Social Media in the College Classroom: Professor David McDonald's Innovative Use of Text Messaging

Don't miss parts one and two with Professors Corinne Weisgerber and Walter Wimberly.

Professor David McDonald

Dr. David McDonald is a professor in Computer Information Systems (CIS) and director of emerging technologies in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. He recently began piloting the Text Question System (TQS), a simple technology that allows students to ask questions anonymously. recently spoke with Dr. McDonald on the origins, development and future of the TQS.

Georgia State University Logo Blogs, wikis and social media sites are becoming increasingly popular in the classroom, but texting is still pretty unusual. What inspired the Text Question System?

Dr. David McDonald: The TQS came about because I'm a huge hockey fan! I was at an Atlantic Thrashers game, sitting between periods and having my hot dog, and I looked up at the scoreboard. Across the board is a little banner that you'll see at any sporting event where, between periods, you can take your cell phone and send messages to your friends or loved ones. I'm just blindly looking at that and I have an epiphany - that would be a great idea to put in the classroom!

I looked for somebody who could supply this service, but after a worldwide search I found there isn't any company that does this in the educational venue. The closest is a company in England that had a similar concept, and they wanted to work with me to develop it, but I figured that was a little too far away to be productive. So I called the hockey arena and asked them who does the scoreboard, and they gave me the name of the company. Fan Drive Media puts these messaging systems up at arenas all over the country - when you see this text messaging system at sporting events, it's done by these guys here in Atlanta. So I called Fan Drive Media, spoke to their president and asked if they ever thought about going into the educational arena. He was interested because it's a new market for them, so we developed a meeting of the minds. What was it like to translate this idea into a workable classroom tool? How closely did you work with FanDriveMedia to develop it?

DM: I'm an entity of the state of Georgia, so we're not allowed to enter into a partnership per se, but what we did was come to an agreement where I would supply the intellectual capital and experience on how to make it work in an educational environment, and he supplied the venture capital to make it a startup business. So what IS the Text Question System (TQS)? Can you walk us through it from both the student's and professor's perspectives?

DM: Well, the initial reason I created it is two or threefold:

One reason is that our provost was lamenting in a meeting that we have more and more international students as part of our program and, culturally, many do not raise their hands in the classroom. They just simply won't do it. I did some research on the issue and learned that a Chinese faculty member surveyed 800 different schools in China and found out that Chinese students wouldn't raise their hands for Chinese professors, so what makes us think they're going to do it for us in a foreign land? So that was one reason for doing this - by having anonymous questioning there's a greater likelihood that students would text in when they wouldn't normally raise their hands.

A second reason for developing the TQS is the 'ah ha!' syndrome. How many times have you sat in a class where another student has raised their hand and asked a question and you went, yeah, that's a darn good question? And based on that question you sprung up with another question. So ideas spring up other ideas once you get them out into the mainstream.

A third reason for developing the TQS the way we did is that it's not time-dependent. It can be used synchronously in the classroom where you watch it going across the banner, but as I developed the system I also had the people I'm working with make it RSS-enabled, which allows you to receive a feed that you can view later. The professor can still use the banner in the classroom, but since some find it distracting, it's also automatically captured and posted on the class's website or anywhere you can subscribe to an RSS feed.

To send a question, students have just one phone number to dial into. That one number represents the entire university, so how does it know to send the message to your particular class and course section? Well, every section has to be identified with a specific number at all universities, so that's what we make use of. We created a keyword system where the student dials in the main phone number then simply prefixes their message with the course section number. Boom! It pops up on the banner in the classroom, and then boom!, it pops up in a linked RSS feed reader.

That's the student side of it. The other side is faculty. One of the big motivators for me to do this was the big question: How do you get faculty into the 21st century? In so many classrooms, students get this message from the faculty saying everybody close your laptops, turn off your cell phones. Put 'em away. But our students were born in the 1990s - they're used to using this technology, they want to use this technology, but faculty are still opposed to using this technology.

So I wondered, how do we get faculty to make use of new technologies? I found that they'll adopt technologies when certain things are present. First, you have to use the KISS method: Keep It Simple Stupid. It is truly very, very simple. In the manual for the pilot I told faculty, give me five minutes to teach you how to use the system and if I go over, then I will take you to lunch. I've got 19 faculty on the pilot and didn't buy one lunch - it is that simple for them to use.

Two, it should be a technology that they're already familiar with. Well, 94% of people in the United States own cell phones with text messaging capabilities, so they're already familiar with the technology.

Three, it shouldn't require any extra infrastructure on the part of the school system, and the TQS doesn't. The only thing that students need is their phones and the faculty member needs a $10 thumb drive to plug in and start the session.

I took it one step further too: When I first started unveiling the system, one of faculty's common concerns was, isn't that going to create a lot of extra questions and work? Well, first, is it ever really a problem that you get too many people asking you questions? That's heaven for a faculty member. But the TQS is designed to work as well in classrooms with 200, 250 students as in small classes. In a large classroom, it might be very difficult for a faculty member to respond to every question. So I applied the wiki concept - we have a TQS wiki on every course section site (it's not really tied to our infrastructure, there are lots of free wiki systems that could be used). When the questions come in to the wiki from the TQS, the students have an opportunity to answer other students' questions. When they do, two things happen: First, they get to answer the question and show off how smart they are. Second, we give them participation points for their grade, so that by taking an active role and helping students they earn points and get their name up on the wiki to show that they answered a question. Is there someone checking the students' answers for accuracy?

