On Tuesday, I wrote about how to use GoogleDocs Forms to gather contact (and other) information from all of your students in a given semester. (I first started playing to such forms after reading Thomas R. Burkholder’s ProfHacker post on the subject back in December.) Today I’m going to follow up on my Tuesday post with a more detailed explanation—with images!—of this method.
As the semester came to a close, I began thinking about the best ways to deal with the sometimes overwhelming amount of email from students that finds its way into a profhacker’s inbox: one good strategy is to develop an electronic communication policy, but students won’t always adhere to such policies so some kind of backup system is desirable.
You can save yourself some time and effort by asking your students to provide their contact information (see previous post), and then by setting up filters and labels (either in Gmail or in another application) to have your email application automatically sort your incoming communications. Below, I show you what this process looks like in Gmail.
Export the information from Google Docs Spreadsheet
If you’ve used a GoogleDocs Form to gather your students’ contact information, you can now integrate that information into your system for email. From the Google Docs menu, choose “File > Download as > CSV (current sheet).”
Save the file to your computer’s hard drive (and remember the location for the next step!).
Import the information into your email client
In this example, I’m using Gmail, but as long as you know what kind of information your email client requires for contacts, this process will work for any number of such clients.
In Gmail, click on the “Contacts” link in the lefthand column.
Then click on “Import” in the upper right.
Click “Browse” and in the dialogue box that appears, choose the CSV file that you downloaded from your spreadsheet.
Notice that because of the way we’ve chosen to gather information in the GoogleDocs Form, the students’ contact information is already sorted into groups according to which course each student is taking.
As you can see in the image below, if you click on an individual student’s name, you’ll see not only contact information but also which course he or she is taking as well as—in the “Notes” section—any information they might have shared with you.
(Gmail lets you associate a picture with a student, and this can be useful when you’re trying to learn your students’ names. However, I have not figured out a way to automatically import pictures provided by students. If you have any ideas, please let me know in the comments!)
Simplify sending messages to students
Again, I’m showing you how this would work in Gmail, but other email clients will also let you do something similar to the steps I illustrate below.
Because your students are automatically sorted into groups according to the class they’re taking, if you start typing the number of the course, Gmail will suggest the group containing that number.
In this example, I started typing “101″ and Gmail has suggested “English 101 (group).”
I clicked on the suggested “English 101″ group and the “To:” field is instantly populated with all the students’ addresses.
Yes, there are other ways of sending out email to all of the students in a particular course, but this—in my opinion—is a nifty feature in Gmail.
Simplify receiving messages from students
If a student sends you an email without telling you which course they’re taking, it can take you a little while to figure out enough context to be able to respond or process that email. And while taking a little while with one student is not too time consuming, if you have 100 (or more) students sending you vague messages, you can quickly lose an entire morning trying to keep up.
However, by taking the following steps, you can automatically label each email you receive with the appropriate course number, and doing so helps you process your email a little more efficiently.
You’ll first need to create the label, then create a filter that recognizes which students are in which courses. I’ll show you how this process works in Gmail, but other email applications provide their own mechanisms for doing something similar.
To create a new label, click on the tiny little down arrow at the bottom of your existing labels in the lefthand column. Then choose “Create new label.”
I typically just use the 3-digit number identifying the different courses I’m teaching.
The new label will now appear in your list of labels.
Now it’s time to create a filter. Go back to the Google Docs spreadsheet that contains all the information your students provided you.
Sort your spreadsheet by “Categories” so that all the students in a given course are listed next to each other: select “Tools > Sort sheet by column” and specify which column contains “Categories” information.
The select only those email addresses for one course and copy them.
Paste the email addresses you copied into a text editing application.
Using the “Search & Replace” function—replace all the “Returns” that put each address on a separate line with ” OR “. The result should look like this. Copy this text for the next step.
Go back to Gmail and click on “Create a filter.”
In the “From:” line paste the text you just copied and click “Next Step.”
Have Gmail apply the label “101″ to any email sent to you from any of those email addresses.
Finally, click on “Create Filter.”
Check to make sure your filter has been created.
Now, whenever you want to see if any students in a particular course—in this example it’s “101″—have emailed you, just click on the “101″ link in the lefthand column.
This system will work as long as your students use their campus-provided email addresses to contact you. Note: students will not always use their campus-provided email addresses to contact you. Try as I might to get students to use their school accounts, they still often contact me from a different email address. To prepare for this possibility, you can repeat the above process using the list of secondary email addresses the students have provided you through the GoogleDocs Form. I’ve found that if I also filter those different email addresses so that they, too, are labeled with the appropriate course, I have less trouble determining exactly who, for example, “firstname.lastname@example.org” is.
I used this strategy for the first time this past semester, and it has made a huge difference in my ability to manage and keep up with email from students.
FERPA disclaimer (again)
As I wrote on Tuesday, if your campus does not already use Google Apps, some might consider it problematic to gather and store student information in a third-party system like GoogleDocs or Gmail. I am not a lawyer, of course, so I’m not really qualified to comment on this issue. A full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this post. Furthermore, I’d like to have ProfHacker tackle this subject in a future post. So let’s save that discussion—which is an important discussion—for later.
What about you?
Do you ever feel like you’re drowning in email from students? What is your method for gathering what you consider to be necessary contact (and other) information about your students? If you’ve come up with an easy and efficient method to gather necessary information about your students—especially if you teach a large number of students each semester—please tell us about your method in the comments. Thanks!