Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five Ways Innovative Educators Can Use Texting As a Professional Tool

Text messaging is the dominant form of communication for cell phone users who are sending more text messages than they are making phone calls, according to a Nielsen Mobile survey. This trend has caught on with educators who are becoming increasingly reliant on texting as a form of communication that is often more appropriate then a phone call, email, face to face visit, or letter. The first step for becoming comfortable with using cell phones as instructional tools is for teachers to use them, themselves. This enables educators to harness the power of these personal learning devices even in schools where students may be banned from bringing digital devices to school. Here are some ways educators can use texting in particular and cell phones in general as powerful and effective professional and educational tools.

Texting as an Efficient and Effective Communication Tool

Texting has become a dominate communication tool for educators because it has proven more efficient and effective then other forms of communication among colleagues. Few schools were ever able to succeed in installing landline phones in classrooms. Instead they use a disruptive announcement system that detracts from learning to communicate with students and staff even though the message usually only pertains to a small portion of the school population...or in some cases just one person i.e. "John Smith, please come to the main office." This instructional intrusion is no longer necessary as texting enables educators to communicate short, efficient messages to one another without robbing students of instructional time. It also enables educators to communicate with one another, when necessary, outside the school day without interrupting their personal lives. In short, educators can text at times when it would be inappropriate to talk on the phone and it's quick.

Enhancing The Home-School Connection

For educators in schools,Meet the Parents texting has become more and important as sms notification tools are increasing parental involvement in their child’s school life and text and email alert systems increase home - school communication. While most schools initially get notification systems for emergency situations, they often end up using it for everything else. In New York City, many schools use SchoolMessenger to communicate through multiple modes: text, voice, mms, email, etc and get messages about all types of things including attendance, truancy, school meetings, and emergencies ( 04/29/08). The Journal has an excellent article on how schools are using notification tools for more than emergency alerts. In fact some schools are using it in a way that can revolutionize parent involvement moving beyond basics using services such as TeleParent ( 04/01/08). In addition to the basic emergency notification TeleParent with its Situational Student Messaging gives parents a daily student profile that includes information like tardiness to class, participation, homework, and conduct. This moves the mundane conversation that usually goes something like, Dad: "How was your day?" Child: "Fine." To something more like, Dad: "I see you are work on a self portrait in art class and that you are having some difficulty with your science project. Can you share more about this?" which can lead to a robust conversation and focused launch into looking at and/or discussing this work. The emphasis on parental involvement is a wonderful bridge to success for students. According to the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory study, “Students with involved parents are more likely to attend school regularly, earn higher grades, and have better social skills.”

Free Audience Response System
Poll Everywhere provides educators with a simple method to share their voice and ideas right from their phones. If an educator wants feedback on any topic, they can use this tool. With Poll Everywhere everyone's voice can be heard by texting 99503 and texting in your vote just like they do on American Idol. No equipment needed or software to download within seconds educators have audience responses. Another nice feature is that it doesn't matter what cell phones people use. Responses are instantly combined. Educators can use this nifty tool in a variety of ways. Here are just a few. 1) It's cold outside and there is going to be an indoor lunch. Survey the teachers for which movie their class wants to watch. 2) School question of the day. Teachers select one student each day to highlight. That student is given the phone and enters their answer which is sent to Poll Everywhere along with the answers from other classes. This feeds into one stream that can be displayed on digital monitors in every classroom and the building entrance. 3) Use Poll Everywhere to send a schoolwide get well to a sick student or teacher. Each class crafts a message and the link is shared with the absent student or teacher. What a great way to wish a student or teacher well.

SMS Tweeting from Your Phone to Gain a Collective Intelligence on Topics of Importance

Twitter is a great tool for schools to use to share interesting and relevant information with the student body, staff, parents and family. No software to download and with just one teacher cell phone per class, a lot of contributing can be done and modeled anywhere, anytime. There are three steps to follow to get started. 1) set up a twitter account 2) enable texting updates from your phone 3) select your tag. Here's how you do this.

To use twitter from your phone go to and set up an account. Teachers may want to set up a personal account as well as an account for their class where they can Tweet from. Principals may want to set up a school account and give teachers access to send in Tweets. You can Tweet from your phone by entering your number at and entering Twitter into your phone with this number: 40404. Don't worry that it is only 5 digits. Just send a text to it and it will show up in your Twitterfeed. Next you'll need to to select a short tag (an approximately 6 letters or less searchable word or acronym) and then have your audience’s tweets include that tag. For context one of the more famous tags that made Twitter popular was IranElection. Schools can use an acronym. For example, Barack Obama High School might be BOHS. In New York City schools all have a district, borough, location (DBN) identifier i.e. 06M001. The DBN is a unique tag that could also be used. Users can contribute by simply sms texting on their phone and ensuring the text includes the tag. You can capture the Tweets in any number of forms. The easiest is to do a simple Twitter search for the tag by typing it into the search box on the right side of the page.

