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Texting in the Classroom: Not Just a Distraction

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
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The Pew Research Center released new data this week on Americans' text-messaging habits. According to Pew, 83 percent of American adults now own cell phones and almost three-quarters (73 percent) send and receive text messages. The research only looks at adults' usage of text-messaging, but it does find that younger adults are much more active texters than older age groups. Cellphone owners between the ages of 18 and 24 exchange an average of 109.5 messages a day -- that's more than 3200 messages per month. That's compared to about 41.5 messages a day for all cellphone owners, a figure that's largely unchanged from figures reported in 2010.

The Pew study doesn't look at the texting habits of those under age 18, but a study released last year by Nielsen found that those cellphone users in the 13 to 17 age range were the most avid texters among any age group. According to this 2010 Nielsen data, people 18 to 24 sent an average of 1630 texts per month -- about half the number Pew says this group currently sends. And that Nielsen report pegged the texting rate of 13 to 17 year olds at 3339 per month -- approximately what 18 to 24 year olds are now sending and receiving. One might wonder: does the texting rate of 13 to 17 year olds continue to be twice that?

Certainly that age group -- in fact, all those under 18 -- are increasingly likely to be cellphone owners. According to those surveyed as part of Project Tomorrow's 2010 Speak Up report (PDF), more than half of middle and high school students (51 percent and 56 percent respectively) own a cell phone (without Internet access). In addition, 34 percent of middle schoolers and 44 percent of high schoolers own a smart phone.

With the ubiquity of cellphones, many schools are facing questions about what to do when students bring cellphones to school. Ban them outright? Require they be kept in a locker or backpack? Require they be turned off? Allow them to be used, at teachers' discretion, in class?

The reasons why cellphones are banned are, interestingly enough, many of the same things that make cellphones a potentially very useful educational tool: cellphones, particularly smart phones, are powerful mobile computing devices. If the cellphones have Internet access, students can use them to look up information online. Cellphones double as calculators and as cameras. And unlike iPads, e-readers, tablets, smart phones, laptops or desktop PCs, these devices are ubiquitous. Moreover, as the statistics indicate, text-messaging seems to be the preferred method of communication of teens.

The popularity of text-messaging has long been given as one of the main reasons why cellphones are a distraction in the classroom. If students are texting, they're not paying attention. Texting is often viewed as the new form of passing notes in the back of the class.

The assumption is, of course, that this SMS communication is always off-topic. But a variety of new tools have been released recently that are tapping into the popularity of texting and the ubiquity of cellphones and are demonstrating that these can, in fact, be used for educational purposes:

Remind: Remind allows teachers to send text messages (and email) home -- to students and/or to parents -- to offer reminders and updates for class. Remind allows teachers to communicate with their classes without either teacher or students having to share their phone numbers.

Poll Everywhere: As the name suggests, Poll Everywhere allows teachers to use cellphones for polling in class. Students text their responses, using their cellphones to give feedback, answer questions, take quizzes.

Celly: Celly provides SMS-based group messaging. Classrooms can use the service to take quick polls and quizzes, filter messages, get news updates, take notes, and organize and hold study groups. The groups can be public or private, moderated or open.

StudyBoost: StudyBoost allows students to study via SMS-based quizzes. The questions can be self- or teacher-created, and can be multiple choice or open-ended.

Of course, the availability of these tools does not mean that all cellphone usage is de facto educational and that all texting in class is on-topic. As with any technology, cellphones do require policies for acceptable use, and students need guidance on exactly what that means. But these new tools do give educators a range of options should they decide to let students turn their cellphones on in class. Many of these tools have been designed with the classroom setting in mind, and have privacy policies, moderation features, and analytics so that teachers can feel more confident in how texting is being utilized.

But most importantly, perhaps, with cellphones becoming increasingly ubiquitous, text- messaging tools are less likely than smartphone or even Web apps to exclude some students because they don't have access to the latest technology.

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Brenda Patterson's picture
Brenda Patterson
High School English/Journalism teacher from Florida

Let's be honest here. The reason that use of cell phones in school is a problem is that students don't hesitate to use them - especially texting - for anything BUT education. Just this morning a student casually mentioned how she had cheated on a test last year by using texting, something most teachers have caught students in their classes attempting. Students have even texted each other to arrange meetings in the restrooms for sex during class. Distraction? You bet! And some of the biggest offenders are the parents who text their kids all during the day and expect them to text back. Instead of trying to act like technology is only a tool, we should openly admit that it's a threat to honesty and genuine learning sometimes, and we don't know what to do about it.

Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz's picture
Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz
Communications Technology teacher from Ontario

"Just this morning a student casually mentioned how she had cheated on a test last year by using texting," Sounds like the teacher is asking straight content questions instead of using critical thinking and inquiry (what you do with the content). Much harder to cheat and much more beneficial to the kids to go past "content learning" and into "critical thinking and inquiry"

"Instead of trying to act like technology is only a tool, we should openly admit that it's a threat to honesty and genuine learning sometimes, and we don't know what to do about it." I do not agree. Technology is the tool. It is appropriate use and modeling that must be demonstrated including social etiquette and educational purpose.

"how do the half who don't have phones participate?" Put them in groups and have them learn collaboration and sharing around the device. You'd be surprised how kids are "okay" with that. Also, why does the technology have to be a cellphone? Isn't it just the app students are using? Others could use a couple of classroom computers, still others can use ipods or laptops if there is wireless. Find creative ways to make it work, otherwise you're cheating everybody out of a great learning opportunity.

"I bring this up because with any technology, there has to consistent policies about their use and universal access for it to work." Not necessarily. It is dependent on the teacher and the physical environment for access and comfort level. Students must learn to respect the individual teacher's learning environment, just as teachers need to respect students' preferences for learning.

Here's some more information on texting. I have researched the topic extensively and produced a documentary on the subject, distributed by McNabb Connolly.

Brenda Patterson's picture
Brenda Patterson
High School English/Journalism teacher from Florida

Your comment "Sounds like the teacher is asking straight content questions... Much harder to cheat ... to go past content learning and into critical thinking and inquiry" assumes something that's not necessarily true. Kids can text ideas, not just multiple choice answers. I don't know any teachers who aren't very focused on critical thinking and inquiry, both in instruction and assessment; placing any of the blame for cheating by text on teachers is certainly not appropriate. Although teachers have been accustomed to dealing with cheating forever, student texting, with its reach beyond the classroom walls, makes that job much more difficult, if not impossible.

We agree that technology is a tool. My students are given my cell phone number the first day of class and strongly encouraged to call or text me until 10:30 PM with questions or problems. (They're usually surprised that I text.) The classrooms at our school are full of technological equipment that teachers use in teaching and testing. But no matter how we "demonstrate appropriate use" and model "social etiquette and educational purpose", students use their cell phones in the ways that they want to use them, as long as they can get away with it. To ignore the implications of that usage and the fact that we don't know how to prevent the behavior while only talking about the benefits of technology is disingenuous.

I read the piece on the link you included and watched the clip from the video you produced. I particularly noted the scene with a small group of students standing together, all texting instead of talking to each other. It spoke to the developmental and social behaviors you mentioned. But somehow students prior to this technological era, who had the same social and developmental needs, managed to meet those needs without cell phones and texting in ways that didn't significantly interfere with life in the classroom. I'm not naive enough to think that texting is going away; I do think it threatens honesty and genuine learning in our schools.

Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz's picture
Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz
Communications Technology teacher from Ontario

"placing any of the blame for cheating by text on teachers is certainly not appropriate." No where in my comment did I place blame on the teacher for students cheating through sharing answers on their cell phones. I simply suggested that this would be much more difficult for students to do if teachers used open ended questions and critical thinking. I stand by this, as content is easier to share due to the quick response time and fluency required. You either know it or you don't. Open ended questions and critical thinking take far more time to "flesh out". What a great tool cell phones make for "sharing and collaborating" over a longer period of thinking and interacting. Great possibilities for learning extended outside the classroom.

As for antisocial behaviour that students display by texting each other ...they are far from antisocial...they are much more intensively connected than ever before. While I agree they still need opportunities to interact face to face to grow accustomed to reading body language and "facing up", I still see teens doing this and I don't think they have to practice this 100 percent of the time to get how it works. The concern I have is more with self-regulation and instant gratification. Information flows quickly through our communication systems these days. Students need to learn when it's appropriate and healthy for them to engage.

Jean G.'s picture
Jean G.
Middle School Principal

I agree that we are learning (slowly) that cell phones can be used effectively in classrooms in many ways, change is slow. At my school, the cell phone policy has been phones off and in backpacks at all times. This keeps the adults in control and is another example of doing things because that's how we've always done them. Administration also spends a lot of time on cell phone-related discipline issues. What WOULD happen if students were allowed to use their cell phones at school, but outside of class? But how can teachers use cell phones in the classroom if not all of the students have them?

Don's picture
High School Physics

Multitasking is a myth. Why don't we ask our students to multitask and complete their homework, via texting, while driving home? Because (1) as teenagers, some of them would attempt this foolish assignment and (2) multiple studies have clearly shown that students ( or anyone else for that matter) cannot "multitask" texting and driving. So, why does anyone honestly think students (teenagers) can multitask texting and working on their class assignments? Does anyone out there think that teachers can text and teach at the same time?

