The Rise (and Fall?) of Text Messaging in Schools

| October 18, 2011 | 5 Comments
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Over the last few months, there has been increased interest in using text-messaging at school. Although many schools do still have strict policies that forbid using cell phones in class, more are exploring ways to use text-messaging as a communication tool to bridge home and school.

There’s also been an explosion in new tech start-ups that offer services for just this purpose. They’re taking advantage of students’ and families’ access to cell phones, but more importantly perhaps, they’re tapping into the popularity of text-messaging among teens. They’re also working to make sure that the SMS communication is safe, that both student and teacher privacy is protected, and that records are kept so that any inappropriate behavior can be identified. Some of these startups include Remind 101, Cel.ly, and Snapp School. (You can read more about Cel.ly here.)

Just as text messaging may be on the cusp of widespread adoption in schools, there are rumblings in other sectors that it’s dead.

Interesting, at some of the most recent Startup Weekend EDUs — an event that brings together educators, engineers, and entrepreneurs to launch education startups over the course of a weekend — winning teams have built text-messaging apps: ClassParrot was the winner of the recent Mega Startup Weekend in Mountain View, and Text2Teach won first prize at Seattle’s Startup Weekend.

It’s an indication that text-messaging is becoming recognized as a powerful tool that schools should find a way to use. It’s one that can keep students engaged in class (though that idea remains fairly controversial, as cell phones are still viewed by many as a distraction). And it’s one that can help bridge the communication gulf between home and school.

But just as text-messaging may be on the cusp of widespread adoption in schools, there are rumblings in other sectors that text-messaging is dead. Or more accurately, perhaps, that text-messaging should simply die.

Part of the call for the end of text-messaging is that it is an incredibly expensive service, one that the phone carriers profit greatly from. Although text-messaging involves sending data, the charges for SMS are separated from a cell phone user’s regular data plan. Earlier this year, the technology blog Gizmodo did the math on how much users pay for a text versus how much they pay for the same amount of data — assuming, that is, that the typical text is roughly 160 bytes. According to its calculations, you pay $.20 per text for a “text.” But when you send that same amount of data as, well, “data,” you pay $.000002. Ouch.

The cost of a text-message might seem inconsequential, but when you consider the number of text-messages that the average teen sends per day, it adds up quickly. And if you consider the number of text messages that a school might send to hundreds of students, or a teacher might send to multiple classes of 30 or so students — during a typical week or over the course of the school year — the cost of text-messaging starts to look like it might outweigh any argument about the benefits of better communication.

While there could be solutions here on the carriers’ end — discounted messaging for schools, for example — some people are placing their bets on apps versus SMS. Take last week’s release of Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 5, that included iMessage. This is a new messaging service that allows anyone using iOS 5 — whether on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, to send — to communicate with others who use the devices. You can send text messages, photos, videos. It also includes a group-messaging feature. These messages are all free (or rather, they’re included as part of users’ data plans, which as indicated above, comes at a cheaper per byte rate than SMS).

The problem here, of course, is that this only works on Apple mobile devices. It’s a good solution for those with the high-end smart-phones, but a lousy solution in terms of equity — or for those who prefer to use non-Apple devices.

Of course, free messaging comes with other smartphone apps too. Google Voice, for example, allows you to send text-messages without paying texting fees, and there are a number of generic “messaging apps.”

But the beauty of SMS is that it works on any phone, whether it’s an Android or an iPhone or a very basic flip phone. Text messaging is also the tool that many students already use. They’re more apt to read and respond to texts — they’re comfortable communicating that way. That makes texting an important tool for reaching them and reaching families. But as schools begin to embrace SMS, it’s still worth pointing out that it’s an expensive way to communicate — and one the tech world is hedging will go away.

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  • Barry Dahl

    I like what I see with some of the group SMS services such as Broadtexter and Remind 101 and Google Voice – but I don’t like the idea even a little bit of going with any service that isn’t device/OS agnostic such as Apple’s iMessage svc.  One thing I’m curious about – are there many people who are still on the pay-per-text type of payment plan? I don’t know of anyone around here who is, and my kids and their friends are texting fiends (or something like that). They all have unlimited plans, and although I haven’t done the math, it seems like a very low charge per text (because there’s so darn many of them). Just wondering how relevant the idea of a 20 cent text really is.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree about the devise-agnostic piece.  That’s crucial.  And that’s why I am pretty skeptical about some of the cries of “Let’s Kill SMS” by technology journalists that live in an iOS-only world.

