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Embracing the Enemy

Implementing texting to increase the effectiveness of teaching millennial students Benjamin M Bush Assistant Professor, Industrial Design University of Louisiana at Lafayette, IDSA bmb1093@louisiana.edu

1. INTRODUCTION A new generation has landed at the doorstep of college universities. They are the first group to enter college who have never known how it is to live without a computer in their home or a cell phone in their pocket. Alarmingly, there is a growing disconnect between how millennials want to learn and how most college faculty are accustomed to teaching. The following will discuss six main needs that millennials bring to the educational landscape. It will also discuss who the millennials are and how implementing texting as a teaching tool can meet these needs. For each presented need there will also be an example of how the author implemented texting into his own classroom. 2. THE PROBLEM AND PROPOSED SOLUTION There is a wealth of literature that states that there is an expanding disconnect between how the millennials want to learn and how professors have typically taught. “Researchers have recently turned their attention to the unique needs of the millennial generation in higher education classrooms and online courses. The literature demonstrates that university students in the millennial generation are bored and uninspired…”(Merlino & Rhodes, 2012). Conflicts currently exist between students’ preferences to learn and professors’ preferences to teach (Graubard, 2001; Proserpio & Gioia, 2007).

Willcoxson (1998) indicates that “conventional approaches to university pedagogy have been increasingly disengaging for today’s students”.

“A paradigm shift is occurring, and higher education cannot ignore the needs of these students” (Monaco & Martin, 2007). According to Davis (2003), “It will surely be remarked that never was the misfit between professors’ favored styles of teaching and the actual skills and predilections brought to learning by the young so great, or so rapidly increasing”.


Multiple researchers state that there is a growing disconnect in today’s collegiate classrooms. The author is no stranger to these claims, he hears such statements from the grumbling lips of note worthy professors. Some say that today’s college students enter the higher education landscape with a weak work ethic and unreasonable expectations. They state that this new generation is characterized by their impatient and unrealistic desire for immediate results. The author agrees that millennials do bring considerable baggage to the classroom but what do you expect from a generation that has been taught how to test, rather than learn? A new generation with unique educational needs has entered the college landscape and will continue to do so for many years. Universities are going to need to address the gap between millennials’ learning preferences and professors’ teaching methods. To say that this generation has been profoundly impacted by technology is an understatement. Millennials no longer want to be talked at by an instructor; they want to be interacted with, nay entertained. Merlino and Rhodes (2012) argue that “[t]he role of the faculty is changing from sage on the stage [and] giving way to guide on the side”. The author agrees; millennials are marketed to nearly every second of their lives. There are countless games, websites, and apps that are designed to engage and entertain students at the touch of a button. To be frank, marketers and game/website developers can grasp the attention of the millennial students far better than today’s teachers. Many will agree that transitioning universities to newer technologies can solve many of these problems. Such a task is easier said than done. While online learning has made great strides in the past few years, it is not the sole future of higher education. Many students still prefer the personal attention and routine of the traditional classroom setting. Sweeny (2006) communicates that millennials want universities to “[p]rovide every service digitally…[letting them] decide how much [they] will use the face to face versus the online”. Given the divide of preferred learning, current teaching methods and a desire to blend online and traditional classrooms, the author proposes implementing texting or SMS (short message service) technology in the classroom for the purpose of critiquing, encouraging, connecting, and challenging students. Before learning about the educational needs of the millennial student, the reader needs to know their characteristics. 3. WHO ARE THE MILLENNIALS? The millennials are categorized as a group of young persons who were born approximately between 1983 through 1999 (Myers, 2010)(Sweeny, 2006). They are the offspring of two generations; the baby boomers and Generation X. Generational groups are defined by their values. Millennials are avid multitaskers, known for being technologically savvy and for their lack of patience. In particular, millennials have a close tie to their parents and immediate family. On one hand, this tie tends to make them very relational and easily adept in group exercises. On the other hand, these individuals have lived sheltered childhoods and often feel a sense of entitlement (Merlino & Rhodes, 2012)(Myers, 2010). 4. WHAT ARE THEIR EDCATIONAL NEEDS, HOW CAN THE BE FULFILLED? Researchers’ observations expose pivotal opportunities where implementing texting into the classroom can be most effective. Each of these opportunities will be unpacked in one of six mil-


