'Texting Pushes People's Buttons'

Colleges are searching for new ways to communicate with students electronically. Could texting be the answer?

September 30, 2015

It’s a familiar scenario at many colleges: a professor sends a student an email containing important information about a course, but the message gets lost in an inbox flooded with news about blood drives, intramural softball and spam.

Many faculty members, administrators and staffers are searching for ways to improve how they communicate electronically with students. Some academics argue colleges should be active on whatever platform students regularly use, whether it be email, Facebook or text messaging. Others say colleges should require students to use email, as it will likely be one of their main forms of communication once they enter the workforce.

Among researchers, there is a growing sentiment that colleges should consider texting -- at least until students’ communication habits inevitably change.

“The channels through which we communicate with students greatly matter both for whether they respond and how they engage and act based on that information,” said Benjamin L. Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. “My read is that there’s a pretty strong consensus now about the kind of value and viability of using texting in constructive, effective, professional ways to inform and engage students.”

Most colleges have taken a limited approach to texting. Some fearless faculty members may feel comfortable handing out their personal cell phone numbers to a small group of students in an upper-level course, but at an institutional level, colleges sometimes only offer opt-in texting services such as emergency alerts. While it's rare for faculty members to avoid email, many who have been academics for years before texting became popular haven't embraced the technology.

Castleman’s upcoming book, The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), suggests texting can be used for more than that. In it, he argues text messages can be used as one of several behavioral strategies, or “nudges,” that can help students make informed decisions at key points during their educational careers.

For example, Castleman writes, colleges could text students to quickly reach them during the summer months and remind them to renew their financial aid and complete other items on their to-do list before coming to campus in the fall.

“If we want to inform young people, if we want to promote good choices and we want to engage them in meaningful dialogue, we have a pedagogical responsibility to meet them where they’re at, so to speak,” he said. “Right now that’s texting.”

Texting in the classroom, however, is showing less promising results, according to a handful of studies. One such study, which appeared in a recent edition of the journal Communication Education, looked at the impact of texting and tweeting during a lecture, finding that the best way to retain knowledge was for students to do neither.

The author of that study, Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, assistant professor in the department of integrative studies at Miami University (Ohio) at Middletown, said his findings suggest that devices in the classroom can become a distraction unless they are connected to what is being taught in the class.

“I'd say … the consensus in findings is that texting in class and using laptops for non-course-related purposes detracts from student learning and decreases the quality of notes,” Kuznekoff said in an email. “Some research even indicates that students using laptops for noncourse purposes even distract students seated around them.”

Despite his interest in technology and communication as a research topic, Kuznekoff said he is “adamant” about not texting students. In addition to concerns about giving out his number and having to respond to easily answered questions around the clock, Kuznekoff said texting “creates a more informal relationship with students” that he would not be comfortable with.

“Texting is likely more personal, though, since you can't opt out of that,” he added. “If I don't want to be on Pinterest or Yik Yak or Snapchat, I just don't download the app or delete it, but getting a text is more personal.”

Kuznekoff’s comments reflect one of the main arguments against texting, said Karen R. Costa, a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor. In a recent op-ed for Inside Higher Ed, she separated “texting holdouts” into two groups: those who don’t text at all, and those who feel texting students is unprofessional.

“Texting pushes people’s buttons,” Costa said. “Texting is a more intimate form of communication. With email, there’s an inherent distance.”

In the op-ed, Costa also endorsed the idea of using texts to “nudge” students into action, but she pointed out that texts can also serve as positive reinforcement. After having experimented with calling students several years back, Costa said switching to texting has been a “game changer” when it comes to communicating with students.

“I’ve been able to connect with students who I wasn’t able to reach before,” Costa said. “I know texting is helping me connect with students who need me most, and it’s helping students who are failing out of my classes get back on track and succeed.”

Castleman and Costa both stressed that communicating with students on the platforms they regularly use doesn’t mean sacrificing professionalism.

Faculty members shouldn’t have to use their personal cell phones, they said. (Costa, for example, uses a separate number for texting students, and does “90 percent” of that texting from a computer using software that resembles an email client.) Nor should faculty members be expected to send or respond to texts during all hours of the day or text students without their consent. And they definitely should not have to resort to texting shorthand, Castleman said.

“I might abbreviate ‘financial aid’ somehow, but I’m not writing the letter U instead of Y-O-U,” Castleman said.

The window to reach students through texts won't be open forever, Castleman said. He estimated colleges have a “few years” to find an effective texting strategy before it becomes too “saturated” with content or students move to a different platform.

“For the time being, the amount of people who are using texting for educational purposes is still small enough that it remains an effective and powerful channel,” said Castleman. “The challenge this raises, among others: If everyone starts to do it, is it still effective?”


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