2010-2011 Pat Walton

past Lilly Fellow of Engineering

Text Messaging as a Tool for Enhancing Student-Instructor Interactions

This generation of student is more interconnected than any generation to date. From a variety of social networking opportunities to the pervasive use of mobile devices, students are fully comfortable with interacting with people that, in some cases, they have never even met face-to-face. Current modes of communication among instructors, however, still default to, in some order, face-to-face meetings, email, and phone calls. As such, there may be a disconnect in the ways students would prefer to interact with their instructors and the ways offered by the instructor. It would seem, then, that to maximize the support of student learning, instructors should investigate other modes of contact for interacting with their students

The genesis of the project was my observation that attendance at my office hours has decreased dramatically even since my arrival at MSU, an observation that has been supported by anecdotal evidence from colleagues. Over the same time period, social networking and text messaging have become pervasive and essentially universal among our students. The proposed project seeks to leverage the comfort of texting to enhance the students' willingness to venture further outside of their comfort zone in their interactions with their instructor. 

Thus, the goal of the proposed project is to test two hypotheses. First, it is hypothesized that students will prefer to use text messaging to interact with the course instructor, over other means such as email, phone calls, and office hours. While this may be expected to be true, establishing this concretely will be useful for arguing on behalf of improved/updated approaches on the part of the faculty. Second, it is hypothesized that students who utilize text messaging to communicate with the instructor will also be more likely to use more traditional interaction methods. The basis for this hypothesis is that if a student is able to make initial contact with the instructor via a method with which they are most comfortable, then they are more likely to engage further with the instructor through means, such as office hours, with which they are less comfortable. 

I propose to test these hypotheses during Fall, 2010 in CHE 201, the first Chemical Engineering core class, which focuses on the conservation of mass and energy in chemical processes. This class is composed mainly of chemical engineering sophomores taking their first course in their major curriculum. As such, it often proves overwhelming, even to students who are accustomed to getting "good grades" in all of their classes. The class has earned the reputation as a "weed-out" class, despite our efforts to assure students that that is not the case. Because of the newness of the material, the difficulty of the problems, and the relative youth of the student population, this class provides an ideal setting for testing whether new modes of interaction can improve the utility and frequency of student-instructor interactions and, in turn, improve student learning and performance. Also, in the Fall semester, the course has two sections, making it possible to do side-by-side comparisons within a relatively consistent student population. 

The experimental approach will be as follows. I have already obtained and initiated a Google Voice telephone number that allows me to receive and archive text messages. I will provide this number to one of the two course sections. Each day at the end of class, I will ask students in both sections to submit "minute papers" containing questions regarding the day's material or anything from the course that is still confusing to them. In one section, all of the submissions will be using paper, while the other section will be encouraged to use either paper or to text message to the Google Voice number, as they choose. I will regularly remind students in both sections of the available office hours, should they need any assistance. 

In addition to the requested messages at the end of each class, I will make it clear to the students in the section using text messaging that I will read any texts that are sent to the Google Voice number. This will provide students another means to contact me with any concerns or questions they might have. I hope that this allows students to communicate with me without first having to access a computer to send an email. This also makes it far more accessible to students than chat utilities such as that available through instant messaging on Angel. The brevity of text messages may also be preferred to more "formal" emails. At least weekly, I will post the S. Patrick Walton - 2010 Lilly Fellowship Project 

aggregated text messages on Angel (with identifying information removed) for students in that section to review. In this manner, they will be able to compare their questions with others in the section and perhaps achieve some benefit from peer-to-peer instruction. 

To assess the project during the term, I will record data for attendance at office hours (name and section of each student) and class (number of students each class period). At the end of the term, I will compare these data between the sections. Also, I will survey the students to determine whether they felt that the text messaging improved their interactions with me, their interactions with their classmates, and their understanding of the course material. These data will be compiled along with SIRS responses and student grades to provide a broad description of both the students' attitudes/perceptions and their performance.