an experiment with teachers and students and text messaging

I spent part of Monday and Tuesday with the team of OneVille, who build tools for high school students, their peers, teachers, and other adults to communicate on the students’ behalf. Lots of people have stakes in the welfare of each kid. Everyone has different information, and it’s important for them to be able to communicate easily and effectively. That process cannot be centralized or bureaucratized, but rather ought to be seen as a dense network of ties. The new electronic communications tools have potential (as well as limits) as ways to strengthen those ties.

OneVille diagram

The main example we discussed was an experiment to get students and teachers texting each other. The pilot site was an alternative school for students who have been expelled from, or opted out of, the main public school. It has a small student body and tiny faculty. They  used Google Voice as the texting service, which meant that the messages were archived. Having an archive creates advantages for the students and teachers (they can go back and see what they wrote), and it enables research. It may also have some disadvantages. Among other things, it creates a record that may have to be disclosed to parents under certain circumstances.

We reviewed anonymized transcripts of teachers texting students to wake them up; students disclosing health problems and depression to teachers (and explicitly preferring to communicate by text as opposed to voice); and a traditionally angry teenager thanking his teacher by text. Clearly, the medium affected relationships and power hierarchies, although not necessarily in a uniform way. Whether the changes were educationally beneficial is one big question. Another question is what would happen if the experiment moved from a small, alternative school to a regular high school in which each teacher briefly meets more than 100 kids every day?