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I am a new STEM faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution. I emailed my students (through the school-mandated online course management system) before the beginning of the term about the availability of the syllabus online, as well as other things. Several students told me that they hadn't checked their emails and didn't know where to find the syllabus. I have also sent emails to students about their testing accommodations, only to learn that the students hadn't read my email to them even though it concerned an upcoming quiz.

Would it be inappropriate for me to make a general announcement in class that it is important for students to check their school email accounts frequently, as that is how I plan on communicating with them? I certainly won't call out any students or mention any specific scenarios that prompted this announcement.

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    In my opinion, and in the settings I have taught in (Canada and UK, STEM subject), I would say: "no, it is not inappropriate". – Yemon Choi Sep 7 '16 at 20:07
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    Hopefully your school's computing setup provides features that make this nice and convenient for both you and students.They may have provisions for forwarding the student's school email to some other address that they might prefer. And I would hope that the CMS would also provide some other method for students to receive messages that you sent through the CMS. E.g., in the one I use, if I send a message, it goes to the student by email, but it also pops up the next time they log in to the CMS. – Ben Crowell Sep 7 '16 at 21:39
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    The answer is more general that the question: if you are in a position of authority over anyone (not just a student-teacher relationship) and you want them to take some action, then (1) tell them to take it, and (2) tell them the consequences of not taking it. There is no sense in penalizing people because their mind-reading skills are too defective to guess what they are supposed to do! – alephzero Sep 7 '16 at 22:15
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    Does your school email system allow forwarding? The only way I check my school mail... is by checking my mail - which has school mail forwarded to it. – WernerCD Sep 8 '16 at 2:11
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    I suggest to entertain the idea that students that claim that they looked for specific information, but checked neither the course web page nor their university email address may just be making up excuses. – xLeitix Sep 8 '16 at 10:40

11 Answers 11

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At every (US) institution I've attended or worked at, there's been an official school-wide policy that students are expected to check their school email regularly, and that sending official communications there constitutes sufficient notification. So check your school's policies; if you have such a policy, then it's certainly appropriate to remind students about it.

Moreover, in such a case, you can enforce it: if you send an email to school accounts saying "Please respond by date X if you want Y", and they don't respond by date X (whether because they didn't check their email or for any other reason), you may not be under any obligation to give them Y. (Disability accommodations could have special rules so contact your school's disability office to check on that.)

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    If you want to be extra helpful and have already found out how to set up forwarding from the school's email account to a private account, tell your students about it, so they can set it up to forward to an account they check anyway on a daily basis. – Sumyrda Sep 8 '16 at 5:28
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    In every single school I have been to and have taught at, every single syllabus that I have seen (including my own), has always included a statement saying something like the official school email is the only medium of official communication for everyone and it is where all such information will be sent. In the USA, NOT using the school email can get you in trouble for violating the education and privacy laws (FERPA). So I always verbally remind my students, send me emails from there and check that email regularly. They can forward it all they want but I am only sending/receiving from there. – Fixed Point Sep 8 '16 at 6:44
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    Not just US wide. When they get their school mail, they are told that this is how anyone will communicate with them. They can forward the mails anywhere they want, but are expected to check this. Like faculty and staff are expected to check their official mail address. Communication among a big group of people can only work if you are able to stick to some rules. – skymningen Sep 8 '16 at 10:12
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    As a former instructor at such an institution, I wasn't allowed to communicate with students by many other ways. I wasn't allowed to email privileged information (such as anything containing student names) to non-school emails, and I wasn't allowed to email grades at all (they had to be done through the electronic assignment submission system, BBLearn). – childofsoong Sep 8 '16 at 18:33
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    @reirab: Oh yeah, I'm not saying the university's email system is immune to such problems, or even really functional at all. But at least in theory they have the ability to do something about those problems (not that they necessarily will), as opposed to third-party service over which there is no control at all. – Nate Eldredge Sep 9 '16 at 18:55
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Would it be inappropriate for me to make a general announcement in class that it is important for students to check their school email accounts frequently, as that is how I plan on communicating with them?