Humans don't multitask. We can shift our attention from one task to the next very quickly. But, each task gets less than our full attention. Try watching TV and having a conversation at the same time. It is exactly the situation of texting in the schools. One task will get the short end of the stick. Guess which one? The more tasks a human attempts to complete simultaneously, the worse each job gets done. Period. No study that I have seen suggests otherwise. Please post a study to the comments section if you have seen one? Students who are are texting off topic will not learn as quickly as the students who are focused on the task at hand. Then, we are expected to repeat instructions for them because they have been off topic. When students use PollEverywhere, or the other tools mentioned - they are focused on the topic PollEverywhere and the results. That is different from using the cell phone for texting in class, but it is not multitasking. Just some food for thought...

Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz's picture
Jane Mitchinson-Schwartz
Communications Technology teacher from Ontario

Don. I completely agree that multi-tasking is a myth, though you asked for some research that shows otherwise. Scientific American published an issue almost a year ago called, "Top Multitaskers Help Explain How Brain Juggle Thoughts" describing a very small percentage of the population as supermultitaskers who remain efficient and error free while juggling several tasks at once. I believe the number was 1 in 700 who carry this "superability".

Every year I try to explain to my students they are not efficient at multi-tasking and shouldn't be texting while engaged in more complex thought processes (I like to think that's most of the time in my class), they vehemently argue with me that they are "special" and can do it all. To prove to them that they are inefficient at multi-tasking I do a couple of simple tests with them at which they always fail, but they continue to dismiss the evidence. I've shown them "The Monkey Business Illusion" video in which they either see the gorilla and get the number of passes wrong or get the number of passes right and don't see the gorilla. Still, they refuse to believe the evidence. If you're not sure of the video I'm talking about, look it up on Youtube-but keep in mind, you're not supposed to know anything about a gorilla in advance and I've already planted the idea in your head so it doesn't count-sorry for the spoiler.

I've also done another little test with them that Dr. Meyer from Michigan State University tried out on me when I interviewed him a couple years back. I have a student count as fast as he (or she) can from 1 to 10 and time him. Then, I have him say the alphabet from A to J as fast as possible while timing him. Then, I have him go back and forth between the number and the letter from A1 and on, timing him. On average, it take three times as long than if he had just stuck with the one task at a time. This is a simple way of introducing the concept. The first task is easy because it's singular and automatic and doesn't require complex processing. I make the point that anytime you have unconnected pieces of information floating around in the head by trying to process two separate tasks of relative complexity (no automation), errors and time consumption go up.

Again, my students don't want to believe this because someone out there has been spreading rumours that this generation is special and can do it all (ahem-Don Tapscott and others). Scientific evidence proves this is wrong time and time again, regardless of age or conditioning.

One way I have got students using cell phones in class (they still think of this as multi-tasking, though it really isn't), is by having them tweet while we watch educational videos in class. I give them a framework-post a question, post a comment/statement, and post a response. The bits and pieces of thoughts floating around are "connected" to the activity we are doing. The punching of keys on the cell phone is automatic. All complex processing is reserved for the formation of ideas, questions and comprehension of the topic. This is not a true form of multi-tasking, though many people confuse it as such. Again, true multi-tasking is juggling pieces of information from "different and separate" complex processes.

Here's the other advantage to tweeting while viewing-it gets them away from the temptation of texting their friends about off-topic conversations since they're active and engaged. In a sense, this is cuing their attention and teaching them how to focus in an appropriate and healthy manner.

Muuzii's picture
Muuzii powers mobile learning & translation in a simple way!

Like any other technology, cell phone has become a powerful tool in learning. Mobile technology changed our lives, our behavior and our way of communicate to each other. Text is a powerful tool and if we look at today's young kids, they do not talk much like used to be, but text each other, even if the person is next to him or her.

Statistics showed that today, the highest rate of text is in the USA compare all the countries around the world, 2,500 text per month on a average basis.

Over the past 5 years, we created a new way of mobile learning by text. We added a translation technology to it. Our goal is to allow our kids to be able to learn a second language on the go, at anywhere, anyplace. A simple way to learn a word or phrase a day and when you have this no pressure learning, you will be able to pick up words and phrase at your leisure and before long, you will realized that it is a very good way to accumulate vocabularies or phrases.

By the way, during the world cup soccer we are running a free trial for everyone in the country that has cell phone, simply text #copa and the word or phrase to 95997 and get a translation back instantly. This offer is limited to Spanish and English learning and translation. there are more service on

Rupert's picture

The last paragraph really strikes a chord with me. Whilst the likes of Facebook and other social networking sites are great for keeping in touch, there is a real danger that "under-privileged" students become isolated.

There is still most definitely a place for text messages (although maybe not in the classroom except for emergency situations) and fortunately in the UK most providers don't charge for sending a text message. If the student needs to contact a parent urgently, even if they don't have their phone on them, there are numerous ways to send text messages over the Internet with software such as Skype or one of the dozens of websites like Scratchr (

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