By Martyn Coffin
"It’s about people, not technology," was the key message from keynote speaker Mike Short, vice president of research and development with Telefonica Europe and O2 as he delivered a stunning presentation on "Applications anywhere anytime – en route to Digital Britain" at the recent Let'sTalk About Txt conference at Wolverhampton University's Learning Lab.
He said that there were now more mobile phones than people in the UK and that the public sector, where education was the key, had to become part of Digital Britain. Covering a space of 20 years, he illustrated how far mobile phones and other mobile devices had changed our world in the areas of health, business, education and entertainment. Mobile phones were now an essential tool for productivity, he added, and partnerships would be the key to future developments.
Created by text services company txttools (owner of the popular edutxt service), Let's Talk About Txt was the fifth event in a series that the company has delivered over two years. The idea is simple: let your customers do the talking. No sales pitches, just real people talking about how to use SMS in education. The conference had a range of speakers from the mobile phone industry and higher and further education, and 80 participants from around the country attended.
College staff gave practical examples of how they were using text messaging for marketing and promotion for universities and colleges, student support services for learners to ensure retention and achievement, and in teaching and learning, specifically the innovative use of technology in everyday learning.
Better late than never
Brian Hipkin, of the University of East London, discussed its pioneering work supporting students who had registered and started later than the mainstream. The university uses texting to give them access to advice on finance, study and other issues. Brian described late registering students as a predictable fact and a cross-sector phenomenon. They represented a number of challenges in that they were the most vulnerable to a poor experience, and were potentially a permanent and expensive loss in both human and economic terms. Many students were studying while working and undertaking commitments to their families and so were often “time poor but network rich” - they had good access to communication, often on the move, but with little free time.
SMS for the everyday
Mick Mullane, network manager at Yorkshire Coast College, Scarborough, is passionate about trying to do the best for learners and his colleagues. His presentation showed some really down-to-earth, commonsense use of SMS, integrated with the college’s Management Information System (MIS) and its learning platform. Like keeping enrolled-but-not-yet-present students reminded of term dates, and enabling them to notify college of their exam results. Learners can also simply text in using the keyword "sick" to register as absent when ill.
The college has now integrated texting, podcasting and vodcasting through its implementation of the open source learning platform Moodle with the free plug-in that edutxt has developed. Mick Mullane demonstrated how placing video, audio or text in a specified folder on the learning platform generates an SMS message to students informing them that the new content could now be viewed on their phones or computers. It sends them a URL to take them directly to the material.
What is refreshing about Mick Mullane’s approach is his pragmatism. His guiding light is "working with learners’ own technology”. The college has thought this through to connect students’ technology to its existing systems.
SMS for real-time simulations
Sarah Cornelius, Phil Marston and Alastair Gemmell, of Aberdeen University, covered three examples of how they use SMS in education with undergraduates. Their real-time flood disaster simulation activity for undergraduate geography students is based on a real-life event that occurred in South Eastern France a few years ago, one that resulted in loss of life.
The learners register for the simulation to receive a series of questions based solely on information texted to their mobiles. They text back simple decisions they are required to make.
These decisions automatically affect how the simulation progresses, using a "decision tree" created by Aberdeen University. The exercise was non-stop over three days and nights, and students received texts requiring decisions at any time of the day and even in the middle of the night. If learners didn't respond, the simulation carried on with a default answer.
The feedback from students was very positive and it was viewed as “much better than another boring essay”. (Aberdeen also show-cased a mentoring simulation for teaching practice which, with a totally different client group, had implications for supporting staff on issues of access to technology and willingness to use it.)
Lava with your Java?
They also allowed participants to experience a new disaster simulation around a volcanic eruption where participants had to make decisions on whether to inform local populations, and they enacted evacuation procedures conducted on their own phones. The thought of participants receiving a text about lava while drinking a Java coffee in a coffee bar was simply irrepressible.
The great thing about this presentation was the research into the learners’ attitudes and the virtual context of the simulation – having to use their imagination and knowledge rather than responding to visual images.
The afternoon keynote was by John Traxler, head of the Learning Lab and reader in mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton. John has worked extensively in Africa, extending learning into new areas using tools such as SMS. He gave an illustrated presentation which underpinned Mike Short’s morning keynote, reminding the audience that mobile growth in Africa meant that across the whole continent 6 per cent of population had access to mobile in 2007 - double the number of landlines. In South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya these percentages were much higher.
John used some clever and thought provoking photographs and graphics to make strong points: first, we can take learning to people and places that have been beyond its reach; second, we can transform, enrich and extend the ideas of learning itself. John Traxler also illustrated how mobiles have changed behavior and social etiquette.
Heads in an SMS cloud?
Geraldine Jones, elearning officer with the University of Bath, looked at the student view of technology, and specifically text messaging by the university for learning and administration. They surveyed 600 graduates and 17- to 25-year-olds, asking how they viewed the use of technology. Geraldine took the participants through a series of scenarios where students were asked to respond by texts and the results were put into tag clouds to highlight the range and frequency of response.
The key point was the development of a framework for e-administration and e-learning where the use of edutxt was evaluated and compared to using edutxt with add-ons such as Quick Response codes and tag clouds. The framework showed interesting gains from Bath’s efforts to integrate text with other tools. The Moodle learning platform plug-in again appeared as an example of such integration.
Careers, education and guidance
Steve Sidaway, marketing director with txttools, had his moment in the spotlight when one of the speakers dropped out. His presentation highlighted three case studies:
- ACE (the Advisory Centre for Education) uses inbound text messaging to provide better access to its advice for parents and to reach a wider audience. Content is provided by a series of auto-response txt messages (their texts generate informative responses). The next stage is converting traditional booklets to podcasts which can be delivered by technology known as RSS2SMS, enabling parents to receive the advice in podcast format on their mobile phones.
- Connexions Essex has used txttools since 2004 and the presentation followed the evolution of the service from simple reminders to fully interactive with personal advisers and now delivery of job alerts based on type of job and location, delivered by RSS2SMS.
- Milton Keynes College was also show-cased for having fully integrated text messaging with traditional and new media.
Talk About Txt took its audience through a rich array of uses of texting technology for both innovative learning and for administration. Best of all it highlighted how this most democratic use of messaging (virtually all learners and teachers now use text – even more than email) is building bridgeheads in education and paying its pay. The result was an audience with thumbs aching to implement new ideas.
Film clips giving a flavor of the day can be viewed here