Absolutely not. I would find the above completely appropriate. Whether you just announce you will use that e-mail system to communicate or whether you will explicitly tell them they should check the e-mails (instead of letting them come to that conclusion themselves) is up to you.

I certainly won't call out any students or mention any specific scenarios that prompted this announcement.

If by "specific scenarios", you mean referring to specific students, that is fine.

If by "specific scenarios", though, you mean the scenario of sending an e-mail about testing accommodations, resulting in "some students in this room" being unaware of the contents of the e-mail, I would find it fully okay to be specific to this (concrete, yet anonymous) degree. Bonus points if you can point out an actual disadvantage that resulted from that for the (still unnamed) student who failed to read the e-mail. Most likely, it won't happen again.

  • If there were several students who were disadvantaged by failing to read the email, go for it. But do not make an example of one student, even when they are anonymous. Most likely, that one student has told some of their friends about the problem and those friends will recognise that you're talking about Bob, even though you don't use his name. And it only takes one of them to say, "Oh, it was Bob" before the whole class knows, and that's a much more interesting thing to know now that Prof Mapper was complaining about it. – David Richerby Sep 9 '16 at 9:10
  • And even if nobody else knows who it is, the anonymous student doesn't need to be made to feel any worse about their mistake. – David Richerby Sep 9 '16 at 9:11
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    @DavidRicherby: I tend to disagree here. The identity of the student who committed the mistake is confidential. The consequences to expect for a given kind of mistake are not (in fact, they are at least indirectly publicly announced). As such, I see no issue with pointing out that said consequences have actually been applied in one or more anonymous cases, to indicate that, yes, we're serious about it. In fact, I don't see a difference between one and several cases; would "it was Bob" not simply be replaced with "Bob's one of them"? – O. R. Mapper Sep 9 '16 at 9:53
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    @DavidRicherby: "And even if nobody else knows who it is, the anonymous student doesn't need to be made to feel any worse about their mistake." - failure to check the messages is either due to sloppiness (forgot to check) or laziness (failure to get acquainted with the procedures for getting crucial information on the class). I don't see what's so bad about taking away the possible excuse that "many others surely acted the same way" (as I've been told various times by students). – O. R. Mapper Sep 9 '16 at 10:01
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It is an official communication system, so reminding students that they should pay attention to it is completely appropriate (at the same level of appropriateness as telling them that they'd better get the textbook by a certain date, etc.) If you ask me, I would even include the corresponding reminder sentence in the syllabus saying something like "Most course announcements will be made by e-mail, so you are expected to check it before every class". Now, it is still a good idea to spend a few minutes to repeat the really important announcements during the class time if you teach face to face rather than online, but otherwise you are well within your rights demanding that the students pay attention to what comes towards them through all official channels.

  • Additionally in the suggested syllabus statement, I would specify checking their school email account, which may be a lot easier for you since it may be doable through the school's course management system. – paw88789 Sep 7 '16 at 22:57
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I agree with everyone saying that of course it is appropriate and the students should already be doing this. However, it might also be to your benefit to find out what the students DO think is the normal means of getting course announcements. If all the other faculty are using the same course management system (Blackboard, Canvas, Piazza, etc.), and the students are in the habit of checking it multiple times a day, it might be easier to accommodate them, even if only to an extent of setting up a Blackboard page which redirects to the course webpage.

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I would consider this to be a standard request at many universities, and certainly there is nothing inappropriate, especially if there is an official policy that students must check their email. However, depending on your student base, you could have students with more/less trouble getting access to email, and you might have to be aware of that and possibly work around it.

For instance, students without internet access at home (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/12/what-happens-when-kids-dont-have-internet-at-home/383680/) or homeless students (http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-cal-state-homelessness-20160620-snap-story.html) might be a little more out of touch. It's probably worth considering why your students aren't checking email before you make the announcement.

