Archive for February, 2007

O Brave New World: or texting and the Teacher of Language Arts

February 28, 2007

We’ve all seen them: students crouching in their seats, eyes intent on the small screen on the object held in their hands. We’ve read it too; writing in a strange new dialect of abbreviations and acronyms. The reaction of older teachers seems to be one of dismay; yet another threat to literacy, spelling and life as we know it. How should we react?

Is texting just another fad? If we ignore it, will it go away? How should we deal with texting when these cryptic messages start appearing in students’ formal writing? I want to suggest to you that texting is not going to go away. It is popular with the biggest growing market in the world; the youth market and it is extremely profitable for the telephone companies and the manufacturers of cell phones.

Some figures show the direction of things to come. One in six people have access to a cell phone, as against one in 12 having access to a computer. Industry analysts calculated that worldwide, two billion text messages ere sent in 2003. Radio New Zealand in Digital World has already documented how texting is becoming integral to the youth culture by reporting the story that students co ordinated the June 2002 student strikes by texting friends in other classes and at other schools. After some high profile cases of bullying by text message with two students committing suicide, schools in New Zealand try to prohibit the practice. I have also heard claims that drag racing is organized through groups of young drivers texting each other as they search out suitable sites for their races.

Nor has the commercial world been slow to turn texting to its advantage. Numerous competitions, directed at the youth market, ask contestants to text a message to be eligible for a prize draw. Radio stations offer an instant request line by text and, on some television channels, callers can participate in polls to choose which film will be screened on any particular evening. Perhaps more usefully, the airlines and Tranz Rail now offer a service for intending travelers, where they can be send a text message if the service, which they were booked to use, is delayed or cancelled.

The m-learning revolution

Several years ago several of my colleagues visited Finland to see how cellular networks are being used to deliver distance education programmes. They reported that people in
Finland with an interest in education are suggesting that e-learning may yet be overtaken by m-learning or education using mobile devices which have evolved from the cell phone.

While the uses of mobile phones in distance education are becoming evident, are there applications of interest to teachers of English? I think there are. English in Aotearoa has already published at least one example of how texting can be used in an English classroom (Number 46, June 2002 P 50). However, this uses texting in a familiar print medium. M-learning as a new instructional medium should involve the use of the cellular network.

Applications of texting

I found the first application in English on line. Here a commercial organization, Tiny, offers to text haiku to your cell phone. Haiku are short and so ideally suited to being presented as text messages. (Tolstoy would have more trouble with War and peace.)

This started me thinking about what else could be published as a text message. Something short, like an aphorism or a palindrome. After all this is the age of instant short communications. Just as political oratory has been replaced by the ten second “sound bite”, there are lots of short forms of writing out there. Stuff, the INL news website, offers its controversial Naked man caption writing competition by text message. This risqué weekly competition, which previously ran in The Evening Post is ideally suited to the texting format, as a caption is yet another form of short message. While schools would be unlikely to want to emulate this competition, the idea could readily be adapted to more educational purposes.

Vodafone offers its subscribers “Text life”, a soap box opera played out on the screens of a million cell phones. Here, if your friends do not have exciting or salacious news to share with you, then your telephone company will step into the breech and offer you its own line of confidential text messages. I must confess I have not subscribed to Text life but I am told it concerns the life and times of a nineteen year old student, Sam, whose boss is riding high for a charge of sexual harassment . When I searched the World Wide Web for “epigrams”, I found a service, which will email you randomly selected epigrams by Emily Dickinson. This is not mobile phone technology, but it could easily be adapted to text messaging as Dickinson’s epigrams are shorter than her more familiar poetry.

Similar services seem to abound for de La Rochefoucauld’s maxims. Try Joke Monster, another web based email subscription service. I haven’t distinguished maxims from aphorisms, apothegms and axioms since the terms seem interchangeable, but palindromes offer yet another application. The web has plenty of sites devoted to collecting and writing new palindromes and a link to The Palindromist Magazine for students who want to read more. There seem to be enough ideas here for English classrooms to experiment with texting as another form of publishing. Just as we can now publish students’ art work, music compositions and writing on the school website, texting offers a simple way to publish writing – always provided the writing is short.

How much does it cost?

Vodafone is using proprietory software developed in Auckland and must be using something similar. This software allows the user to email messages from a computer to a “call group” of cell phones, which had previously been set up. It differs from Vodafone’s “web2text” service in that a web2text message can be sent only to one cellphone at a time. At the moment access to this software comes at a cost but competition and the desire to build revenues mean that this service like other cell phone services will become more affordable over time. For example, the web2text service I mentioned, is free to Vodafone subscribers and Telecom regularly discounted their 027 service to offer either unlimited or 500 text messages for ten dollars a month. Even now both telcos may be prepared to fund pilot schemes for educational and promotional purposes.


Bain, Helen. (2002) “MSG received” The Dominion Post August 3.

Binning,Elizabeth. (2002) “Text-message bullies force cellphone ban at school” New Zealand Herald November 27.

Miller, Helen. (2002) “txt msg Shsp: the final horror?” English in Aotearoa Number 46, June.

(2003) “Tchers morn deth of litrcy in txt generation” New Zealand Herald March 4

Aphorisms Galore

Digital life originally broadcast on 20 July 2002)

The Emily DickinsonRandom Epigram Machine

Jim Kalbs’ Palindrome Connection

Joke Monster