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COVID-19: Four surprising ways SMS can help educators enhance the future of learning

COVID-19 is challenging the way educators teach, as well as how students can learn. While education providers try desperately to maintain academic outcomes under various new restrictions and government-enforced school shutdowns; students are struggling to keep up – and stay engaged – given the major disruption to their lives and their stable learning environments.

Right now, various questions for educators hang in the air: what will the future of learning look like? How will I adjust? How long will these restrictions last? How will it displace the hard-earned growth of my most vulnerable learners?

Why SMS can support the needs of all kinds of learners

There are so many reasons why the transition to remote screen learning will be challenging for most. While penetration of tech devices and access to the internet is high, remote learning has only exacerbated the already persistent homework gap.

The homework gap: the unequal divide, often due to class or race, between those who have access to digital devices and high-speed internet and those who do not.

That’s where SMS comes in. SMS is a low-cost communication form, familiar to most people, and available to anyone who has access to a mobile phone. It is already being used in developing countries to support learners where access to broadband internet and computers is limited. In contrast, there are almost 960M mobile phone users (80% of the population). Look at how ed-tech start-up MShule utilizes a mix of artificial intelligence and SMS to personalize better learning for children and educators across Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How SMS can help educators improve student learning

As we discussed in our previous blog on how educators can use SMS in a wide range of communications, text-based communications are versatile in their ability to meet many needs under COVID-19. From school closures to the re-opening of campuses, and on keeping parents and students updated, SMS is easy and effective in getting time-critical information to the recipients reliably. What we haven’t discussed is how else SMS can be used by clever educators, and smart providers, to tackle learning needs where other avenues have failed. 

1. Keeping young kids learning and engaged at home

When COVID-19 forced many schools across northern Texas to cancel classes, parents were left in the lurch; keeping kids engaged at home while they continued working.  With almost 50% of children in Texas coming from low-income families, Reading Partners North Texas allied with non-profit Bright by Text to create a literacy plan for kids via a free text message service to help bridge this widening digital divide.

Brite by text SMS alert

The SMS service works by sending a helpful literacy plan twice a week jam-packed with free activities, games and resources to make sure kids continue to develop their literacy skills. Messages also include helpful information for adults about improving behavior, language, and health and safety tips centered around their child’s stage of development. In addition, parents can include their zip code or postcode when signing up so that resources and content are localized to their suburb and community. With so many coming from impoverished homes, Bright by Text is also including links to local food banks or pantries and other free community services that may help them if they are in need.

Before COVID-19, similar learning-based SMS programs had already rolled out across Australia, including Play Learn Grow Texts – a 12-week, Victorian-based text message program for parents of kids who have turned two. With striking similarities to Bright by Text, the program sends parents advice, information and activities to support their learning and development at home.

2. Reminders: Better educational outcomes for struggling students and parents

In a remote learning environment, it is easy for learners to become disengaged and distracted. While online learning allows for greater accessibility, some studies have shown that online course-taking was less effective. This was particularly true where students had weaker academic backgrounds, or if they were already struggling in face-to-face environments and needed support to maintain learning development.

Educators have often seen mobile phones and messaging as an intrusive nuisance in their classrooms, however, Columbia University Professor of Economics and Education Dr. Peter Bergman argues that the use of text messages can ‘nudge’ struggling learners towards better educational outcomes.

In early 2019, Bergman and his research partner, Eric Chan, looked into automating SMS broadcasts that synchronize with already existing school information systems to improve the educational outcomes of their learners. By simplifying and categorizing the alerts into one of three categories, they were able to better engage parents in the academic progress of their children.

SMS Absence alert
SMS missed assignment alert
SMS low grade alert

IN ACTION: While physical absenteeism might not be a problem for teachers involved in remote learning, using SMS to keep parents engaged and informed as students learn from home may be an easy way to help keep students stay on track with their educational goals.

Consider using SMS to report low grades, missed projects, or poor behavior to parents. If you want to flip the script, you can create SMS alerts around more positive outcomes such as high grades and learning achievements.

3. Increase tertiary and school enrolments

As COVID-19 continues to dominate headlines and cause uncertainty for many future learners, Australian education providers are already seeing significant drops in enrolment. New modeling shows that the tertiary sector could lose up to $19B from international student revenue. One in four students are already canceling or postponing studies thanks to Coronavirus. This is likely to increase given the knock-on effect social distancing and self-isolation is having on regular examinations and studies, alongside our lack of certainty when it comes to the long-lasting effects this will have on our job market and economy.

That’s why SMS may be of interest to schools and higher education institutions seeking to retain or increase enrolments. Nudging, or nudge theory in behavioral science, is the concept of encouraging positive behavior through reinforcement or via indirect suggestion. Think of the way you get a notification to review an app after you’ve played with it, or a web-page pop-up asking you to subscribe to their newsletter. Many behavioral scientists have examined the way text messages can be used as subtle encouragement to get people to change behavior that is often hardcoded into their current way of living.

