Seven Questions to Ask About Texting in Class

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Despite their ubiquity among students, mobile phones are still viewed as contraband in most classrooms. Students are told to turn their phones off, leave them in their lockers, or leave them at home. This response to what is arguably the most ubiquitous 1-to-1 computing device available in our schools today undoubtedly led many students to list bans on mobile phones as one of the biggest obstacles to technology use in the recent Speak Up 2010 report.

That same report also indicated that parents and students were paying for these devices themselves -- and were more than willing to purchase data plans if mobile phones would be accepted in the classroom. This willingness on the part of parents to subsidize technology in the classroom could free up valuable school funds for purposes other than buying hardware. If for no other reason, this may be cause to think twice about blanket bans on mobile phones in the classroom.

Meanwhile, a number of projects underway are moving forward in exploring how these devices can be used for educational purposes in countries outside the U.S. where there are far fewer computers per household.

The World Bank's ICT and education specialist Michael Trucano recently highlighted a number of interesting pilot projects in Pakistan that are demonstrating how those with even very low-end mobile phones can leverage these devices to open up new learning opportunities.


Trucano describes a project at Asghar Mall College in Rawalapindi where students receive a daily vocabulary quiz via SMS (mobile phone text). The multiple choice quiz is addressed to each student individually. The students reply to the quiz via SMS, then receive an automated response based on their answer. This response notes whether or not the student was correct, and uses the correct answer in a sample sentence.

"This sort of thing is no substitute for school, of course," writes Trucano. "But, given current test messaging rates in Pakistan -- a country with some of the fastest growth in recent years in text messaging in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as some of the lowest tarif rates -- it is quite cheap. It is 'on-the-go.' It is supplemental to what is being taught in the classroom, and increasingly easy to do, given the technology tools and code base out there. While Pakistan may not see high household penetration rates of desktop computers connected to the Internet for many, many years to come, most every household already has access to a small connected 'computer' of a different sort -- the mobile phone -- and this project is seeking to capitalize on this reality."

Trucano also notes that some of these students may have been educated in very large, lecture-based classrooms up until now, and the feedback via SMS may be their first experience with this sort of "personalized" response.

In that vein, some questions to consider:

  • What's the impact of messages related to classwork when they're part of a large stream of messages students receive from friends, family, horoscope advice, sports scores and so on?
  • What sort of learning happens best (or is reinforced best, perhaps) via SMS?
  • How can these sorts of messages be adapted to students' progress and how can they be sequenced and scaffolded over time?
  • How many students are able and willing to participate in these sorts of educational activities via their mobile phone? Can students afford the texting fees? Do they want to use their text-messaging allocations for this purpose?
  • Can we subsidize this sort of SMS traffic for student populations?
  • If these sorts of messages between home and school become more common, will there be a way to include parents and parents' phones in the loop?
  • Can these quizzes be sent to parents' phones so that they can have the opportunity to pose a question to their children? "This would, in a very small, modest way, alert parents to what students are supposed to be learning," suggests Trucano. "If students don't know the answer, this may trigger parents to push their kids more, and/or to question whether the school is doing a good job in this area (including whether or not the official curriculum is being followed at all!)."

Although the World Bank blog post focuses primarily on the pilot project in Pakistan, there are a number of other text-messaging apps and programs out there, including StudyBoost and Remind101, that let teachers send quizzes and assignments "home" via SMS and that let students run through flashcards and study guides.

SMS educational apps may seem incredibly simple, but they may well be aimed at just the communication medium that students are most likely to use -- text-messaging on their mobile phones. How can schools and parents take better advantage of students' phone usage and ownership -- even if it isn't something that necessarily happens in the classroom?