Once you're set up, you can start tweeting your way into the microblogging community. Here are some ways you may want to use Twitter. 1) If school staff are attending a conference or professional development activity they tweet reflections, favorite quotes, or reactions to what they're learning. You can read how a group of school leaders did this at Leading By Example - Transforming Education for the 21st Century ( 2) School staff can tweet interesting announcements, updates, and activities at any time into the school account. This can be fed right into a school website providing the school community, parents, and more with an ongoing stream of updates about school happenings. See how one school does this at 3) Use your class, library, or lab twitter account to share news and information with your students and teachers. For a great example of how this is done, follow Tracy Karas of Marta Valle High School in New York City at

Google SMS as an Educational Tool That Can Be Used Directly From Your Phone
Teachers may not always have access to a computer, but most do have access to a cell phone. Today, even with a text-only plan, much of the vast amount of knowledge and information formerly available to only those with the internet are available anytime, anywhere directly through texting. Educators have access to an endless amount of information at their fingertips by texting "G-O-O-G-L-E" at 466453. Once you have GOOGLE in your address book you have untapped an unlimited treasure trove of knowledge and information. Here is what you can access with using GOOGLE text messaging listed by "Search Feature" and "Sample Query" below. You simply type in the query and GOOGLE instantly texts you the response.
Q&A - abraham lincoln birthday | Translation - translate hello in french | Web Snippets - web hubble telescope | Calculator - 1 us pint in liters | Currency Conversion - 8 usd in yen | METAR - metar khio | Local - sushi 94040 | Weather - weather boston |Glossary - define zenith| Sports - score red sox | Stocks - stock tgt | Zip Codes - zip code 72202 |Directions - directions pasadena ca to 94043 | Maps - map 5th avenue new york |Flights - flight aa 2111 | Area Codes - area code 650 | Products - price ipod player 40gb |

To see a demonstration of how this functions visit There is endless pedagogical and professional value of having the ability to access this type of information anytime anywhere. Here are just a few ideas. 1) You may have a student who is not fluent in English. Hand him the phone and have him text his message to you in his native language. Enter the query translate in Italian before his text and send it off to Google. You will instantly get the student's message back in English. Respond via your phone in English back to the student in his Native language. 2) You or a student don't know the definition of a particular word? Text 466453 with the query "define" and type in the word. You'll get the definition and the source moments later. 3) Perhaps you and your class is reading a book that refers to the metric system and you're not sure how far 100 kilometers really is. Type in 100 kilometers in miles and you'll get you're answer.

In a class where the teacher-only has a cell phone in hand, she'll always be the smartest person in the room.

Starting with the device in your own pocket
Integrating texting into teaching isn't hard. Especially when you start by using the device in your own pocket/pocketbook. By doing so, educators are not only helping themselves, but they are also providing students with a great example of how these tools can be used for more than just socializing. Using and modeling effective, educational, and appropriate use of cells also lays a nice foundation and provides a comfortable starting point for teachers and schools who want to begin incorporating these devices into the work their students do.

Editors note: Unfortunately, even as a Technology Innovation Manager, I have been cut off from using this innovative digital tool since October after a decision was made for NYC DOE employees that ALL TEXT MESSAGING capabilities for DOE account holders will be disabled. It was a NYCDOE policy decision to disable the text messaging feature from all DOE issued devices. The rational for the disabling this service is all devices provided are for DOE business related communication and this communication must be documented. It is also the DOE position that communication thru text messaging is primarily for “personal use." Upon further investigation I learned the service could be restored if a professional case was made for using texting. I made my case more than two months ago and still have no service.


  1. My 9th graders are currently working on a mobile learning unit using Nokia devices on loan to us from a partnering organization. While the "official" loan allowed us to work around the cell phone ban, managing their recurring distribution and collection, checking for parts, and teaching and re-teaching the functions seemed a tremendous waste of time (and an unnecessary stress). Use of students' own phones would have allowed us smoother implementation, less fear of theft, and the oppotunity to teach students the potential of their existing technology.

  2. Randy VanvolkinburgJanuary 6, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    One of the biggest issues we as educators work around is the use of cell phones in the classroom. I teach 9th and 10th grade global studies and I am constantly telling the students to put their phones away. In our school as well students are not to have their phones on them during school hours, but everyone knows that they do. The rule is rarely enforced and often by half of the staff.

