May 24 2013

Seven Concerning Statistics About Texting and Two Ways Professors are Tackling SMS

Are cell phones distracting or engaging? The short answer: both.

Text messaging has been an issue in college classrooms for years. While some professors think SMS communication is hugely distracting, others are finding ways to turn mobile devices into tools of engagement. Now that 87 percent of adults own a cell phone, professors are forced to pay attention, regardless of their position.

At Wilkes University, professors were concerned enough about the trend that they conducted a study in which students were surveyed on the use of cell phones in class. The results were troubling, as even the students admitted that cell phones were a distraction and were sometimes used for cheating. Here’s a look at some of the most interesting results from the survey, which was published in late 2010.

Of the Wilkes University students who completed the survey:

99% believed cell phones should be allowed in the classroom
95% brought their phones to class every day
91% had used their phones to text message during class
62% said texting in class should be allowed if it doesn't disturb others
25% stated that texting creates a distraction to those sitting nearby
10% indicated that they had sent or received text messages during exams
3% admitted to transmitting exam information during a test

Wilkes offered recommendations to the faculty, including marking students absent if they were caught texting in class. In addition:

Have a clear, written policy about cell phone use and enforce it consistently. State that phones must be out of sight and turned off during class. Make penalties clear, such as losing points or dropping a letter grade for unauthorized cell phone use. Penalties can be applied to attendance or participation credit by assuming that if a student is texting in class, they are not “present.”

This strategy might be effective in the short term, but is it the right solution to a mobile trend that is still growing rapidly?

Addressing SMS in the Classroom

Texting is just one element of the overall mobile trend, which has major implications for higher education. BYOD (bring your own device) programs are sprouting up at colleges around the country, though many schools lack the clear policies necessary to be successful at turning mobile devices into learning tools instead of distractions. As with many emerging technologies, SMS and BYOD are more about policy and management than about hardware and software.

While not every professor would agree that texting is detrimental to learning, most would concur that SMS technology is extremely powerful. How can professors harness this ubiquitous technology to engage their students in course materials and classroom activities?

At Tennessee Tech University, instructional technologists recently launched a web-based student response system. For $20 per year, students can opt to use their own mobile devices instead of clickers to respond to professors via SMS.

Andy Selsberg of John Jay College has an innovative approach to using texting for his freshman English students: He encourages them to practice writing concisely by leveraging platforms like SMS and Twitter:

A lot can be said with a little — the mundane and the extraordinary. Philosophers like Confucius (“Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous.”) and Nietzsche were kings of the aphorism.

And short isn’t necessarily a shortcut. When you have only a sentence or two, there’s nowhere to hide. I’m not suggesting that colleges eliminate long writing projects from English courses, but maybe we should save them for the second semester. Rewarding concision first will encourage students to be economical and innovative with language. Who knows, we might even start to leave behind text messages and comment threads that our civilization can be proud of.

To be sure, mobile technology is still growing and evolving. It’s refreshing to see new approaches applied to these “problems.” Do you have a story about using SMS with your students? Let us know in the Comments section.