Monday, May 28, 2012

Texting With Teachers Keeps Students in Class

Texting With Teachers Keeps Students in Class (view the original article here)

By Stephen Noonoo     04/10/12

Tenth-grader Kayli Work is going to be late for English class.

Where some students might wrestle with their anxiety in silence, Work, a student at Nutana Collegiate Institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, takes out her cell phone, flicks a few keys, and hits send. She's just sent a text message to her teacher, who will be much more understanding about her tardiness thanks to the heads up. If she ends up missing the lesson, she will receive her assignments and their due dates from her teacher right on her phone.

"It's a lot less stressful if you can text your teacher," Work said, "instead of going in late and worrying what they're going to say."

For all the high-profile talk among educators grappling with whether or not to use cell phones in the classroom, the chatter has been far more hushed when it comes to using them to reach students outside it.

But that's exactly the tack Nutana Collegiate has taken in a new mobile initiative that uses text messaging to keep students and teachers in constant contact. The school provides school-owned cell phones to students from remote areas and low-income backgrounds who were previously forced off-grid when school ended.

Nutana functions as a transitional school, catering to a diverse--sometimes transient--student population. For some, it's a school of last resort; for others, a quick way to retake classes for higher grades thanks to a shortened quarter system.

"Absenteeism is pretty high, for all kinds of reasons," said Tyler Campbell, a former contract teacher at the school whose 10th-grade English class piloted the program last fall with more than 20 students. "We have some students who don't come to school when it's 30 below [zero] because it's five miles [to school] and they have to walk because they can't afford a bus pass. If we can engage them, we try to explore every avenue."

As the school looked for ways to keep its most vulnerable students interested, and improve its low retention rate, it began to mull new communication strategies that would meet kids where they felt most comfortable. After a survey revealed that more than half the school's student body preferred text messaging as a primary means of communication, school administrators and support staff decided to test the theory that, given the chance, students would gladly trade texts with teachers, thereby making them more accountable.

At least one hiccup was immediately apparent. "Not all of our students have a land line, and not all of them have a cell phone," said Phyllis Fowler, Nutana's community school coordinator, who helps run an extensive student support network at the school.

That's where regional telecom provider SaskTel, one of the school's longstanding community partners, came in.

Under terms of the partnership, SaskTel provided resources to the school and allowed it to purchase its choice of cell phones and data plans for students in the 10th-grade pilot, called Project Mobile. Campbell then swapped numbers with his students and began the two-month long experiment in student-teacher contact 2.0 last fall.

"Just my first quarter alone, I sent and received thousands of texts," Campbell said. "It got to be overwhelming at first, but you kind of get the hang of it."

While much of the deluge was back-and-forth banter on tardiness, homework, or grade anxiety, Campbell also began using the constant communiqués as a means to engage students in learning. He began texting a daily journal topic every morning and encouraged students to think about it before they came to class. So far, it's been largely effective, perhaps as a result of the psychology that makes cell phones so addictive for teens in the first place.

"Everyone has a compulsion to read that text message when it bleeps, bings, chimes, or vibrates. No exceptions," Campbell has written of the program. "Sooner or later you have to open that text and read it. It's like captive-audience advertising, but for the good guys in education, rather than marketing."

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