Texting in education

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Technology is changing the way young people communicate with each other. A recent report released by anti-bullying charity, Beatbullying, found that there was widespread use of the humble text message as a tool for bullying. In particular, a third of secondary school children have been sent messages containing sexual content. These sex texts, or 'sexts', often contained images of a sexual nature involving both boys and girls – usually of youngsters exposing themselves.

With such material so easy to capture by phone, so easy to Bluetooth and so easy to upload to websites or social networking groups, has the innocent text crossed over the line to the dark side? Here, we look at real-life examples of how texting can be used positively in an educational environment.

The obsession with social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter might make you think that the humble text message has fallen out of favour. Texts of late have been linked to unrelenting bullying campaigns and the dire consequences of “sexting” (sending images of a sexual content to other mobile phones – friends or otherwise).

However, the statistics show that UK mobile phone users sent 7.7 billion text messages in December 2008, and the chances are that the majority of these messages were arranging to meet friends by the fountains in Trafalgar Square, or possibly voting for the cute one on the X Factor.

Approximately 60% of the world’s population now owns, or has access to, a mobile phone, with 4.1 billion mobile phone contracts running annually according to a 2009 United Nations survey. As mobile technology continues to develop in sophistication, many organisations are seeing the potential of using mobile phones to communicate and engage with their audiences.

There have long been reports of schools banning mobile phones from the classroom, blaming their constant beeping and general presence as a source of distraction. However, many schools, colleges and universities have recognised the opportunity presented by a technology that has become second nature. Text messages are being used to provide services, engage with pupils, and be used as a learning tool.

Admissions

A particularly stressful and anxious time, possibly more so for parents, is actually getting children into their school of choice. There may be a bundle of reasons why one school is preferred over another, such as special needs requirements, location, or a decreased risk of bullying. ACE (The Advisory Centre for Education), which is the free, independent education advice service, launched a text message service last year. During the admissions period, parents were able to text the word “ADMISSIONS” to a dedicated number to receive free advice on what to do should they wish to appeal against the school their child has been offered, or to get help on any part of the admissions process. The service supports the call centre which often deals with over 1,500 calls about admissions and appeals. According to the team at ACE, the text service was able to provide fast, easily accessible information and support to a higher volume of individuals than its call centres could have coped with in the same amount of time.

School announcements

Reaching a vast audience quickly and using a medium which is, on the whole, always within reach has great appeal. Once the pupil is at school or at university, there are many variables which could impact schedules. This year, the country was taken by surprise by severe snowfall, which knocked out public transport services and forced many educational institutions to close. A few years back the parents – and hopeful children – would listen to the local radio station to see whether their school had been affected and would be closed. Alternatively, the school office would be swamped by phone calls, each asking the same question. Many schools have now added text messages to their communication strategy and can distribute hundreds of messages to parents and students through a single computer. These can be automated messages giving up-to-date information and advice about unexpected events such as school closures or Swine Flu. Additionally, students at university or college can receive information about room changes, or gentle reminders about looming essay deadlines.

Communication channels

Yorkshire Coast College, for example, has installed texting software on the college’s server to improve communication with its students and also to make them feel more engaged with the college. An innovative tactic has been to track students’ attendance and send a simple text message to their mobile phone or laptop if they miss a class. This has resulted in a 10% improvement in attendance at the college.

There have been high profile reports of victims of Facebook hate campaigns, or provocative images sent by an enthusiastic girl to her indiscreet boyfriend via text message and finding its way into hundreds of people’s inboxes. However, schools and universities are turning to the same channels to counteract the problem. Text messages provide a valuable way to initiate communication for children who find themselves the victim of bullying. Pupils can text counsellors with relative anonymity, taking away any embarrassment or shyness,   to report instances of abuse, or seek advice and support in a “safe” forum. In time, it is likely that the trust will have been built significantly enough to develop into physical meeting, in which the issue can be tackled with more effect.

Texting to learn

Finally, a wave of colleges is integrating text messages into courses as a learning tool. Not every student is as confident as the next and asking questions during a lecture can be intimidating. There is always the fear of looking stupid that crosses the mind, or worrying that your question has already been answered, but you missed that bit. A university in Nottingham enables students to text the lecturer with questions throughout the duration of the lesson. The questions can be texted to a dedicated number and appear automatically on a message board in real time. This has this allowed some students to overcome their shyness and reservations about asking questions, often to the benefit of everyone else in the room.

Technology is likely to continue to transform the way that students learn. Blackboards have been replaced with interactive whiteboards, text books are supplemented with endless information provided by the internet, discussion is encouraged through online forums and coursework can be submitted with the click of a button. Text messages have the advantage that they can be received at any time of the day in any location. Trials are currently underway with a university to send multiple choice questions via text message, which students have to immediately reply to. Their responses would then count, in part, towards their final grade.

Despite the surge in popularity of social networking sites and the internet in general, we must not lose sight of the simplicity that text messages provide. It would seem that the text message still has life in it yet.

Stephen McCann, managing director, txttools
www. txttools.co.uk

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