DAILY INSIGHT: #NoEmail4Lent dies a quick painful death

By Carl Hooker, CIO Advisor

What started out with a bang, ended with a whimper. I had made it nearly 19 days without interacting with email but the wheels were starting to come off during the last week of February.

Our district is in the midst of its final iPad roll-out to 6th & 7th graders to complete an entire K-12 1:1 district. My position plays a key role in a lot of the decisions being made about these roll-out events and I had been out of pocket from these conversations to the point it was starting to hurt.

So, on Sunday (appropriately) at 4:53PM, I ended my ban on email by taking part in some discussions around the roll-out. My immediate reaction was a mix of depression and relief. I had made it a lot longer than many thought (including myself) and gained quite a bit of knowledge out of this experiment.

Logistics - If I had to do it all over again, I would have planned this better. I didn’t need 15 ways to get in touch with me. Turns out I only needed about 6 or 7. Every night while doing my counts for the day, I would catch myself skimming the previews of each email in case there was something exciting happening. While I focused my energy on my work email, I included my consultant email, my personal email, and even my iPadpalooza account in the initial research.

Timing - It’s everything, right? At least that’s how the saying goes. While Lent seemed to outline a good amount of days to do this research, I had other events begin to get in the way. One was the fact that we were closing the early bird registration on iPadpalooza and the only way districts could register with PO was by emailing iPadpalooza@gmail.com. That meant I had to check those emails and auto-forward them to our PO person. Not exactly fair to her.

Personally, I had two major events happen in my life within 12 hours of each other. I was named an Apple Distinguished Educator and became a father of three all in the same day. The ADE notice came….via email. My twitter friends quickly pointed that out to me. It was nerve-racking but once people started to tell me they were in or out, I had to sneak a peak.

The birth of my 3rd daughter meant time away from work, which meant the experiment and data changed course. Before I went on paternity leave, face-to-face interaction had definitely increased and, in fact, led all other non-email interactions. Now that I wasn’t there in person (and a little preoccupied) I had to rely on other means to communicate with people. To be quite honest, unless you were on Facebook, text, or Twitter, you probably didn’t hear from me for a while.

The Hypothesis - The original hypothesis was that by giving up email as a primary communication tools, others would be forced to try out new means and hopefully expand their horizons. This succeeded and failed in some senses. I noticed within the first day or two that while almost everyone was on board, there were a few that felt I was cutting myself off from them by not being on email. I got called to task about making others find different ways to get a hold of me when “email is just the easiest.” While that was the point of the experiment, I didn’t want it to negatively effect teachers who already have a lot on their plate, much less trying to figure out how to reach the tech guy.

Other (hopeful) Outcomes
- I had hoped that I’d be able to do “more meaningful” work while not checking email. While I did get quite a few more personal chores done in the evening, work seemed largely unaffected. It seems much of my “meaningful work” came from the sometimes mundane tasks assigned to me via email. I feel like this wasn’t as much of a success also largely due to the fact that I had to spend more time checking all the various methods of communication. (see Logistics above) That said, I was able to read an entire book for the first time since I can remember (World War Z – zombies, of course).

My other hope was that not sitting behind my screen as much would force more face-to-face communication and collaboration. I can say—without a doubt—this was the greatest success of this experiment. I spent more time with my family, talked to district staff I hadn’t seen in a while, and even got to sub in a first-grade classroom! While this seems like a simple idea, I was amazed at how touched people were by this concept of walking away from email to spend more time with others. I even had a small group of people (in admin no less) suggest we have an “unEmail Day” once a month to get out and see the kids, campuses, and staff. This will be something I employ every month.

My last hopeful outcome was that I would have others communicate in different ways. Aside from a few folks that were stuck on email as the only method of communication, I felt this was a success as well. I had a principal join twitter, a GT teacher chat with me via Edmodo, and I got to chat with someone face-to-face (virtually) via Skype rather than a back-n-forth email exchange. I even had one parent communicate with me using smoke signals. The use of Dispatch for collaboration came in handy and will likely be a continued resource going forward with the team. I also finally got myself on Instagram (hookertech) since that seems to be the preferred communication method of kids. While the only letter I got was a printed-off email, I feel like making others aware of the alternative methods and the way kids communicate put things in perspective for most.

Final Data - Thanks to Google Docs, I was able to track all the data on a spreadsheet. Final numbers:

Text = 149

Next steps - As stated, I’m going to continue to increase my face-to-face time in the district via self-imposed “unEmail Days”. I’m also in the process of sorting and labeling all 1,500+ emails I received while I was away. Once I gather that data, I’ll go through and see areas that I can optimize in my own email to make it a more efficient tool for myself and hopefully others. While this social media experiment is over, I’m actually still in the midst of a 12-week social-media diet challenge (via Facebook group). Only 5 weeks to go, but I’m down 25 pounds and in second place!

As for the next experiment, my wife has kindly suggested (or insisted) that the next challenge be giving up my iPhone for Lent. Just the thought of that makes my stomach hurt. How will I get anywhere? How will I contact people? That sounds a little too crazy for me. Then again, maybe that’s why I should do it…

Carl Hooker is director of instructional technology at Eanes ISD in Texas and blogs at Hooked on Innovation, where this is cross posted.