Distributing messages: what works and what doesn’t

Form time

A common part of life in a secondary school is a 15 minute session every morning called “form time”. Attendance is taken and messages are given out.

“There is a cake sale in room 162 at break time.”

“Mr Thompson wants to remind everyone to pick up their litter after break.”

“Mrs Butterworth is fashioning a small elephant out of Edam cheese this afternoon – please stop by and offer your support.”

After the messages are given out, pastoral business is attended to (“Where were you yesterday Jordan?”), and then if there is some time to fill, the class watches Newsround. Sometimes I would put some kind of word puzzle on the board in a vain attempt to fill the remaining seven minutes.

Despite being contaminated by a feeling of pointlessness, form time serves a number of useful purposes. One of them is that it provides a set time every day where messages can be given out.

Where I work now

The college I work at now doesn’t have form time, for the simple reason that the students are older and their days don’t start at the same time. It wouldn’t work, isn’t suited to their age (17-20) and to be honest, I don’t miss it. However, its absence leaves the college with an administrative problem of how to give out messages in such a way that students get them. It’s been interesting to see how that problem has been approached, because it tells us a bit about the various methods we have at our disposal for transmitting information. And unfashionable as it may be, this is a central part of teaching people how to do things.

The obvious solution is a weekly email newsletter. In one second, the college messages are distributed to every student. Not everyone will read the email, but that’s their fault, right? Well, to a point. The trouble with messages coming in electronic form is that they become a part of the deluge of electronic information which characterises modern life. Our default state is to ignore electronic information. We have to, or we would go mad. When we get electronic messages, they have to pass through a couple of filters before we bother reading them:

Is it interesting?

Is it important?

If the answer to these questions is No, No, we click past the message, and it’s gone. If the messages are neither interesting nor important to the reader, then they probably didn’t need to read them anyway. The trouble comes when there is a misjudgment, and something interesting or important is filtered out and missed. Student ignores weekly email newsletter from college; misses an exam.

The typical way to get around this problem is to give messages more than once. If they come from a variety of angles, there is less chance of important information being missed. My college has tried one method for this which didn’t work, and is about to try another (which has potential if they improve it).

The ineffective method was an hour in the timetable set aside for a Cohort Meeting (I suppose a secondary school would call it an assembly). The idea of this was that every student would come into a lecture hall and messages would be given out then. Attendance at these meetings was poor, because if the timetabled slot was not adjacent to a lesson, students would not see the point of hanging around for a couple of hours just to hear some messages. This was frustrating for staff, because some of these messages were crucially important (what to do if you don’t get into your chosen university, for example).

PowerPoint

The new method is to put the weekly messages on a PowerPoint presentation which is emailed out to teachers of one of the compulsory modules. These teachers then present the Powerpoint at the start of  their lesson and the job is done.

Provided that teachers remember to do this, there are still a few problems with this idea. First, it kills the start of a lesson. Students should feel at the very least interested at the start of a lesson, and reading out administrative messages is not the way to do this. Secondly, there is a slightly petty issue of control. Teachers are likely to resent the start of their lesson being taken out of their hands, insignificant as it may be. The one time I read out messages this way, the PowerPoint felt a bit like an uninvited guest.

A good way of communicating information which my college uses (in addition to email) is posters. Big, A3, colour posters. Why would a poster be so much more effective than a PowerPoint presentation? To answer that, it’s helpful to turn to Douglas Rushkoff’s notion (borrowed from Marshall McLuhan) that different media have different biases:

“Guns don’t kill people, after all, people kill people. But guns are much more biased toward killing people than, say, pillows — even though many a pillow has been utilized to smother an aging relative or adulterous spouse.”

Posters have a bias towards two central elements of good communication:

(1) Grabbing people’s attention. We associate posters with advertising, which is founded on getting attention. When we create a poster, this purpose is usually in the back of our minds.

(2) Efficient language. Large fonts and a limited working space require the author to reduce their message to its essence. A bit like a tweet, I suppose.

PowerPoint can fulfil these two elements, but that is not its bias. Its bias is to ramble on for slide after slide, filling them with bullet points. Once you’ve given the message that there’s an exam tomorrow, it doesn’t cost anything to add a message reminding people to pick up litter, and then one more reminding people that they shouldn’t smoke by the entrance to the building. The result is a bored audience suffering from information overload, taking us right back to the problem of email newsletters.

Conclusions

PowerPoints can be used to distribute administrative messages, but it would work best if the PowerPoint is created within limits. Maybe there could be a rule that everything must fit onto one slide, and that the font size mustn’t be less that 36. Something like that would reduce information overload and PowerPoint would become a useful medium again.

While this is a fairly trivial topic to discuss, it’s useful to pay attention to how we communicate information, because communicating information is one of the most important things that teachers do.

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