    Recently there has been a movement in our school to allow the use of the student's cellphone in a specific category. In my class I have the students photograph their notes and assignments so the work is always with them and they are being held responsible for what is owed. I have also allowed the students to text one another for a few minutes when working together in an assignment. I have also had students that have the internet on their phone use it to look up an answer in class. The students love to use their phones yet I still find students texting others outside school and in other classes.

    Secondly, I like the idea that the school would be able to reach the parents and students themselves through text messaging. This would allow more people to be reached in the event of a snow day or an important classroom announcement. The only issue I foresee is for the students (and there is a few) who do not have a cell phone. Why not utilize the new technology and eliminate the archaic method of a phone tree or the announcement system.

    Cell phones are an excellent tool when used productively in a classroom. However, we as teachers may be setting ourselves up for failure as the students may argue the point of why they can have their cell phone out at one time and not another. In this respect we must do what is best for our students and rather than eliminating cell phones entirely, working around any issues and bringing a tool already in the hands of the students into the classroom environment.

  3. I think the idea of using cell phones as an educational tool is very innovative. The problem arises that most of our schools incorporate a heavy cell phone ban, and usage charges from cell phone blogging or chat room are bound to hurt parent wallets even more then they already are. In addition, how can I organize an activity where I know students are not wasting time just surfing the internet or texting friends? I do believe that there is value somewhere in this idea. It is a proven fact that students' interest peaks when they are using a technology they are comfortable with and simply enjoy using. Setting up a "classroom" Twitter account would be a great idea! How did you organize your learning unit from Nokia? Did you receive a grant, or was this funded through your school?

  4. Mike,

    I agree that the biggest issue would by mangagement of the cell phones and what the students were using them for in class. However, I believe that we would be missing an excellent opportunity for our students if we were to eliminate this method entirely. At first you may have a few students that were not staying on task, however, after a few of the students were caught I am fairly certain this would end quickly. I think I would organize this activity by explaining to the students that we are trying somethink new and play the lesson off as a sort of reward. I think the students would love this idea and work harder when they feel they earned a fun lesson. Just a thought. We are entering the topic of World War I soon, I think I may try something using the students phones to see how it works. I will let everyone know what happens.

  5. Randy,
    We have the same problem in our school system. Our school has a "no cell phone" policy as well but there are many times when they can come in handy. The students love to use their cell phones, and these days so many of the smart phones are like personal computers so why can't we find ways to utilize them? I let my students use them as calculators or to look up something quickly, but the bottom line is that they are constantly texting people outside the classroom. If we decide to let them use these phones there has to be strict guidelines as to when and how they are used. Recently I had a student who asked to use his phone as a calculator on a test try to text an answer to another student in my class. This also brings up privacy issues as well. I knew the student did this, but I could not go through is phone and check. Instead I had to send the phone to the office and wait for a parent to pick it up and then check for cheating. I love the idea of using this technology in the classroom, but I feel we are just not ready for it yet. There needs to be some policies put in place before this can collectively happen in our school districts.

  6. Randy,
    I believe this is worth a shot. I like your idea of a reward system. It is possible that at least some of them can "get it" that we are trying something new, and how much we progress and continue to use this technology really relies on how they respond.

  7. I just wanted to tell you that you are a great resource for educators and I spread the info around as much as I can!

  8. The biggest problem I can see with this (although there are a lot of good points) is that students will definitely struggle with the rule of teachers being allowed to actively use their cell phones in class while they as students, are not.

    Randy, I really like your idea of a rewards system in response to Mike's questions about management. I do think it would be very hard to make sure students are staying on task, but by implementing a rewards system this may be easier to come by.

    I also liked how Randy would allow students to take pictures of their notes and assignments so there is no excuse for them not to know and be responsible for their assignments. Also, the fact that you allow students to text each other allows for students to have to time to use their cellphones in class and when the time of texting each other is up, they know to put them away. This perhaps is a way of coping with the fact of teachers being allowed to have cell phones? I also think the cell phone is a great use for students to find alternate information through the internet to contribute to class discussion.

    As a college student, I really like the fact that the school has an emergency texting system which allows information on the weather and any possible emergency that occurs to be texted to my phone. This is a really easy way for schools to connect with parents in elementary, middle, and high schools in case of any sort of emergency.

    I remember when I was in public school that those obnoxious announcements really disrupted class. Having school wide cell phones would allow for announcements not pertaining to the whole school to be sent through text message to the specific teacher thus decreasing interruptions during class.

    I'm curious as to whether anyone has taken advantage to the poll system, Google system, or Twitter applications through their cell phone within a school district. I would be curious to see whether these are effective ways of integrating education into the classroom. Thank you so much for posting this article! It has some really great information, particularly for up and coming educators, like myself!