lennial educational needs. These needs consist of dealing with meeting millennials technological needs, remaining personal yet professional, and providing timely feedback. It will also cover their tendency to multitask, their attachment to their parents and their desire to be mentored by a direct and driven leader. After each topic is introduced, an explanation and real student dialogue will be shown as to how the use of texting can satisfy the before mentioned needs. 4.1. TECHNOLOGICALLY SAVVY Millennials are technologically savvy; therefore, they expect the people that they work and interact with to be technologically savvy as well. Millennials want their teachers to have a vast control over multiple technologies. However, teachers are still praised for having confident control over a select few (McNeil Jr., 2011). In fact, implementing too much technology too fast can make students feel like they are “guinea pigs”. This generation requires educators who can both understand and work collaboratively with their audiences within their own learning process (Monaco & Martin, 2007). Delivering class content solely through static PowerPoint slides has lost its effectiveness (Monaco & Martin, 2007). Simply stated, millennials want a classroom setting where they are actively engaged by their instructor through current technology. 4.1.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP According to Smith (2010), “85% of Americans now own a cell phone”, and “96% of 18-29 year olds own a cell phone of some kind”. Texting (or short message technology) is used to send small amounts of written information. This technology is very similar to instant messaging or emailing but what makes it special is that it is tethered to a mobile cellular phone rather than a stationary computer. The addition of sending pictures and small videos makes texting technology even more useful. This type of technology grants students one-on-one access to a teacher who can quickly respond to their specific situation. To be fair, what about the instructors who own a phone and don’t text? Why fix what isn’t broken? Sharpina (2010) contends that the “boomers in their mid-50s and early 60s are…still yakking [instead of texting]”. If Sharpina is right about the baby boomers, and the author believes she is, then it is important to reassess the popular assumption that baby boomers are unwilling to learn how to text. Conventional wisdom has it that baby boomer aged instructors do not text because they have not found it useful or important enough to learn. But if those “yakking boomers” did decide that texting could add value to their teaching, they would have a wealth of assistance at their fingertips. Over 95% of students attending class would be able to offer first hand advice on how to use and manipulate the technology according to the instructors’ needs. As McNiel Jr. stated earlier, millennials want their professors to feel confident about the technology they are using. The integration of texting into a teaching tool serves to satisfy the millennials’ desire for a technology savvy professor. M.Prater: I hope your thanksgiving went well, Are the dimensions for the laser cutter 32 x 32?

M.Prater: Thanks buddy

Me: The art board should be. But the cutter only cuts the top half

Figure 1. Have confident control over a few technologies rather than poor knowledge over many.


4.2. PERSONABLE For the millennials, “relationships are the new currency” (Rubin, 2012). They may be the most personal yet physically impersonal generation to ever exist. Millennials seem “to be more willing to pursue learning outcomes when we connect with them on a personal level” ( Price, 2009). Researcher Richard Hake proves that actively engaging students increases their understanding. He conducted a survey of 6000 students who participated in introductory physics classes. Students who participated in an interactive learning model showed an increase of conceptual understanding of force by 61%, an increase of conceptual understanding of acceleration by 67%, and an increase of conceptual understanding of velocity by 40% over traditional instruction methods (Hake, 1997). In two separate cases, McNeil Jr. (2010) reports that professors “received…negative remarks [for] not getting to know their names and [not] relating to them more personally”. Millennials have been told that they are special since they were young and expect their professors to be personable enough to know their names. Price (2009) suggests that professors make a conscious effort to become more approachable, modeling a countenance that is caring, friendly, and “easy to talk to”. This does not mean that instructors have to become “softies”. We will discuss later the importance of being a direct and driven leader. 4.2.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP Texting, in its very nature, is an informal means of communication. It has its own hyphenated language that is not taught by educational institutions; rarely is it used for serious topics. By using an informal language through an informal medium, instructors can be viewed as approachable and personal. Texting also allows the professor to better know the names of his or her students. Each phone number is tied to a contact that displays the sender’s name, making it easier to relate a name to a student’s personality. Some forms of texting will even link an image from a student’s social network site, allowing the recipient to see that person’s face with an incoming message. Texting can also be a platform for both group instruction and one-on-one conversations. The author prefers to send out mass instruction through email because it fits most colleges’ policy for “the official means of communication”. In order to establish a personal relationship with a student there must be the occasional private conversation. Unfortunately, busy student schedules and increasing student-to-teacher ratios make it difficult for such conversations to happen (Monaco and Martin, 2007). Texting allows those precious conversations to exist beyond the walls of school. It enables both student and teacher to speak openly and honestly to each other within the privacy of a one-on-one conversation. The use of texting can also allow input from those students who rarely voice their opinion during class. Merlino and Rhodes (2012) remind the reader that instructors will commonly face “students who have difficulty speaking up... handl[ing] a good debate, appear[ing] bored, and [struggling] with constructive criticism”. Granted, some students genuinely lack concern or the attention span. Other students, however, need an outlet to express themselves. Texting allows the teacher to approach his or her student in an informal and confidential manner. These discussions can get to the center of the student’s problem, be it an issue with the delivery of course content or validating the importance of their opinions. Millennials have voiced that “[their] relationship with supervisors, managers, ect are directly linked to job satisfaction” (Myers, 2010). Texting allows instructors to be more personable with their audience and understand the student’s perspective like never before.


