Mick Mullane, a pioneer of SMS use in further education, finds fresh thinking at 'Let's talk about text 7'
When SMS phone messaging was first invented no one in the mobile phone world thought it would be of much use. Now it's an integral part of our daily lives. And Txttools' "Let's talk about txt! 7" conference, which took place in Leeds, attracted practitioners from higher education, further education colleges, hospitals, and local authorities to talk about how SMS texting had made their services "smarter, faster, cheaper".

Professor Steve Wheeler, of Plymouth University, set the tone for the day by reflecting on where we had come from in the past five years to the 'always connected' generation of today.  He showed that the pervasive nature of SMS text has even changed the English language.

Incredible statistics surround SMS text use; 96 billion messages were sent in 2009 alone. So it’s hardly surprising that we no longer regard sending a text as a task for the 'techno savvy’ only.

A key theme that came through the day was that the medium of SMS text can help with age old problems. From student retention to tests for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), text is being used in ways that give people immediate access to local services in a smart and cost-effective way.

Yorkshire Coast College demonstrated how SMS text is used beyond simple attendance reminders to helping with issues like bullying and long-term sickness. Sterling Council’s Youth Services Team showed how they reached out to youth in their local community, even letting them vote for the Scottish Young Persons Parliament using SMS text. In Worcestershire the NHS will send out Chlamydia testing kits in response to a text – eliminating the stigma of going to a clinic – and increasing the number of tests carried out. Libraries have reported far more success with reminders and fines by sending a text directly to where they know it’s going to be read.

In the US, SMS text is preferred way of alerting students to a gunman on campus

There were some emergency planners in the audience who paid particular attention to an American colleague from the education company  Blackboard who talked of a college’s duty of care, and alarmingly said that SMS text was their preferred way of letting students know if there was a gunman on campus.

Underpinning all of these stories was the key phrase "cost effectiveness". SMS text is often wrongly seen as an additional cost. Letters and phone calls are such everyday occurrences that we have a tendency to forget the costs associated with them. A typical London library may have 250,000 members and mail out 70,000 renewal reminders in a year. Changing to an SMS text-based system not only saves them money but an also estimated 3 tonnes of CO2 by reducing paper, print and delivery.

Video version of Professor Steve Wheeler's 'Let's talk about txt! 7' presentation

Looking to the future, SMS text is also being used as a bridge between technologies and cultures. Facebook, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 technologies are currently being adopted by the young and the technology aware. Recent uses of Twitter in the public sector – which include Manchester Police’s ‘Twitter Day’ – show how these free tools can increase communication and participation.

On a personal level, "Let's talk about txt! 7" was a great forum for practitioners to share the tips and insights they glean through their work. My newest? How to divert my twitter feed to send to a group of ordinary mobile phone users. Of course the message needn’t be, “I’m about to have a cappuccino”; it could equally be “Avoid Cornwall, increased flood risk.” As one delegate said, “It’s like Twitter for the rest of us”

More information

Txttools' "Let's talk about txt! 7" conference
Professor Stephen Wheeler
Yorkshire Coast College SMS report by JISC

Mick MullaneMick Mullane is the IT manager at Yorkshire Coast College, part of the Grimsby Institute

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