DM: Yes - because we are using wiki and web 2.0 technology, the TQS supports something called alerts. Every time somebody posts something to that wiki, whomever has signed up for the alert system is automatically notified by email that an answer was posted for that question. You can just click in your email and go directly to the wiki page. What I do as a faculty member is very quickly go through the emails and take a look at the questions and answers that are showing up. There's only been a couple of times where I've had to go to the wiki and say that's not quite right. So yes, there's a way to monitor this. Our system that we developed here also has a way to allow any faculty to click on any wiki home page to produce an auto-report that shows who has read it and who has contributed to it.

I should mention where some of the best ideas for this have come from: Every time I do my little dog and pony show and present this to different groups, someone in the audience always says, hey, can you do xyz, and I go, great idea! For example, I was in Boston presenting this to a group of faculty and somebody said, you know what might be a good idea, is if you give the students a reserve word like STOP so if they don't understand the concept they can type in the message STOP and it goes across the banner. When faculty lecture, we never look at the banner or our notes, if you're an experienced faculty member you're addressing the audience. So you tell your students, let me know if you see a STOP up there, that means somebody didn't understand the concept. So I stop and go over it again.

The wiki also gives you the benefit of creating a knowledge base of questions. That's a very, very powerful thing, because as a faculty member I use the same material over and over and I keep seeing the same questions popping up from students. It shows me that there must be a weakness in my method - I must not be explaining a concept very well if students keep having questions about that particular concept. When did you first launch the TQS?

DM: We launched our pilot this spring semester in January, although we started working on the idea in the fall semester. I demonstrated it to a number of faculty to get their feedback, and then in spring actually started doing pilot testing to find the strengths and weaknesses and determine the best practices. We will continue to keep it in a pilot phase through the summer, and then we hope to have a commercial product available to the public starting in the fall semester. Would that be a commercial product sold by Fan Drive Media or sold by Georgia State?

DM: Well, Fan Drive Media has broken off a new company, and we're marketing it under Text Quest, which is an umbrella under which we're developing TQS and other related products.

Dr. McDonald offered me a preview of the development site, which includes a live feed of student comments. The student comments bring us to about the only thing we have left from my original questions, which is student feedback.

DM: I got a LOT of student feedback. Using our web 2.0 system, I created an area for them to supply feedback and I left open-ended questions there like, what do you think is good about this, what's bad, why aren't you using this, what would be better to get you to use it, those sorts of questions. That's what we're analyzing and that's what's going to go into our best practices document that will be part of the user manual. Would you say students have generally taken to it? Do they seem to like it, are they comfortable using it?

DM: Yeah - it's interesting, right now, where it should be the most effective is in large classrooms. But in the pilot, we only have one faculty member teaching a large classroom. In the smaller size classes there's a lot more cohesiveness in the classroom, faculty are able to see students' faces. When you're in that classroom of 250, you could be way in that back row somewhere and you could text in some silly remark. That has happened in the large classrooms, where they send in inane remarks that don't pertain to the classroom.

To solve that problem, we tell students that it's mostly anonymous. Even though the banner and feed are anonymous, on the faculty's database end they see all the questions and the phone number that the student used is captured alongside them. What I recommend faculty do is, when you're explaining the system, you let students know this system is mostly anonymous, but if you don't use the system the way it's intended to be used, phone numbers are captured so you will know who's sending the message. I tell the students, I guarantee I'm not going to look up who's texting every question with phone numbers, it's just not worth my time or effort if they're doing it the right way, so for the most part they are anonymous. It's only students making some wisecrack that I'll shut down.

The other thing is that, because this is derived from a system that was used in sporting venues, the TQS has a superb keyword filter. Bad words are automatically blocked out like they would be in a sporting arena. In fact, in using the original bad word list, we found that students were complaining that some of their messages weren't coming through. When I went to the database that captures everything, even messages that aren't coming through to the classroom, I discovered that the reason some of them had been blocked was the filter was so aggressive it would filter out the letters 'a-s-s' even if they're in 'class.' Any time class was used in a sentence the question wouldn't make it through because the filter would grab it. So we had to modify the filter and make it less stringent so things like 'classroom' could be sent in a text message.

You know, the interesting thing from this pilot, I didn't even mention to the students about this filtering system. But in looking at all the messages from all the pilot classes, I found that students aren't using foul language. They don't try to get something negative like that through. They do try to be jokesters or use it like Twitter, a pure social networking medium. It shouldn't be used like that, this is social networking, but it's social networking by focusing the network on what's going on in the classroom. That's why we're trying to co-opt this technology, so instead of putting the cell phones away, I tell them on the first day of class, ok, take your cell phones out! And that's a different attitude. That's 21st century thinking, rather than what a lot of faculty do, 20th century thinking - put your cell phone away, put your laptop away. Our audiences are 21st century students. I think you covered the system quite thoroughly! I'm excited to see it getting rolled out at other institutions, I think it will be very widely used.

DM: Well, as I said, there's something else we've got scheming as well. The only thing I can tell you is that we're developing a suite of applications to go with the TQS and there will be icons for iPhones, Blackberry's, etcetera. Before we make this commercial we want it to be commercially viable, so we'll be making it look like a commercial product over the summer. That isn't something that students will have to purchase, is it?

DM: The university has to purchase access to the server, but students aren't purchasing access to an application. The cost to faculty and the cost to students is very low, and most universities already have the money in place for an old system that I want to replace with the TQS. So the expense is minimal for the university, they get quite a bit of bang for their buck and they don't have to build any additional infrastructure. They don't even have to add any tech support people, it's all covered when you purchase a license. It is very, very simple to adopt for any university or other organization.

In fact, I gave a talk here in Atlanta and one of the attendants was from the Intercontinental hotel chain. They have a big interest in looking at this system for a conference package in their hotels. People can use this system for conferences too - there's just tremendous potential for this concept. It's still the beginning of an idea, but I think it's got a good future.

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