Future Tense

Texting Doesn’t Have to Be a Distraction

Used correctly, it can help keep students on track.

teenage texting.
Don’t forget to register for classes this Monday!

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Peter M. Fisher/Fuse/Thinkstock

Facing some of America’s biggest education challenges, Benjamin Castleman thinks small. In his new book, The 160-Character Solution: How Text Messaging and Other Behavioral Strategies Can Improve Education, the University of Virginia education professor argues that the humble text message can boost student achievement, improve study habits, and help students stay on track in the transition from high school to college.

Start with the obvious. Texting is cheap, and it’s everywhere. None of the newer social media apps has anywhere near its reach. You don’t need a powerful computer or broadband Internet to text. You just need a phone and fast thumbs.

But Castleman says the advantages of texting go beyond its popularity with hard-to-reach teenagers. New software makes it possible to customize automated text messages to fit the needs of individual students. Administrators can now send personalized, and timely, reminders and resource links to thousands of students, whose questions and replies are routed to appropriate counselors and teachers.

Castleman cites deep psychological reasons why these little digital nuggets of advice and encouragement work. Faced with difficult decisions and long-term goals—such as choosing a college and finding the money to pay for it—it’s easy for people to get sidetracked by more immediate concerns or feel so overwhelmed that they give up. Bite-size text message can cut through complexity, “to remind people about important tasks they need to complete, and help them follow through with the goals they’ve set for themselves,” says Castleman.

There’s a growing body of research on texting interventions in schools, dating to 2012, when Castleman was an education doctoral student at Harvard. At the time, text messages were already being used to help people quit smoking, stick to a healthy diet, exercise, and set aside money every month for personal savings. Castleman and a colleague, Lindsay Page, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, tested text messages as a remedy for “summer melt”—the infamous months after high school graduation when many students who have been accepted to college decide not to go. The “melt” is up to 40 percent in some districts, and it’s especially strong among lower-income and first-generation college students.

“Their high school counselors aren’t there for them anymore, and they’re not yet connected with their colleges,” Castleman explains. “They’re cut off from professional support, balancing jobs and family commitments, and at the same time they’re facing these important, onerous tasks like completing registration and housing forms and finalizing financial aid and loans.”

Castleman and Page found a company that manages clinical trials by, among other things, texting reminders to study subjects so that they take their pills. The texting team there programmed software that would send a summer’s worth of weekly, personalized text messages to thousands of recent high school graduates in several cities, offering deadline reminders, links to documents and resources, and connections to professional advisers ready to answer their texted questions. Overall, 70 percent of students who received these texts enrolled in college, compared with 63 percent of students who were not texted—a significant impact, for less than $10 per student.

In other research, texting information on student performance to parents of middle and high school students in Los Angeles increased homework completion rates by 25 percent, helping boost test scores and grade point averages. Texting suggestions for simple reading activities to the parents of preschoolers in San Francisco led to early literacy gains, as did a similar texting program in Chicago. Text message supports also helped cut dropout rates by a third in basic literacy and math courses for adult learners in England.

Meanwhile, the success of Castleman’s original summer-melt text message program has led to several others. A district in Wisconsin plans to expand its summer-melt texting to alert younger students to internships, scholarships, and other opportunities that match the interests they list in electronic career and academic plan portfolios. This school year every high school senior in West Virginia will be able to sign up for 18 months of helpful texts guiding them from spring of their senior year through their first year of college.

Indeed, the initial summer-melt research generated so much interest that the text messaging team hired by Castleman and Page split from their employer in late 2013 to launch a startup focused solely on text messaging platforms for schools, called Signal Vine. Their software personalizes texts by linking databases of resources with student profiles. For example, it can text directions to the nearest SAT testing center based on ZIP codes, or send alerts pertaining to a student’s chosen college while routing her responses back to counselors on that campus, all without an exchange of phone numbers.

“Sometimes, the best, most effective technology isn’t the flashiest, newest, shiniest thing,” says Brian Kathman, Signal Vine’s CEO. “Sometimes, it’s the thing that works.”

Despite touting a “solution” in his book title, Castleman concedes that text messages aren’t silver bullets. They should supplement, rather than replace, other interventions, and they don’t always work.

For example, in Castleman’s research on summer melt and in a later study on college retention, the improvements from text interventions waned and even disappeared in places that initially had had the best track records on these issues thanks to a variety of other supports for students.

“These types of strategies work well with some students and educational settings and not well for others,” he says. “It’s not texting itself that makes these nudges successful, it’s attending to details, like the frequency, timing, and framing of messages.”

That means months of planning and refining the planned texts and seeking candid feedback from students, teachers, parents, and guidance counselors both before and after you hit “send.”

“It was a real eye-opening process that really forced us to distill the information we send to these kids,” recalls Jessica Kennedy, director of communications and outreach for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which spent about five months planning the state’s 18-month texting support program for college-bound students.

On the one hand, when the commission asked faculty, staff, and students at a local college for the most important information that an incoming freshman should know, they came up with nearly 300 items. “We said, ‘You can only have 25,’ ” Kennedy recalls.

On the other hand, this year’s texts will include an additional message about how and where students can buy textbooks. “Textbooks are a really big investment for students, but we don’t traditionally give students a lot of guidance on that,” says Kennedy.

According to Castleman, the bottom line is that text message crafters need to really know the people they’re trying to reach, understand the obstacles they face, and open the door to questions and conversation. Simply texting students tons of information will backfire. “It’s easy to blow it,” he says.

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.