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A bonus in between the 'spam' and car boot sales

A little more than a year ago, staff at Plymouth College were encouraged to have a "no-email day". For 24 hours they had to communicate using telephones, or just plain word of mouth. Some staff ignored the scheme and it has not been tried again since.

"We thought we'd do without emails once a month, but there wasn't enough interest," says David Turner, the college's director of resources. "People felt they couldn't manage without them."

Until seven or eight years ago, colleges and other organisations could cope without email, but they are now an integral part of working life. Indeed, some say they could take it over completely.

Typically, Mr Turner receives 30 to 50 emails a day, but some of his colleagues get twice as many.

Like other colleges, Plymouth tells staff to try to cut down on the number they send internally and not to copy extra people in just for the sake of it.

John Rockett, principal of Rotherham college, believes that communication between staff has increased tenfold because of emails. He says emails are mostly beneficial but sometimes the information is simply not needed.

He recalls the time he received an email from the caretaker to say that new-colour toilet rolls were in use in the college. "He felt he should inform senior management in case of complaints, and that he was doing me a favour keeping me in the loop," he says.

Colleges generally give employees their own email addresses, but many restrict use among students. Often, only full-time students are given accounts, or those on courses that require e-communication.

Knowsley college decided it would cost too much to install a second server and employ a full-time administrator to cope with the extra demand, so it does not offer email to its 8,000 students.

Another issue is whether staff should be able to send private emails from the college.

Dimitri Koveos, director of learning technology at Reading college, believes staff should use the internet as much as possible.

"We encourage people to use email to write to, say, their daughter in Australia and perhaps do some online shopping at Tesco," he says. "We want them to adopt the technology and play with it."

Offensive emails are banned, of course, along with pornographic websites.

The college also prohibits staff from copying emails to other colleagues in the college.

"If you want to find a home for five little kittens and send an email to all staff, it inconveniences a large number of people," says Mr Koveos. "It also imposes a huge load on the system, particularly if you attach a cute picture."

For the past four years, colleges have been part of a computer system run by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), funded by the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council. Under JISC, colleges are protected against viruses and filter unsolicited emails, known as "spam".

Grimsby College has rules which categorise emails according to sender and subject matter. This ensures that staff receive work-related emails first and private ones later.

"It's a bit like having your own secretary," says Barry Clarkson the college's IT manager.

He says the number of students caught sending unsavoury emails is small - perhaps 30 per year out of 18,000 - and that the advantages of email far outweigh any disadvantages.

"We are using it more and more to broadcast information to staff," he says.

"Students submit their assignments by email. It takes the pressure off printing."

But Ted Parker, principal of Barking college, says email has yet to create the paperless office. Every evening his secretary prints his emails so he can read them at home.

Mr Parker enjoys the odd funny email and doesn't mind if staff advertise a car boot sale - as long as they mark the message "NCR" (non-college-related).

"The information goes into my brain and the paper goes straight in the bin," he says.

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