Me: U got a minute? Megan: Yes

Me: Whats the deal? Are you shooting ya self in the foot? Or did you

really have nothing today?

Megan: I had changes that I’ve made. I just didn’t want feedback right now cause I keep making all these little changes and with conference I just need to get to at least a finished project. Me: Thats what I was hoping for. As long as your prepping for conference. Megan: Yeah I’m trying to but most of my time has been spent on making that presenta-

tion. I’ll have it for you sometime tomorrow morning.

Figure 2. Texting allows for one-on-one conversations between student and instructor.

4.3. INSTANT FEEDBACK Millennials expect instant feedback. Their lightning fast demands of technology have somehow been applied to the organic process of learning. Students desire feedback during two types of situations. The first situation appears at the crossroads of an integral project decision. Frequently, millennials who thrive “on constant feedback and become paralyzed, often unable to proceed forward” (Monaco and Martin, 2007). At these moments, students need advice from an instructor rather than a person who just happens to be within earshot. Neglecting these needs can lead to poor project outcomes and responsibility displacement. A second situation where students desire instant feedback occurs after the completion of an assignment. Myers (2010) suggests that instructors “don’t wait for the annual review to provide feedback— give ‘spot reviews’ [to] help motivate these team members”. While these after completion needs are important, they carry less weight in contrast to the paralyzing need mentioned in the first situation. A timely response to a student’s mid-project concerns will always have more of an effect on a project’s outcome rather than a reflective critique.

4.3.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP Me: U go Satisfying a millennial’s need for instant gratification can be difficult. They are not just hasty for the sake of being hasty; millennials often feel “pressured to constantly perform for those who will Megan Merri-merh: Yes be their judge” (Monaco and Martin, 2007). And millennials aren’t with communicating Whats the deal? Are you shooting ya self in the foot? Me:content through email. They see it as outdated because of its lag in response time; texting provides the really have noth immediacy millennials want (Monico and Martin, 2007). To ease these pressures and “model I had changes that I’ve made. I just didn’t feedback right now Merri-merh: openness to student feedback”Megan (Studer, 2012), instructors should be available forwant texting convercause I keep making all these little changes and with conference I just need sations most hours of the day. The author detects some hostility because of the previous state- to get to at least a finished project. ment. Let us unpack this proposal. On one hand, students need to respect the personal time of their instructors. Working within others parameters is part the what educational experience. On Me:of Thats I was hoping for. As long as your prepping for c the other hand, limiting the time that one can be reached for questions severely limits texting’s Yeah trying to but most of my time hasthis been spent onofmaking that Megan effectiveness. A compromise can beMerri-merh: achieved byI’m persuading administrators that method presentation. I’ll haveIn it for you so, sometime tomorrow engagement should count towards office hours. doing teachers will bemorning. able to strike a balance between being an effective instructor and reserving time for their personal activities. Many instructors will agree that the goal of teaching is to teach a student how to think. Though texting is a quick form of communication, it does not have to be instantaneous. The time span between a question and a response allows an instructor to craft insightful, probing questions.


When the student receives the response, the very nature of it being in type rather than audio, makes him or her slow down to digest the information. Another benefit is that the discussion remains on the student’s phone for multiple days, allowing the individual to revisit and further ponder the topics discussed. Texting not only “reduce[s] stress and enables students to complete assignments more successfully,” (Merlino and Rhodes, 2012) but creates opportunities where students learn to depend on their own critical thinking skills rather than solely the opinion of the teacher. Texting can also fulfill the students’ desire for instant feedback after the completion of an assignment. Often, this type of request stems from the student not feeling confident about his or her work. Once again, the medium of texting allows the instructor time to formulate insightful questions as to why the student lacks confidence. On one hand, the instructor can use this time to encourage the student, praising them for their efforts. On the other hand, the instructor can converse with the student about components that were lacking during the project. We will discuss in the following section that impatience, combined with technological advances, leads to another millennial characteristic, multitasking. Me: Do you feel passionate about it?

Philip: It’s probably the most passionate I’m going to be. Planting crops,

being around dirty animals don’t sit very well to me.

Me: It doesn’t sit well with th 3.3 billion people who live in 3rd world countries either. Me: and u thought this project was just about zombies. Philip: Ok. Then in that case I’m very passionate about it. I kinda did a project like it in highschool.

