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Technology provides one means of meeting the challenge of providing for frequent and meaningful interaction amongst students and staff which underpins students' feelings of being valued, leading to deeper and more meaningful engagement university studies (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). The challenge lies in providing for interaction in an environment where students and casual academic staff are spending less time on campus as a result of busy and complex lives. This paper relates the experiences of one lecturer/tutor using texting to stay in contact with her students and how this contact has supported and encouraged students to persist. It also discusses some of the implications for using mobile telephony to provide connection and community for first year students in higher education.
Universities have adopted flexible learning approaches to provide much of the information and interaction which students once experienced on campus with anytime, anywhere access via a computer and modem. The use of email and discussion forums embedded in learning management is one mechanism to enhance peer to peer communication and exchanges between staff and students on and off-campus (Kift, 2004). Students value personal contact with tutors and lecturers and "being able to contact and interact with academic staff emerged as a critical theme" (p.14) of a recent study of student use of learning technologies (Krause & Duchesne, 2000). Direct personal contact with academic staff can also be achieved through use of mobile phones - providing a mobile phone number to students is a highly personal decision made by academic staff. For casual teaching staff a mobile phone is synonymous to an office phone as they spend much of their time in transit between various workplaces; the home phone is regarded as off limits. For traditional academics, on the other hand, handing out a mobile phone number to students may be a little close to the edges of their "comfort zones". While nearly 40% of students use text messaging by mobile phone to contact other students (Zimitat, 2004), the use of mobiles to contact academic staff is not known.
This paper discusses the experiences of one lecturer/tutor using texting to stay in contact with her students and how this contact has supported and encouraged students to persist. It also discusses some of the implications for using mobile telephony to provide connection and community for first year students in higher education.
First year students in higher education often mention the differences between the degree of support they received at school and the support they receive at university where they are expected to rely more heavily on their own efforts (Teese, 2002). It is not only the school leavers who are vulnerable to instructional isolation as a result of this approach. The transition to university, whether from school, the workplace or home presents challenges. Krause and Duchesne (2000) argue that when placed in a new social context such as the university environment, an individual is faced with concomitant physical, emotional and intellectual demands. Faced with lecturers and tutors who are high on information but lower on teaching and interactive skills, in an environment which often favours mass teaching methods, less confident students are less likely to succeed in their first semesters in higher education without support. By providing a more flexible means of communication and building a relationship that fosters learning through empathy, appreciation of the student's diversity and personal qualities and encourages new learning approaches that are in line with success in tertiary education, the transition to higher education can be enhanced.
Casual university teaching staff may only spend a few hours on campus when not teaching. This is a rather inflexible and unsuccessful way of providing contact and support to students who wish to discuss problems or clarify issues concerning their studies. Both students and casual university teaching staff may have other demands on their time, such as family or work at locations other than on campus. This way, both groups are able to communicate with each other, seamlessly, across different location and across time zones.
Not all students make use of text messaging as a means of staying in contact or communicating with the lecturer/tutor. However, a little like insurance, knowing that this method of communication is available to them does seem to remove concerns about not being able to make contact when they feel they need to do so. Further, younger students are most at ease using this technology, and it is these younger students who are most at risk of floundering in the first year in higher education (McInnis et al., 2000). Older students are more capable of making better decisions and problems solving and are more likely to be independent learners. Therefore this method is very suited to the group who most need it and who will benefit from it most.
Student L, an intelligent but anxious student, had to rush down to Sydney to be with a dying grandmother at the time that the first written assignment was due. She was concerned that she would not be able to hand in her assignment in time. She had completed the work, but did not have a way of delivering the assignment to the specified assignment box in the faculty. She sent a text message expressing her concern and circumstances. As a result she was given permission to email a copy of her paper, post a hard copy to the faculty and thus not miss an important first deadline.
Student P was unhappy with the mark she had received from another tutor in the course and sent a text message to the lecturer. The lecturer was able to arrange to review the paper, meet to discuss the matter with the student and thus resolve a matter that might have ended up creating unnecessary problems for all concerned. The fact that the lecturer had indicated her availability and willingness to be contacted on any matter concerning the course gave the unhappy student that reassurance that her mark was not a "personal" matter, but a learning opportunity.
Student W worked in the emergency services and as a result often had to miss tutorials. By being able to stay in touch via SMS, the student and tutor were able to work together to provide the support and flexibility the student needed to complete the assignments and keep track of the course requirements, while still performing an important community service. As this student was studying counselling skills, she felt she was benefiting by being able to apply her learning in the real world. She was relieved that she was able to manage both the job she was committed to and her studies, despite the demands of shift work on the one hand and an inflexible timetable on the other.
The majority of students seem to use texting to service the relationship. Messages received from students over a semester range from apologies for missing or being late for lectures and tutorials, and messages of thanks and appreciation to anxious requests for meetings to discuss assignments.
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Zimitat, C. (2004). Changing student use and perceptions of learning technologies, 2002-2004. In Beyond the Comfort Zone: Proceedings 21st ASCILITE Conference, Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/zimitat.html
|Author: Louise Horstmanshof, Griffith Institute for Higher Education, Griffith University, Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Horstmanshof, L. (2004). Using SMS as a way of providing connection and community for first year students. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 423-427). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/horstmanshof.html
© 2004 Louise Horstmanshof
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