Let your fingers do the talking

A text messaging service for college tutors to contact students is proving effective, cheap and popular, writes Raymond Ross

It's good to talk but it's better to text, say the staff and students at Cardonald College in Glasgow, where a text messaging service is proving a popular and efficient way of enhancing staff-student communications.

The idea for the text messaging pilot, which began in February last year, came from guidance tutors seeking a better way than letter or telephone call of getting in touch with students who had to be contacted, most often because of sustained absenteeism.

However, staff were soon using the messaging service for many other purposes, particularly: l checking a reason for absence, l checking if a student was OK, l informing students of a room change,

* arranging a meeting with students,

* reminding students of outstanding or late work,

* reminding them of deadlines,

* communicating advice on remediation work,

* public relations messages,

* checking on the outcome of an event and

* communicating general information.

Kenneth Park, an HND travel and tourism lecturer who has been seconded to the post of blended learning technologist at the college, says: "Staff began using the service quite spontaneously for these other purposes.

"It's an effective, cheap and quick way to communicate with students of all ages and from all backgrounds. Everyone nowadays is likely to have a mobile.

"We've integrated the short message service into the student record and student management system so that a whole class, a group andor an individual student can be contacted."

College staff send messages from their computers, not their mobile phones.

A standard text has 160 characters and staff computers give an automatic countdown, so that messages remain within the standard readable text size.

All messages are flagged as coming from the college and the tutor's signature appears at the end. The college keeps a log of the contents of all messages sent.

While there was some cultural resistance among staff at first, most have responded positively. Some have even got into the texting vernacular, sending messages such as: "Hi, just 2 ask y u wer off college 2day? Ne probs ring, if not, c u 2mrw."

The pilot initially covered business, retail and travel and tourism courses, together with January start courses (IT 4 U and access to the service industries), which traditionally had problems with retention and achievement. A month into the project, fashion and design also became involved.

The college's evaluation in June 2005 reported that:

* 75 per cent of staff found the service "extremely easy" to use,

* 100 per cent indicated it reduced workload in terms of letters and telephone calls,

* 100 per cent of staff said they would like to retain the service,

* 68 per cent of students polled found the service "very useful",

* a further 28 per cent found it "useful" and

* 96 per cent thought the college should offer the same service for the next academic year.

As the pilot continues, it is being monitored in the hope that it can be extended eventually to all 4,000 students. The college is also keen to use the facility to market courses, carry out polls and establish focus groups among students.

"It is too early to say what effect the pilot has had on student retention," Mr Park says, "but, anecdotally, there is a general feeling it is helping us to retain students we might otherwise have lost and in this manner it may also be helping to raise attainment.

"Although we cannot establish a causal link between texting and retention or attainment, the fact it is proving so popular makes us think there can be a retention effect over time."

The system does not yet allow replies, but this will be implemented soon.

HND student Eleanor Wiseman says: "It would be useful if we could text the college as well, to say we are going to be late or miss a class.

"I find the reminders I'm sent are the most important thing and also notification of classroom changes, which is certainly useful in a college this size."

Fellow travel and tourism student Steven Ho says: "It's great for reminding you of classes and assignments and I've never found it intrusive. It's the college giving you information for your benefit.

"It's a good, cheap and quick way of keeping in touch."

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