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    Provided the university does have the necessary equipment - once the students arrive (physically) at the class, they are on campus, and once the students are on campus, they are free to check their e-mails on one of the public computers meant as student workplaces. Indeed, I do think it is the duty of the university to provide such workplaces, especially (but not exclusively) for the cases you mention. – O. R. Mapper Sep 7 '16 at 21:37
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The answers present already answer the "appropriateness" of the question. I would only like to add an extra point by focusing on @Ben Crowell's comment.

It is very important that the schools setup includes features that make the school email system convenient to use. The most prominent of these features is the ability to forward email from and to the schools email system.

If you are asking your student to check an email that works well on a specific browser (I had a school which email system only worked on Internet Explorer, and I hadn't a single Microsoft machine at the time), or that can be accessed from school machines only, this is asking some of the students to put extra effort just to read emails. Effort that can be better employed in other places.

Assuming that the school computing system is pretty good and offers convenient features:

  • some students will be happy to login to the school email and their personal email separately,
  • some students will prefer to forward their school email to an inbox they check more often,
  • and some students will even prefer to use the school email as their main email by forwarding their other emails to it (Yes that happens, a lot of students on cantab use it as their main email. This is mostly because cantab can be used even after the student leaves the university).

You are giving freedom and decision making to your students, which should (in theory) never be a bad thing.

Disclaimer: The base for this answer is my experience as a system administrator (including email server administrator) in institutions that actually were not schools or universities. Yet, I believe that user behaviour would not change much for a school. Unfortunately too many places do not consider this behaviour at all when setting up their email systems, even that that setup is trivial to make on pretty much all MTAs.

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Depending on your institution's policies, almost certainly yes, you can require that that your students check email and use it for broadcast messages. But you have to be reasonable. You can't expect they will check email any faster than you do.

Also, here in the US, where we operate under FERPA, fairly strict privacy laws, I try to avoid using email for anything related to an individual student's performance. I can't prevent a student from sending me email complaining I gave him a C, in which case I might respond by email. But with only a few exceptions, e.g., a LOR for which I ask for explicit permission to discuss the student's grades, or a limited discussion with my department chairman or a coinstructor on a course, I avoid discussing my students' performances via email.

I would definitely never report grades to my students via email; I do that only via our university's secure websites. This is in keeping with our policy at University of Washington where I teach. YMMV.

Notification of grades via e-mail is in violation of FERPA. There is no guarantee of confidentiality on the Internet. The institution would be held responsible if an unauthorized third party gained access, in any manner, to a student's education record through any electronic transmission method.

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    "I would definitely never report grades to my students via email; I do that only via our university's secure websites." - I thought the point of university-provided e-mail (well, one of the points) is that access happens within the university's secure websites. – O. R. Mapper Sep 7 '16 at 21:34
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    Worrying about privacy laws with respect to email strikes me as silly. Email is private. – Ben Crowell Sep 7 '16 at 21:35
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    While it's possible to make a "private" or "secure" email system (at least, as much as it is to make such a web site), standard internet e-mail doesn't pass muster as such. – Dan Pritts Sep 7 '16 at 21:40
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    I appreciate both your points about university mail. But ours is forwardable, meaning it's no longer end-to-end secure. Many of my colleagues use it for anything and everything and I respect their choice. But I personally try to limit my use of email for discussion of grades where I have a secure website alternative. – Nicole Hamilton Sep 7 '16 at 21:40
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    @O.R.Mapper There are plenty of (usually smaller) universities using Google for email. – Michael Hampton Sep 8 '16 at 2:56
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I have attended three different universities now (as an undergraduate and a graduate student). Two of the three had official school email systems and students were expected to check their school email regularly. The third, for whatever reason, had discontinued its school email system for the students and emails were sent to whatever address I had registered to my name with the school.

