Is FirstClass really so “first class?”

Emily Shi and Patrick Stinebaugh

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“I’m not sure I’m even exaggerating when I say that one of the saddest parts of returning from summer was realizing that I had to start using FirstClass again,” English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger said. FirstClass, the school’s email server of choice, is used by students and faculty for tasks necessary in the classroom and greater community but has recently provoked grievances due to its dated interface.

The school’s history with FirstClass stretches back about 25 years when Director of Technology Adam Kenner originally installed and implemented the email system. “In the early 1990s, it was the only system that we could have installed that would have worked to let us install and manage it ourselves,” he said.

According to an article titled “Horace Mann’s innovative computer technology among New York’s best” in Volume 91, Issue 16 of The Record, the school was one of the first in the Ivy Preparatory School League to integrate technology into education, as they equipped all computers at the school with email and allowed students to individually request email accounts. In the 1994 issue, Kenner was cited saying he believed that “email would eventually become the primary method of communication at Horace Mann.”

Kenner’s prediction proved to be correct, as FirstClass is now used by all students for everything from scheduling meetings with teachers to communicating with clubs, Kimberly Dutta (11) said. “It’s a unified platform that our entire school uses and makes it easier to reach out to different members of the community,” she said.

For Charlotte Allinson (9), having a functional email system has been one of the most essential parts of her experience in both middle school and high school, as she regularly uses the app to view emails from teachers, schedule meetings, and check for homework assignments, she said.

Math teacher Charles Worrall regularly sends homework assignments and PDF materials to students through FirstClass in certain classes, he said.

In addition to regular email features, Kareena Gupta’s (11) FirstClass account serves as a calendar connected to her Google Classroom account, where she can regularly check appointment times and due dates through FirstClass, she said.

One of the most beneficial aspects of FirstClass is that it allows the Technology department to create hundreds of specialized email addresses, including those shared between multiple people, Kenner said.

One such email is the Student Body President (SBP) email, designed for each year’s SBP’s to send unified announcements regarding various initiatives. “The designation of a specific account is a symbol of unity between Roey [Nornberg (12)] and I,” SBP Isha Agarwal (12) said. “The process of using the SBP email is made easy through the email-list feature of FirstClass, where mass emails can easily be sent.”

“FirstClass makes it easy to schedule conferences [non-personal emails], and link other accounts to yours,” Nornberg said.

Apart from specialized email addresses, regular student email addresses also allow for creating email lists for different clubs or student organizations with ease, especially due to the feature that allows you to auto-fill names after typing in a few letters, Malhaar Agrawal (12) said.

Erin Zhao (11) also uses the auto-fill feature, as well as the “class directory,” in order to confirm the names of people at the school who she needs to reach for clubs or projects, she said.

Two other features unique to FirstClass include the “unsend” and “history” buttons, which allow students to backtrack on emails sent by mistake and view if someone has opened their email, Benjamin Lee (12) said.

For Gupta, the “history” feature of the email remains one of the only reasons that she prefers FirstClass over other email systems. “It’s probably the most helpful feature for me, as I rely upon it heavily to know when to touch base with teachers by following up on emails,” she said.

In a similar vein, Yana Gitelman (11) likes the ability to tell if another user is online, which allows her to contact others knowing that they’ll respond soon, she said.

Fippinger said that the “history” feature of the app can be useful but is concerned that it can sometimes “feel a bit too much like living in a surveillance state.”

Despite the support for having a unified email system, many members of the community have recently encountered major drawbacks of the application, Kenner said. The main complaint from faculty and students alike revolves around the fact that the system is simply outdated, he said.

“The layout of the website is very 1980s-esque,” Agrawal said. His main complaints regarding the email system include the faulty search function, the auto-deleting of emails after 30 days, and the need to log-in or retype the server every time one checks email, he said.

Luke Harris (9) found the interface especially challenging to navigate when he began middle school, as he lacked prior experience with an email application similar to FirstClass as he was more comfortable with Gmail’s interface, he said.

For Samuel Korff (9), a transition to using FirstClass more in high school made him focus on some of its flaws. For example, Korff is unable to receive phone notifications from the app, which has inconvenienced him in high school as he now has to remember to open the app four to five times a day rather than three to four as he did in middle school, he said.

