Mobile Learning | Feature

Texting With Teachers Keeps Students in Class

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."

Over time, even Campbell's most laconic students began to open up via text message. "You get to be pretty connected with these students," he said. "They're sharing pretty personal things. Sometimes they're facing life situations they don't know how to handle, so they'd ask me what to do about it. It's kind of humbling."

Before the program began, school officials made sure to set the tone and let students know what was expected of them. Without special permission, for example, students cannot use the phones during the school day. And teachers don't generally check their phones during instructional time. "It's still human interaction in class," said Cole Kirby, the school's principal.

While the school had fretted over students tearing through their data plans, which were not unlimited, Kirby said students were extremely respectful. "After the first quarter when we got the bill, only one student was slightly over their minutes," he said.

Eman Elbardouh, who, as an intern at the school, helped coordinate the program with SaskTel, has taken the mantle from Campbell after his class ended and now manages a pilot class of her own. "As a teacher, I was happy and a bit surprised to see them texting me on the weekends about something we discussed on the previous day, or letting me know if something we talked about in class was in the news," she said. "Learning isn't ending at 3 p.m."

According to the school, in its short existence the program has already seen monumental success. The retention rate in the pilot English classes now hovers around 83 percent, compared with an average rate of 25 percent in non-pilot classes. Attendance in the pilot classes is between 5 and 10 percent higher than average, and the number of credits the school is awarding to students in those classes is 30 percent higher.

"A lot of the students who are unsuccessful in getting their credits in the class itself, we know where they're at and we know they're producing work, so we actually move them into the same class the next quarter so they can finish up," explained Vice Principal Shane Bradley.

The school has already begun expanding the program beyond the confines of the pilot class. Students and teachers in other classes are encouraged to trade numbers, and students can text in absences instead of calling through the front office.

"We would like it if all other classes could do this," said Jessica Monroe, a 10th-grade student in Elbardouh's class. "It just makes for a really good student-teacher relationship."

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.