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Methods to Reach and Engage Students in Learning

Okay, so now that we know that most students do not routinely check their email, but do check their texts, how can we leverage that knowledge?

If you are fortunate enough to work at an institution that provides your phone, then texting and using other facets of social media is probably less of an issue for you. As for myself, since I am not yet so fortunate, but recognize the need to use alternative means for contacting my students, I have started exploring options beyond the institution email (which many openly share that they don’t use).

Paramount or at least equally important to me is maintaining my personal privacy. I am either with or accessible to my students in the building all week long (regardless of what office hours state). As a result, I am less interested in sharing what little personal time I can eek out with them as well. It’s important, however, that I balance my need for privacy with my students’ need to have access to me – particularly my online students spread across the country.

Please indulge me as I try to explain or justify my rationale. I first reduced the modes of communication to three: reactive, static, and proactive.

Reactive communication: Relies on the student being inadvertently becoming aware of an event or issue. When there is a blood drive, or student government organization, or other short-term event occurring to which students may have an interest, posters, flyers, and other forms of advertisement are applied.

The results? If it is something that the student is interested in, and they happen to get exposed to one of the advertisement methods, then they may participate…if the event hasn’t already occurred. Reactive communication has a very limited shelf life with regard to gaining and holding attention, although there are some techniques for expanding and capitalizing on each form of advertisement (for specific ideas check out my short article on QR Codes in Education: Reach and Engage Students in Learning). While this is fine for some venues, it is not very useful for targeting students toward learning engagement.

Static communication: This method of communication relies on the student either adopting the habit of routinely checking their institutions web site, learning management system, or email. The results? Once they
arrive, they would be bombarded with a wealth of information, activities, assignments, and other important notifications; “the career will be at this time and location; the senior exit exam will commence at this time – ensure you bring your student identification; the student government association is hosting a free car wash; your course room is now open and the following assignments are due…” All this excellent information and opportunities for engagement hinge on the student either making a regular practice of visiting the static sites, course rooms, or email, or through happenstance or serendipity. Although this volume and value of information offered may exceed that found in reactive communication, the success rests more on luck than effort. While this is also the most common approach by many, it is not as useful for targeting students toward learning engagement.

Proactive Communication:  Herein lies what may be an answer, if not the answer to increased student engagement in learning. Rather than relying on happenstance, serendipity, and luck, or hoping that students become disciplined enough to adopt as routine, an almost manic checking of their email, the institutions website, or the course room for information, educators can incorporate a different approach: placing the information in front of the student. As simple as this may sound, the process is far from simple.

Placing information in front of students is an intentional and strategic effort to identify what communication methods students use to find information, or keep up with current events, then creating a small consumable “chunk” of data that they can access quickly, integrate simply, then move on. Rather than re-invent the wheel I am exploring methods to present bite size (micro) info block, to achieve significant (macro) results – a technique I explain and use in my leadership classes.

Prepare Yourself to Think Differently:
Before examining these methods it’s important for we educators who believe that content is king, to limit our ‘chunk’ of communication. Does this mean reduce it to 140 characters or less? If possible, yes. Instead of sending a list of course assignments and due dates through email, why generate a QR code that links students to the course calendar? They then have the option to add due dates and events into their personal calendar or mobile device with alerts to provide them notice ahead of the scheduled deadline. Perhaps instead of requiring the student to watch a video in the course room, you could send a link directly to, YouTube, TeacherTube, TED interactive, or similar site. These sites have already done the hard work of modifying the video for viewing on various devices. Maybe rather than information and inspirational handouts explaining the how to learn a math or science procedure, we send a link to or similar site where the process is explained in detail, through video clips that the student can re-watch as often as necessary.

Prepare to Reach Students Differently:
One free solution I’m currently exploring for use to proactively reach students is “Textfree” by This Free application provides unlimited text and picture messaging to any mobile number in the US and Canada. Send and receive free texts (real SMS) with your unique phone number assigned for free for this purpose. Students don’t need the application (Textfree) in order to receive or read your messages, and you could text from anywhere in the world as long as you have a data connection. You can send and receive texts from a variety of mobile devices and desktop systems (

The catch? You must send at least one text message every 25 days or your unique phone number is considered abandoned and will be returned to the pool of local phone numbers. Secondly, you will need practice being clear, concise, and consistent in texting. Third, it is important to respond to text messages as quickly as possible so as not to lose the engagement, once it has been established. This last point has been identified as one of the top negative aspects students find in online learning.

Another free solution I have used with increasing confidence and reliability is Google Voice (  Although this solution requires a bit more effort to set up, it too allows for a measure of privacy in that texts and phone messages are sent to your Google voice account instead of your personal phone. Google voice maintains a record of voice mail, and texts sent to your Google Voice number you can retrieve at any time. Your text regarding an assignment or a student’s text questioning their grade will create an authentic sense of interest between your efforts at advancing your student’s learning. Will this replace the face-to-face interactions? Probably not, but as a proactive measure it increases the likelihood of student engagement, which could increase student success.

The catch? While it’s a fairly simple system to acquire and set up Google voice, getting students to text you and getting students to respond to texts may still be an issue. Since this is still in the experimental phase, I won’t have any data regarding how valid these issues are for a while.

The last free solution that I am still examining is Instagram. As with the other two solutions, the onus for the communication is that you can encourage students to read your messages, or in this case watch a brief video, view a picture or other image.
Instagram has been a part of the social media for some time. Richard Byrne and John Spencer have provided lists of ideas as to how this resource might be incorporated into the educational classroom. Again, this is rather new to me so I have yet to explore all the ideas presented. Below is brief explanation along with the websites to get you started in your own examination of Instagram as an educational tool:

Instagram in Education

Sample Uses:
  • Share homework assignments (photos of the whiteboard/SmartBoard, etc.)
  • Share interesting student work
  • Class scavenger hunts
  • Photo essays
  • Caption writing
  • Photo prompts
  • Math/science concept illustration
  • Art
  • Share photos of real-life connections to classroom learning
How do I get started?
  1. Download the app to your iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad, or Android smartphone.
  2. Create an account.
  3. Take photos from the app, edit, caption, and post (You can also upload photos from the device to Instagram).
Things to Know:
  • Instagram, like Twitter, uses hashtags to categorize photos by topic.
  • Users of Instagram can mention other users (Possibility for feedback).
  • Users can share photos from Instagram via email, Facebook, and Twitter.
  • Be wary of sharing photos with students’ faces and names due to privacy concerns.
Links to more tips and ideas:
An Idea for Instagram in Education” (Richard Byrne from Free Tech for Teachers )
Ten Ideas for Using Instagram in the Classroom” (John T. Spencer from Education Rethink)

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