“On a computer, simply logging into the app takes at least two minutes because of the number of buttons one has to click even to see their inbox,” Dutta said.

Many of the complaints students and teachers discuss with the Technology department focus on the functionality of the mobile app, Kenner said.

Many seemingly simple tasks take much longer when using the FirstClass mobile app compared to Gmail, such as emailing multiple people at once or adding the CC or BCC features, Gupta said.

One issue that Dutta faces is a glitch in the app that causes it to lose connection and erase email drafts, which often forces her to rewrite emails multiple times, she said.

“Every time I use the app, it feels like messages I create are in constant danger of getting wiped out,” Worrall said. “Also, if you make a message that’s longer than a few lines, I stop seeing the text I’m typing, since it scrolls under the bottom of the screen without letting me see where it’s gone.”

Apart from minor inconveniences, the old interface of the app has led students to lose access to the FirstClass application for long periods of time. Kyra Stinebaugh (7) uses a Google Pixel and regularly needs to visit the Technology department to update the email server.

Prior to a major iOS update from Apple, FirstClass had planned to stop updating their mobile app altogether, posing a problem for iPhone and iPad users. Due to incompatibility, the app would not have run at all under the new iOS version. The company reconsidered and released an updated app, but it was riddled with obvious and easily fixable bugs, some of which the company addressed with further updates and others that have still not been addressed, Kenner said.

“FirstClass becomes less and less effective as time goes on, and they haven’t kept the apps up to date as well as they should,” Kenner said. “As more and more people depend upon mobile devices, FirstClass becomes less and less a usable tool.”

F o r the time being, the school is staying with FirstClass due to their long investment in the email system and the files stored within the system, Kenner said. However, Kenner began to think about a potential server switch since the rise of Gmail over 10 years ago, he said.

The Technology department foresees that the school will be forced to make a transition in the near future, as an increased number of complaints regarding the outdated interface of FirstClass arise every year, Kenner said.

In fact, many other New York City independent schools have already moved away from the email system. Danielle Paulson (11) previously attended The Spence School, which had already shifted from FirstClass to Microsoft Outlook when she began middle school, she said.

According to the 1994 issue of The Record, The Dalton School was originally praised as one of the first schools to provide 24 hour email communication between students and faculty, “leading the pack.” However, it has remained one of the only other schools that continues to use FirstClass.

Fortunately, the school is well equipped to transition to a new email system if need be, as the company that manages Firstclass for the school also specializes in transitioning to different email systems, Kenner said.

The possibility of a switch generated mixed responses within the school.

Jaden Piccirillo (10) said he felt indifferent regarding the possibility of change. “I don’t think there’s a big difference between FirstClass and other email servers, and FirstClass includes all of the most important features that I need on a day to day basis,” Piccirillo said.

Allinson, however, would prefer to stick with FirstClass over Gmail in order to keep her school email and personal email on different servers, she said.

On an individual level, some students have already shifted from FirstClass by forwarding their emails to their personal Gmail account.

Agrawal spent around 45 minutes configuring his FirstClass settings to forward all emails to Gmail at the beginning of his sophomore year and has experienced much greater efficiency with the system, he said. “The original impetus was the auto-deleting emails feature, as I missed important emails,” Agrawal said. “Over time, I’ve seen how Gmail actually has additional features like auto-login and better search tools that have caused me to stay [with Gmail],” he said.

Gitelman also went through the same process in order to combine her personal and school emails together. “The only issue is that I have to remember to open each email in FirstClass and respond there,” she said. “One bad habit is that I’ll open an email in Gmail and forget to respond through FirstClass for a while, so I have to remind myself to immediately respond or set reminders on my phone.”

With a transition to a different email system, Gitelman hopes to be able to both send and receive emails within Gmail instead of sending emails through Firstclass, and receiving them through Gmail, she said.

Fippinger would prefer a transition to Gmail over other potential systems, he said. “Switching would make our email much more useful in addition to faster and prettier, and it could also integrate with other Google apps that would add great benefit,” he said.

“Using email is an intrinsic part of every activity at the school, so although I’m not sure of which interface would be best, it’s really important to arrive at a consensus and compromise for each member of the community,” Lee said.