Professor to students: Text away

Student's text message questions are screened before they're posted to a large screen.
Students' text-message questions are screened before they're posted for peers to read.

Georgia State University students who don’t want to yell their questions from the back of a cavernous lecture hall now have another option: They can send text messages to their professor, who reads the queries from an overhead screen.

David McDonald, director of emerging technologies and an associate professor in the Atlanta-based university’s business school, is inviting the use of text messaging during class while many educators are instituting strict rules against the practice.

The texting program—similar to handheld student response systems—is being used in about 15 Georgia State business courses this school year.

Students’ names and phone numbers will not be included in their on-screen questions, but texting queries will raise students’ class participation grades. Each question is screened before it’s posted on the ticker for the class to read.

“Rather than trying to fight [texting], let’s use it,” McDonald said, adding that that text system has a “very strict” filtering feature that censors obscenities. “If they’re going to be doing it anyway, have them pay attention to what their teacher is saying, not what Ashton Kutcher is Twittering.”

Text-messaged questions, McDonald said, are compiled on a class web page—known as a wiki—where other students can answer the questions.

“It creates a knowledge base, and a knowledge base has real power,” he said. “And students love to show how smart they are.”

Georgia State is working with mobile technology company Entercation to bring the text-to-screen technology to more lecture halls, according to a company announcement. The texting option could appeal to students too shy to ask questions in front of hundreds of peers or students whose primary language isn’t English, communications experts said.

“This will allow shy students to have a voice,” said Michelle Cimino, author of two books on technology etiquette, including NETiquette, Online Etiquette Tips for Adults & Teens. “It’s a way to relay a question that they might feel embarrassed to share in a huge auditorium in front of their peers. … At least this way, the professor is engaging his students in a modern way in a language they can understand and think is cool.”

J.B. Vick, president of Entercation, said the same text-to-screen technology is used at professional and college sporting events, where fans can text and have their messages scroll across the stadium’s big screen. If other campuses adopt McDonald’s text-message approach, Entercation could make $25 million annually from classroom use, Vick said in a company statement.

Electronic communication, whether by text message, eMail, or instant message, has become pervasive in colleges and universities, according to recent research. Eighty-four percent of students who participated in a 2007 Fresno State University study said they “regularly” use their cell phones to text, and seven in 10 said they had sent and received texts during class.

Research from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that half of teenagers surveyed send 1,500 text messages a month, and one-third of survey respondents send 100 texts every day, or 3,000 per month.

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