Online Learning 2.0: Why You Should Be Texting Your Students

Faculty generally view texting as the Devil's work. It distracts students from the lecture—and even from ordinary activities such as eating and walking. But while it's true that uncontrolled texting in class splits student attention, controlled texting via in-class polling questions can be a great way to reinforce learning. Free systems such as Poll Everywhere (www.polleverywhere.com/) allow you to insert a poll into a PowerPoint presentation that students answer via text messages. The visual of the…

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Faculty generally view texting as the Devil's work. It distracts students from the lecture—and even from ordinary activities such as eating and walking. But while it's true that uncontrolled texting in class splits student attention, controlled texting via in-class polling questions can be a great way to reinforce learning. Free systems such as Poll Everywhere (www.polleverywhere.com/) allow you to insert a poll into a PowerPoint presentation that students answer via text messages. The visual of the bars moving across the screen as the results are updated in real time captures their attention and can increase their investment in the material. This works much better than asking students to raise their hands to vote on an answer because students who are ready to raise their hands, but see no other hands up, will quickly lower them. Public questioning skews the results toward majority rule. Geddit (http://letsgeddit.com/) is another excellent system that allows you to privately ask students whether they understood the material. How many students will raise their hands if you publicly ask whether anybody does not get what you just said? But there is no reason to stop with in-class texting. The fact that texting is ubiquitous among young people makes it the ideal way to reach them outside of class. Those of us who started teaching during the Late Middle Ages (i.e., before 2000) are wedded to email as our primary means of electronic communication. But email has long become passé among today's youth. A good teacher meets students where they are, not where he or she wants them to be. Now I know what you are thinking, “I don't have the thumbs for that.” But there are browser-based ways to text that make it no more difficult than writing an email. Plus, you can send texts to all your students in a class at once. Let's first take a look at how you can use texting and then cover a few systems for sending texts. The mobile nudge One of the best uses of texting outside of class is to give students a “mobile nudge.” We get mad at students who forget our deadlines, but it's easy to forget upcoming events when we do not have any reminder coming to us. I own some rental units and used to constantly call young tenants to remind them about overdue rent. Then I realized that I get a reminder of my bills in the mail or by email. Without those, I would likely forget them. So I started sending text messages to all my tenants before the rent was due, which has improved timeliness. Similarly, you will save yourself some time and effort by simply sending text reminders of upcoming deadlines to your students. I send out text reminders two days before assignments are due. The mobile nudge is also helpful when students are doing long-term projects and need nudges about milestone dates to maintain progress. Plus, the nudge may activate a question about the project that they can ask immediately with a reply. This allows them to clarify misconceptions and get missing information before the last minute when the project is due. Staying in touch Texting is also a good way to just stay in touch with students outside of class. It is easy to lose touch with students in an online course, or even in a face-to-face course where students are coming from and going to different classes and don't hang around after class. Students encounter problems with their assignments or have questions outside of class when you are not there to help. Students can be encouraged to text questions about material as they have them while studying or doing something else. Granted, you might not be available to respond immediately, and you should tell students that you will not always be “on call,” but at least they have raised and preserved the question when it comes to mind so that you can get to it later. Texting systems Sending texts on cell phones is laborious. Plus, you want to send the same text to everyone when sending a mobile nudge. Luckily, there are systems that not only send texts to groups of people at once, but do it through a good old-fashioned keyboard. Here are two recommendations, as well as a video tutorial on how to use them. Gmail A little known feature of Gmail is that it allows you to send texts just as you would an ordinary email. You only need to know the cell phone numbers of your students and their carriers. You merely enter their numbers in the front end of the email address field and the proper carrier information after the “@” symbol. Carrier information can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/y9gmj3w. First, ask your students to send their numbers and carrier information by email at the beginning of class. Then send them a mass email and their contact information will be stored in your Gmail account. You can use this to send individual texts as well as to create a class group to send mass texts later. Remind Remind, which used to be called Remind 101, is a website that allows teachers to set up a class account and manage all their texting activity from one location. Setting up a free account and class takes all of 60 seconds, and once you have it you can send and receive individual or group texts from the site. Best yet, you can even schedule messages to send in the future. So you can schedule text reminders to your class at the beginning of the course and have them go out automatically. Once you line up the text messages you will use, you have them available for future classes. Another reason to use Remind is that the password protection adds a measure of distance between your own account and the students, if you are worried about spam. So start texting your students to better stay in touch and keep them on track. John Orlando writes, consults, and teaches faculty how to use technology to improve learning. He helped build and direct distance learning programs at the University of Vermont and Norwich University, and has written more than 50 articles and delivered more than 60 workshops on teaching with technology. John is the associate director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Northcentral University, serves on the Online Classroom editorial advisory board, and is a regular contributor to Online Classroom.