Hesam Panahi

Hesam Panahi

Essays, projects, and other adventures

5 lessons for educators that want to turn the email inbox into a classroom

What if you could turn the inbox into an extension of your classroom?

As educators, we often question what should happen inside the classroom and what should be done asynchronously.

Last semester, I experimented with launching an email-based course (EBC). The outcome of an EBC is that the reader will have picked up a skill or be educated about a topic.

In my case, I wanted entrepreneurship students to know how to look for good problems to solve, and to transform those problems into an actionable problem statement. After having over 100 students take my first EBC, here are 5 hard lessons that I learned.

Lesson #1: Writing is hard

It’s not just writing. You have to be engaging. Tell a story. Show your personality. These aren’t the ways we usually write emails.

You can’t be a “sage on the stage” in an email-based course. If you lose the attention of the reader, they’ll move onto their next email or another app.

Lesson #2: Feedback data points are limited

It’s hard to know whether your email-based course is working.
You can look at open rates for emails. But unlike an in-person class session, you’re unable to read body language. Or deviate from the plan.

I scheduled interviews with students afterwards, and learned what worked and what didn’t. I wish there was a way to capture their sentiments in real time.

Lesson #3: Planning can be overwhelming

I had no shortage of ideas about email topics when I was getting started. The challenge was knowing which ones to start with.

I wouldn’t recommend using previous lectures or videos as a starting point. You’ll struggle with trimming them down. Instead, begin with first principles and learning objectives.

Lesson #4: Deliverability is key

Making sure people are receiving and reading the emails is always going to be an issue with an EBC. Having an already engaged audience (students enrolled in a class) helps.

I posted an announcement on our course learning management system (Canvas) asking students to make sure they received the first email.

The result? 60%+ open rates on emails in my EBC, which is much higher than open rates for the average newsletter.

Lesson #5: The tech is not easy

My favorite feature of an email-based course is to fast forward to the next email. It’s like binge-watching a Netflix show you’re enjoying.

But fast-forwarding is time-consuming to setup. Mailerlite and ConvertKit, which are commonly used for EBCs, don’t support this functionality natively. You have to hack it together. There’s room for error.

Despite the challenges, I see potential in EBCs. I’m working on my next email-based course, “How to deliver a winning pitch” for our entrepreneurship program at Rice. I’ll continue building them, seeing what resonates, and double down on the ones that do.