Strategic Directions | Feature

Ball State University: Addressing the E-mail Glut

A Q&A with Kyle Parker

Today's students, like most of us, receive a significant number of e-mails daily. And like most of us, they find it a daunting challenge to keep up — particularly given the waning interest by many in using e-mail at all. At Ball State University, information technologists realized that most of the university's messaging to students is sent via e-mail — in a little over a year, not counting all sources, the university sent more than 50 million e-mails to its 21,000 registered students.

To help students manage this load, identify important e-mail messages from the university, and to make it easier for them to complete the actions they need to take, Ball State's developers have created and are running the first pilot this fall of a new service called Campus Hub. When a student runs the free app for either Android or iOS, Campus Hub utilizes a free service from Context.IO to intercept and parse the student's e-mail. Then, it sends the student important notifications and actionable information.

Campus Hub will evolve to help students with a wide array of actions — from adding an assignment due date to your calendar, to nudging you,  as you walk by the administration building, to go inside and address a hold on your student account.

Campus Technology asked Senior Software Engineer for Developing Technologies Kyle Parker about the new development project.

Mary Grush: What is the need to develop Campus Hub?

Kyle Parker: Over the years we've heard from students that they get too much e-mail, whether it's from Blackboard (relevant to a course) or from our communications center (relative to an announcement category they've opted into). After a while, many students just stop looking at their e-mails — there's just too much noise for them to filter out the important things. It becomes a difficult challenge, in many cases, to get the e-mail to register with them.

So, the thought behind this project was looking at that issue and trying to figure out how to put important messages front and center. How can we find out, from all our systems, what is important and should be pushed to the top? And how can we coordinate data — such as location and schedules — to push out useful and timely information for the student?

Grush: What's an example of the location-aware feature?

Parker: Let's say we know you need to check in for testing for one of your courses. We know not only this but also whether you are close to one of our testing centers on campus, whether you have time in your schedule right now, and how many seats are open in the lab at the moment.

Grush: And students don't have to go to an inbox and check that, is that correct? Are they basically tapped on the shoulder with a notification?

Parker: Right. A notification arrives on your phone, with information about how to act on the notification and appropriate links to our other backend services. And, if you tap on the notification, you will see more detailed information about the message, along with action items.

Grush: What if the student can't act on the notification right away?

Parker: There is essentially a snooze feature, so, for example if you have a location-aware notification you can't act on just now, Campus Hub can notify the you the next time you are near a relevant location.

Grush: Will you be getting input from the students as you develop your app?

Parker: Yes, all this can change based on what kind of feedback we get from the students. Our Digital Corps students are the initial pilot group for Campus Hub, and we'll get a good start by getting lots of feedback from them.

Grush: After your pilot stage, how do you plan to get participation from the students?

Parker: As yet we haven't worked through the rollout details, as to how this will be deployed. We're still focused on this initial development phase with the pilot group. But historically, when we've done apps for the students, "word of mouth" has been the most successful driver for an app. Students want to discover it, rather than getting it pushed on them.

Grush: I imagine you will also have, as this evolves, different departments that would like help with certain things…

Parker: Yes, it's going to be interesting going forward.

Grush: Do you think you might consider parsing or sending notifications using other social media in Campus Hub in the future?

Parker: Yes, when you consider that there are so many different forms of communication and social media, and for many students — maybe a majority — e-mail really isn't the most important thing. But for the present, other than some academic uses, the majority of communications from the university still come from e-mail or snail mail — so we are concentrating on e-mail for now. Our real objective is to get important information in the students' hands, regardless of the approach.

Grush: I know Campus Hub is in pilot this fall, and you are communicating mostly with Digital Corps people. But after you roll it out in production, it will be campus wide. What's IT's role in the ongoing direction and development of Campus Hub?

Parker: This project is truly a part of IT at Ball State University. Campus Hub development began with our IT team and will stay with us throughout its evolution going forward. It's actually one piece in a string of successes we've had. We feel it's important to demonstrate the creative and innovative work that IT is capable of and does on a regular basis.

We look for opportunities to develop outstanding applications and IT implementations that serve our institution and its mission in critical areas. These are never a "flash in the pan" — they are flagship initiatives like our work in virtual reality, The Traveler, the Achievements app, the Digital Corps, and others.

IT's role is changing on many campuses. As some functions get moved to the cloud or outsourced, one could view that as an opportunity to diminish the influence of the IT department. We don't agree with that. We see IT as a leading department on our campus, and our involvement with development efforts will only increase over time.


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