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SMS in the Classroom

So there was an interesting note on NPR yesterday about a professor at Georgia State University named Dave McDonald who has developed a system to integrate SMS text messaging into the classroom. I emailed Dave and subsequently had a chat with him to understand the details. Dave’s argument is that an SMS-based system that exploits existing cell phones is more flexible and convenient for both students and faculty than dated dedicated hardware-based solution like Clickers that seem all the rage. Basically, they have an SMS server tied into SharePoint in some way I don’t entirely understand, but which can then marshal out student questions or comments to courses based on a course keyword. In addition, it generates a course-specific RSS feed, for integration wherever.

It would seem quite obvious and natural for this to be integrated into LMS solutions. Searching around briefly suggests there’s some movement on this within Moodle and Sakai. But as is typical, it’s really hard to assess where these efforts are in comparison. Anyone know anything more on this?


  1. At the University of Cape Town, we led the development of the SMS integration into Sakai. It can be used in two ways, viz. (1) outgoing notifications, or (2) integrated with specific tools or services. We also have also exposed SMS functionality via REST webservices and have provision for passing off incoming SMS messages to external scripts for “just-in-time” development of ad-hoc functionality.

    The advantage of sending SMSes from within Sakai is that Sakai already knows about student mobile phone numbers (from the university SIS system, in our case Peoplesoft), so staff do not have to be concerned about collecting and maintaining lists of mobile numbers - they can communicate with students using SMS as just another channel. This has been popular for notices and updates especially to students who are not yet on campus (e.g. during orientation week before the start of the academic term) and students who spend a lot of time off-campus (e.g. Health Sciences students during clinical years who are working at hospitals or clinics).

    This year several Faculties used SMS messaging for placement offers, which students were able to accept or decline via return SMS. This was particularly effective for competitive programmes where it’s important to finalize registration info early (and for students to know they have a confirmed place). Health Sciences received hundreds of confirmations within 10 minutes of sending out placement offers by SMS.

    The second part is the ability to hook up incoming SMS messages to any tool or service in Sakai. This can be done by writing very short ‘adaptors’ which associate a ‘command code’ with an action. To date we have added support for two tools, viz. Blogs (a Sakai contrib tool called Blogwow) which enables simple mobile blogging, and Q&A (Questions and Answers). The latter has more complex features, enabling a question to be asked by SMS, answered by someone else online, with answers SMS’ed back to the sender. Equally it would be possible to do something Clicker-like by hooking up SMS to the Polls tool.

    We have not promoted these much yet (the support is quite new) so don’t have many teaching and learning stories to tell about them so far.

    My general sense is that the “notification and optional reply” use cases will continue to be important, but that the “two-way on-demand interaction” use cases for SMS will in time be overtaken by smartphones with capable browsers, using regular web interfaces or specially designed mobile web interfaces.

    The price-sensitivity of students to the cost of SMS messaging for teaching and learning purposes is one unknown, but we do know that mobile Internet is definitely cheaper (data costs are lower than SMS costs), plus more interactive with fewer constraints.

  2. darcusb says:

    Thanks for the update.

    Price for SMS in particular contexts is certainly one potential barrier. Twitter and Facebook as a way to collect student feedback presents other problems (privacy, needing to sign up for the service, etc.), and the hardware clickers still others.

    In any case, I’m just trying to imagine an easy-to-use way to assess students and solicit questions that can be elegantly tied into the LMS (even ultimately the gradebook for things like participation).

  3. darcusb says:

    Maybe one alternative is a module for micro-blogging? That provides the twitter-like experience, without the potential problems.

  4. The many course blogs at my school ( University of Mary Washington; list of course blogs: ) might offer a comparison/perspective on the privacy concern. We’ve seen some great blogging for courses come out of the idea that part of what students should do is start to build up their public online identities through their coursework. Same principle could apply to Twitter. Students have generally been pretty keen on the idea that building that up trumps concerns over privacy.

    That won’t be true in every case or course, but our experience has been that privacy concerns are often exaggerated.

  5. darcusb says:

    I’m with you Patrick. But on the privacy issues, I was partly referring to rather strict laws on this business in education that I don’t fully understand, but which are probably seriously complicated by the advent of blogging and social networking.