The Rise (and Fall?) of Text Messaging in Schools

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Over the last few months, there has been increased interest in using text-messaging at school. Although many schools do still have strict policies that forbid using cell phones in class, more are exploring ways to use text-messaging as a communication tool to bridge home and school.

There's also been an explosion in new tech start-ups that offer services for just this purpose. They're taking advantage of students' and families' access to cell phones, but more importantly perhaps, they're tapping into the popularity of text-messaging among teens. They're also working to make sure that the SMS communication is safe, that both student and teacher privacy is protected, and that records are kept so that any inappropriate behavior can be identified. Some of these startups include Remind 101, Cel.ly, and Snapp School. (You can read more about Cel.ly here.)

Interesting, at some of the most recent Startup Weekend EDUs -- an event that brings together educators, engineers, and entrepreneurs to launch education startups over the course of a weekend -- winning teams have built text-messaging apps: ClassParrot was the winner of the recent Mega Startup Weekend in Mountain View, and Text2Teach won first prize at Seattle's Startup Weekend.

It's an indication that text-messaging is becoming recognized as a powerful tool that schools should find a way to use. It's one that can keep students engaged in class (though that idea remains fairly controversial, as cell phones are still viewed by many as a distraction). And it's one that can help bridge the communication gulf between home and school.

But just as text-messaging may be on the cusp of widespread adoption in schools, there are rumblings in other sectors that text-messaging is dead. Or more accurately, perhaps, that text-messaging should simply die.

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Part of the call for the end of text-messaging is that it is an incredibly expensive service, one that the phone carriers profit greatly from. Although text-messaging involves sending data, the charges for SMS are separated from a cell phone user's regular data plan. Earlier this year, the technology blog Gizmodo did the math on how much users pay for a text versus how much they pay for the same amount of data -- assuming, that is, that the typical text is roughly 160 bytes. According to its calculations, you pay $.20 per text for a "text." But when you send that same amount of data as, well, "data," you pay $.000002. Ouch.

The cost of a text-message might seem inconsequential, but when you consider the number of text-messages that the average teen sends per day, it adds up quickly. And if you consider the number of text messages that a school might send to hundreds of students, or a teacher might send to multiple classes of 30 or so students -- during a typical week or over the course of the school year -- the cost of text-messaging starts to look like it might outweigh any argument about the benefits of better communication.

While there could be solutions here on the carriers' end -- discounted messaging for schools, for example -- some people are placing their bets on apps versus SMS. Take last week's release of Apple's latest mobile operating system, iOS 5, that included iMessage. This is a new messaging service that allows anyone using iOS 5 -- whether on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, to send -- to communicate with others who use the devices. You can send text messages, photos, videos. It also includes a group-messaging feature. These messages are all free (or rather, they're included as part of users' data plans, which as indicated above, comes at a cheaper per byte rate than SMS).

The problem here, of course, is that this only works on Apple mobile devices. It's a good solution for those with the high-end smart-phones, but a lousy solution in terms of equity -- or for those who prefer to use non-Apple devices.

Of course, free messaging comes with other smartphone apps too. Google Voice, for example, allows you to send text-messages without paying texting fees, and there are a number of generic "messaging apps."

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But the beauty of SMS is that it works on any phone, whether it's an Android or an iPhone or a very basic flip phone. Text messaging is also the tool that many students already use. They're more apt to read and respond to texts -- they're comfortable communicating that way. That makes texting an important tool for reaching them and reaching families. But as schools begin to embrace SMS, it's still worth pointing out that it's an expensive way to communicate -- and one the tech world is hedging will go away.

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