the case for students at the University of Alberta in the near future, where the university’s webmail is set to switch to Google Apps by the end of January. The switch follows a yearlong negotiation between the internet giant and the U of A to ensure Google’s operating system was compatible with the university’s.  Along with an updated email service, students will also have access to the extras that Google Apps offers, including the use of Google Docs, the ability to share calendars, and will even be able to make phone calls with their university email service.

“What I’m hoping is that we can use this as an opportunity to get faculty, staff, and students using next generation tools,” U of A associate vice president (information and technology) Jonathan Schaeffer told U of A student newspaper The Gateway.

While the switch has the potential to save the U of A money and cut down on maintenance work for IT staff, it may also help the university keep up with increasingly tech savvy students, with whom email may not even be the best way to keep in touch with anymore. According to Inside Higher Education, several technologists are questioning the continued use of institutional email systems when students are communicating less and less via e-mail and making increasing use of more informal messaging systems such as Facebook and text messaging.

However, email is still unlikely to disappear as universities’ preferred mode of communication with students, as it still remains a better medium for more formal messages to students from instructors and administrators. Ed Garay, assistant director for academic computing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained that the brevity of texting and instant messaging might not be effective for communicating detailed messages to students, such as notices from financial aid, student affairs or health officials. He also pointed out that universities still need a system that is able to archive these messages in a reliable and secure way.

Cameron Evans, a top technology officer at Microsoft, also told Inside Higher Education that the slew of ways now used by students to communicate “does not hammer in a death nail for email,” explaining that for higher education, “email continues to be the most reliable and persistent form of communication for the work of the academy.”

E-mail may be a more dependable way of communicating with students than mass text messaging or the use of social networking sites, but speaking from personal experience, an outdated webmail system is not. An antiquated university email account with reoccurring problems cannot keep up with the multiple email accounts, social networking sites and smartphones that are now a part of many students’ lives. It only ends up being a nuisance for students and creates gaps in communication between professors and administrators that seem unnecessary in such a hyper connected world. That being said, it’s probably a better investment for universities to devote their time to keeping these webmail systems up to date, than trying to keep up with whatever trendy ways students are staying in touch with each other that change with every new crop of freshmen that make their way onto campus.

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