    Re: text-messaging plans:

    I think you’re right that most of the carriers have moved over to offering unlimited texting. AT&T, for example, recently switched to 2 plans: either unlimited ($20 per month) OR pay per text (at $.20 per text).
    In comparison, AT&T charges $25 for its 2 GB per month data plan. That means, you could transfer 12,500,000 text messages per month without overreaching your cap.

    Even at the power-texting teen’s current rate of about 4000 texts per month, the data plan is still cheaper on a per byte basis.

    (I think. This whole thing involved me doing math, which I’m dreadful at.)

    My point in the article isn’t “SMS is bad.” I am a huge proponent of using text-messaging as I think it’s a powerful tool that teens currently utilize. And, like I said, I think it’s a big mistake to turn to apps and device-specific communication. That’s a whole other can of worms. That being said, I do think the carriers are going to start screwing around with the price of text messaging more and more, particularly as more of us use apps (and our data plans) instead.

    Clearly unclear article is unclear :)

  • Geoffstead m-learning.org

    The maths of SMS get even more complex if you look internationally. The USA is the only country I know of where you pay to receive a text message as well as sending it. The rest of the world posts to send only, more like posting a letter. This makes SMS broadcast type services more viable.

    As mentioned by an earlier comment, I am sure SMS is here to stay, but I don’t think it will replace in-app messaging. Services like skype, twitter, im, bbm, mxit, facebook messaging will dominate where there its heavy use. But sms is a great leveler.

    Here in europe SMS took off a few years earlier than the US, and in the early stages there were many fun start ups using it. But most have now folded, our been absorbed into larger businesses now. Perhaps for exactly the reasons you predict!

  • http://twitter.com/DrakeTellier Drake Tellier

    While I agree that text messaging is expensive, I’m not sure I see how it’s any MORE expensive than the cost of a smart phone and a long-term data plan. 

    First off, the data shows that most students are on a text messaging plan of some kind, if not unlimited, thus they will rarely be paying the 20 cents flat rate per text. Per a recent Nielsen study: “There has been a lot of discussion regarding the cost of texting, mainly driven by the increasing individual per message price. Looking at the same bill panel we can see that only a very small percentage of people who text message are doing so on a pay-as-you-go basis at the 20 cent per message rate with the vast majority of users subscribing to plans.”  So, comparing 20 cents vs. the cost of that same message in data is somewhat misleading. 

    http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/under-aged-texting-usage-and-actual-cost/ 

    Secondly, smart phones are expensive,  $150-500 vs. a free/$20-40 dumb phone. Of course, you can usually get a contract and a phone for around $100, but that entails a minimum monthly plan that generally runs over $40+ per month for two years. Plus you have to factor in a data plan, which runs another $15-30 a month on top of a regular plan. Apps are not always free to use, either, especially education apps on iOS and Android. 

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe Remind101 is a notification/reminder service that sends one-way group messages. Even if a teacher sends a reminder out every day, that’s still only 30 or so messages a month, which pales in comparison to the average teen’s 100 texts per day. As for Celly, which is a two-way group messaging service, if a student is running low on messages they can always turn off SMS and choose to send and receive messages from the Celly website instead (this works with mobile web too).

     

    Granted, text messaging in the classroom puts more responsibility on the parent and students to manage their text messaging plans. But if teens are using text messaging already, as the norm for group communication, then perhaps SMS is here to stay–for awhile at least. Furthermore, any successful SMS learning platform will really need to be cross-platform. It makes no sense to found a startup on SMS messaging if you also do not have a plan to offer the same services from a web interface or app. In other words, cell phones in schools need not be partisan to any one platform; there’s no reason a good educational tool can’t utilize sms and data in the same app, and as far as I understand, both Remind101 and Celly have apps in the works.

    Sincerely,

    DT

  • Anonymous

    I think there are ongoing pros and cons to using text messaging
    in schools. But more and more people are starting to use sms
    for business
    or schools. It can definitely be more engaging but there
    might be some issues with regulating its use. Great blog and raises some really
    good points, thanks for sharing.