I believe it is very reasonable to expect your students to check their school email, and it is very appropriate for you to tell them that they should be doing it. You may very well be doing them a favor by doing so, because it's likely you're not the only professor/administrator at the university who is sending important emails to their school email addresses.

One thing I would suggest mentioning to the students when you explain your expectation that they check their school email: it's likely their school email will have an email forwarding they can set up. Both schools I've attended that had school email have the option to set up email forwarding to any email address I want. I used this and had all school emails forwarded to my personal email account. This was very useful, all emails were in one centralized account (that was easier to use than my school account) and I never missed a single one.

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It's a given, when a Professor gives instructions, to check your school access portal email for upcoming test and general information, as long as the school policy does not dictate otherwise.

I personally have seen many students who like to play the "I didn't know I had an email for school game." Expecting to be given extra time to complete testing due to the simple fact they spent so much time not studying and focusing on party time.

Every course I've ever taken as a graduate and undergraduate, we were always notified that testing information and scores would be released to your student school email account. In some courses I took, all of your assignments for the upcoming week were given through student school email account, this account being a WAN "Wide Area Network", an access portal secured for the access of the school only.

This would be absolutely acceptable, and also a time saver for the Professor in case some students didn't show up on any particular day that an assignment was given verbally in class.

As far as homeless students are concerned, every college and university I have attended there was always a computer accessible area in the library or student representative lounges and even computer labs for study to access school email portal.

I would never send any official mail concerning the students grades or assignments through the public email internet system such as Google, Microsoft etc.

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    I upvoted because I agree with the content. I do not agree with the total lack of any paragraph structure. – O. R. Mapper Sep 8 '16 at 7:09
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(Joined just to address this Question...)

In the absence of being able to comment as a newbie, I'll answer in this way as a related answer. I think it's appropriate and not an onerous requirement to check the official email regularly. If the official email is available via POP or IMAP, there will most likely already be instructions on how to set up your favorite email reader (Outlook Express, gmail, etc) to retrieve the school email to read in your email reader. It can be tricky but if a student is using the popular set of readers there is likely to be step by step instructions for setting it up; If you are using something other than those, you are probably technically inclined anyways and should get by.

So, you don't even have to "Go Elsewhere" to read mail, the students just set it up to funnel into their email reader, and away they go.

And like other contributors, I can't imagine that there's a policy that says that you should not expect your emails to be read. It's the whole reason teachers and students have email in a college. Now, privacy and webmail, that's another issue that could come up, and that is more of a question than expecting them to check their official email.

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Am I the only person who thinks there is a problem here indeed? As mentioned, most schools advise their students to verify their e-mails regularly, but what does this mean? On a daily, two-daily, weekly basis?

It is commonly known that once you start a computer, you have the tendency of browsing the internet, checking social media, ..., in other words, losing time, and it's only fair that schools don't encourage their students to lose time, but to use it effectively.

So I would advise schools and teachers to set up a rule, saying that students are expected to read their e-mails on a weekly basis. If a teacher wants to communicate with his or her students using e-mail and the message must pass in less than a week, the teacher must mention this e-mail during the class.

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    Most students are on a computer of some sort frequently throughout the day (smartphones count). More and more, teachers at all levels are encouraged to incorporate technology into the course, which means students will need be using the computers in class, as well as to complete daily homework assignments. If an individual student is trying to limit their technology exposure (which is a laudable goal), it would be up to them to make special arrangements with the professor to receive urgent communications. – thelr Sep 9 '16 at 12:42
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    "On a daily, two-daily, weekly basis?" - as often as necessary, the specifics of which are left to the students' own judgement. It is the students' responsibility to retrieve appropriate information that allows them to judge how often is often enough. "So I would advise schools and teachers to set up a rule" - no, just no. You are educating future professionals who have to be able to autonomously navigate the challenges and obstacles of a complex job in an advanced field, and you expect them to fail as soon as no-one tells them when exactly to check e-mails? I think you underestimate students. – O. R. Mapper Sep 9 '16 at 13:13

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