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Teaching with Text Messages

What is commonly referred to as texting, and sometimes Short Message Service (SMS), includes sending and receiving short messages via cell phones. This very specific functionality of mobile communication is gaining ground in education as a way for instructors to connect with students, especially those working at a distance, and even create new assignment options.

According to the College Students and Technology report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, cell phone ownership is widespread. In 2010, 82% of all adults and 96% of undergraduate students surveyed had the devices. Similarly, last year's ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology found that "almost all students (93%) use text messaging as a communication tool." ECAR also found that students' smartphone use in academic settings includes texting other students about coursework (61%) and texting professors (19%).

When it's OK to Text in Class

Text messages are brief, similar to Twitter, and made up of around 160 characters. So how exactly can texting be used in the context of a formal academic course? Here are a couple of examples from around the web:

Course Announcements: Do students read the announcements you post on your course site or send via email? Text messaging may be an effective alternative to remind them about assignment due dates, announce last minute changes, share that grades have been posted, and pass along helpful resources. Jason Rhode from Northern Illinois University recently presented his experimentation with text messaging in his own courses, providing an option for students to receive course updates and announcements via text message.

Writing Assignments: Andy Selsberg, an English composition instructor at John Jay College, incorporates shorter text message-type assignments in his courses as a complement to longer essays and papers. In one example, students "describe the essence of the chalkboard in one or two sentences." He notes, "a lot can be said with a little" and the skill that comes from practicing thoughtful, but concise writing, can be applied in a variety of contexts, such as writing a professional networking email message. "Learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently, is an incredibly useful skill, and more in tune with most students' daily chatter, as well as the world's conversation." Selsberg also observes that with large course enrollments, shorter assignments may mean more time for attention and feedback for each student's submission.

It seems that texting for class purposes is generally well-received by students. Rhode found that a majority of his students recommended he continue offering it as an option for receiving course announcements. A study from educational researchers at Kent State University and the University of Northern Colorado, focusing specifically on the use of text messages in online courses [PDF], also found that "students were positive about receiving text messages" and that engaging in this type of communication in their courses was "a good idea as well as a useful one."

Texting Tools

Remind101 and Celly are applications designed to improve communication between instructors and students, and between teachers and parents at the K-12 level. Users can, in essence, subscribe to receive text messages without having to exchange phone number information, so there is a privacy component. There are also features that allow instructors to schedule messages in advance and manage groups, so that one message can be sent to multiple people at once.

Rhode describes in a blog post how he sent text messages to students via email for free. Using Google Voice and the Google Voice app, he provided a single number through which students could call or text him, and he was able to monitor that feed separately from personal accounts. This post also describes the use of SMS email gateways, which convert email messages to SMS, and provides resources for finding out more about how each mobile carrier allows for text messaging via special addresses.

Issues to Consider

As with all technologies, the application of text messaging as a communication tool in an online course has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Access: Because of ownership and experience with texting in their personal lives, the adoption of text messages in a class means that students can "check in" and receive notifications without having to access a course website or log in to a learning management system. They already keep these devices close by and check them frequently.
  • Costs: There is a potential cost associated with text messaging through mobile carriers and the variety of plans available. Students and instructors should confirm their options before engaging in a text messaging course project, just to be sure that no unexpected charges appear on their accounts.
  • Writing Skills: Writing with textspeak in academic work is a common complaint of teachers at all levels, who discourage students from using the acronyms (e.g., LOL, BTW, gr8) often used to convey thoughts and ideas using fewer characters. An ongoing poll from shows that a majority of respondents "believe that students are carrying over the writing habits they pick up through text messaging into school assignments." It may be necessary to address this issue with clear rules about formatting and spelling expectations as part of an assignment's instructions, in order to promote better writing habits.

While texting may not be effective for more in-depth or long-term conversations, it does offer an alternative way to communicate in your courses, quickly reach students, and allow them to reach you quickly as well. Before adding texting to your course, take a closer look at your goals and objectives and consider how it might enhance communication and ultimately the learning experience.

Are text messages useful in your online courses? Share your experiences and ideas with us here.

Image credit:, Flickr, CC:BY-ND