When lower-income students from West Virginia were exposed to an SMS campaign that helped them seek information, get motivated, and linked them to meetings with college advisers 1-on-1; the effect was momentous. Students who received a message, compared to the control group, graduated with GPAs that were 0.31 higher and completed 1.4 additional credits on average during the semester.

In 2018, Jobs for the Future (JFF) collaborated with Persistence Plus on a text message campaign sent out to over 2,000 students studying STEM at community colleges across the US. While STEM has a higher drop-out rate compared to other faculties, their SMS campaign assisted in decreasing attrition by 10%. The text messages sent out regularly queried students about their biggest concerns while studying at college, similar to what we see in a lot of two-way conversational messaging today.

Like a chat between friends, the SMS was set up to automatically reply with further advice, other collegiate stories, and links to on-campus resources that students could access. According to nursing student, Karessa Kuczma, it helped her to balance coursework and deadlines with actual work, and also served to remind her to action easily forgotten tasks, like making time to see her course advisor.  The initiative was so successful that the use of SMS nudges was expanded to serve over 10,000 students at other campuses afterward.

IN ACTION: Whether you’re a secondary/high school teacher looking to advise students on how to get into their dream school, or a tertiary provider looking to increase enrolments after a significant drop, the key here is support. Students are more anxious than ever about the future due to COVID-19. They need assurance, guidance, and the ‘nudge’ to keep going.

If you’re an educator, break down the process for admissions into easy, achievable tasks that students can do in 5-10 minutes. Send them links to resources with a shortened URL. Use Calendly (or similar calendar automations) to help them set up a virtual time with a course adviser via SMS.

If you’re a university, follow in JFF’s footsteps: build web flows that allow for personal and contextualized SMS communications; identify the issues that are most concerning for the student; help them navigate the roadblocks in the way — whether it’s seeking aid or advice, or which courses allow the most flexibility if circumstances change again. Offense, not defense, is best here. Get ahead of dropping enrolments by deeply understanding COVID-19 related student concerns and issues

4. Boosting a remote learning experience altogether

Fascinatingly, the first large-scale trial of SMS to enhance remote learning began in 2009. While previous attempts had been implemented across Africa, Asia Pacific, and Australia, University Malaysia (OUM) wanted to explore their own Mobile Learning via SMS initiative to support 13,200 remote learners learning anytime and from anywhere.

The text message campaign had multiple purposes in enhancing OUM’s learning experience, including timely course updates, time management advice, motivation or encouragement to continue studies, and reminders to participate.

SMS OUM categories and examples

In addition, interactive automations were set up so that learners could engage in conversations and responses with the broadcast. Two types were utilized, including survey responses as well as multiple-choice questions, both allowing responses and feedback. In particular, the second option facilitated ‘just-in-time’ learning, granting students the ability to respond when available, and to seek private clarification on concepts they do not fully understand. Imagine something akin to a take-home pop quiz.

Multiple choice SMS questioning, response and feedback

Students, in their evaluation of the new system, felt that the SMS messages supported them in staying focused and engaged. It also helped in improving their relationship with the university overall. Over 95% of learners expressed the desire for the initiative to be utilized in other courses as well. Additionally, ROI was bountiful. It only cost UOM RM 5.00 (AUD $1.80) for the equivalent of 25 SMS per student to boost their long-term success and increase the likelihood of them staying on to study at the university.

IN ACTION: On the first view, this might seem overwhelming to implement for a lone educator or busy provider. However, consider how this could assist remote learners in feeling connected, in staying engaged with their studies, and in feeling motivated to continue, especially during COVID-19. Studying remotely, especially now, can be extremely lonely. Without one’s peers surrounding you, you can feel even more disconnected and lacking in motivation to continue.

If you really want to boost a remote learning environment, consider bringing the learning to the learner. Send out random pop quizzes via SMS after classes to keep learners on their toes. Use conversational automations to find out how learners are feeling, or to help motivate. Theme your broadcasts so they coincide with what is being learned that week, which serves to reinforce difficult concepts or pull out more detail in other examples. There’s a myriad of ways to make this work for you.

Final thoughts and further reading

As many schools adjust to new learning environments and conditions, it prompts educators to explore new pathways to learning. While the diversification of learning has continued to grow and expand, COVID-19 may be a blessing in disguise in terms of changing the way we see and decide where learning can take place. Education is not alone in learning from these new circumstances. Healthcare is learning to accommodate telehealth and telemedicine, and employers all across the world are adjusting to working from home for the foreseeable future. While uncomfortable for now, understanding how we can use technology to improve the learning experience will only be a boon in the long-term for our students.


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