Figure 3. Texting, known typically for its quick response, can also be used to craft insightful feedback.

4.4. Multitaskers Millennials live in a world of increasing flexibility. They “prefer to keep their time and commitments flexible longer in order to take advantage of better options; they also expect other people and institutions to give them more flexibility” (Sweeny, 2006). This desire to multitask stems from two areas: the technological ability to do so and the desire to not waste time. Unlike their workaholic predecessors, the “factors that are most important to [millennials] are working with a manager they respect...and striking a balance between personal and work obligations” (Myers, 2010). 4.4.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP The cell phone is synonymous with multitasking. It puts all the knowledge of the world at the millennials fingertips, allowing them to check their Twitter updates every ten minutes. Choney (2010) of NBC news reports, “more than 8 in 10 say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed”. Texting while working at another task is the norm (Sweeny, 2006). This behavior is not only typical at the work place; it is equally evident in their private lives. Millennials are as quick to text during class critiques as they would at dinner with a significant other. Instructors who understand their tie to texting will have the best chance to connect and influence these students. Instructors may feel insulted to become a convenience to the way millennials multitask but research shows that these students desperately need an instructor who can understand their


highly diverse schedule. In recent years, “state governments—whose schools educate 7 in 10 students—have raised tuition abruptly because of their own financial problems” (Coy, 2012). As of 2011, “two thirds of graduating college seniors owed on average $23,300 in college debt (Martin & Lehren, 2012). To deal with the increased cost of going to college many students are working part time after class to offset their student loans. When students spend more time working their part time jobs they have less time to devote to class projects. But let us not forget, millennials are inherently multitaskers and want instant feedback. If they are at work and are hit with a pressing question, they can quickly contact the instructor and receive guidance on a given assignment. Texting and multitasking allows the student to be increasingly thoughtful over their school projects even if their location is not ideal. DOUF: Ben German, had a question n just missed ya, would it be a good idea to

mock apple in my layout? Colors n ect

DOUF: 10-4

Me: Yea.... its not like its made for dell computers

DOUF: How about going the route of producing it as an apple product to use

the logo? Is that legal? Ha

Me: In school work... yes

Figure 4. Texting allows students to develop their ideas anytime and anywhere.

4.5. THE BRIDGE FROM PARENT TO EMPLOYER Millennials have parents who guard them with “helicopter supervision”. These parents “take an active role in their children’s lives” (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010). Success within and beyond the classroom “is expected to be the ‘initial payoff’ for all the planning, stress, and shared ambition” they have endured (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010). It is little surprise that this connectedness that the millennials share with their parents has translated to the classroom. 4.5.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP Instructors play a pivotal role in developing students into confident, proficient young professionals. For many, it is the reason they enjoy teaching. This tethered generation, “may call, textmessage, instant message or email their parents multiple times a day” (Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010). If millennials communicate with their parents through texting, would it be too far fetched for them to communicate with their instructors in the same manner? Millennials look to authority figures for advice and encouragement. Texting allows the instructor to offer “directed active engagement within the didactic…environment [and] will greatly assist the learning process of these students” (Monaco and Martin, 2007). Like it or not, millennials view the instructor in a quasi-parental role. Connecting with them through text conveys to these students that the teacher views them as special and wants them to succeed.


Me: U gettin caught up on your work this weekend right? Payton: Yup I’ll be all caught up Payton: I know that we need the info graphic finished but do we need to start sketches for anything?

Me: Design Methods, When in doubt refer to the deign brief Figure 5. Not all student need the “parental treatment” but some need a push until they get the picture.

4.6. THE NEED FOR A DIRECT AND DRIVEN LEADER Just because students see their instructor as an “educational parent”, does not mean that the instructor should treat them like children. Millennials enjoy opposites. They want a professor that is “laid back” but at the same time is efficient, has clear expectations, and knows what needs to be done (Myers, 2010). Myers (2010) also encourages instructors to “[k]eep the door open, but don’t be a doormat”. Millennials need an instructor that can clearly communicate and empower them through clear and impassioned direction. 4.6.a. HOW TEXTING CAN HELP Texting allows instructors the ability to not only build relationships, but it also provides a superb opportunity to encourage and challenge students. In order to effectively engage millennials, instructors must adopt a “independent learning, student-centered, empowering [model of teaching]” (Merlino and Rhodes, 2012). Delivering clear expectations during class time is important, but being able to reinforce those expectations beyond the classroom serves to elevate the effectiveness of an instructor. It is up to the digression of the professor which is needed, encouragement or confrontation, or perhaps a bit of both. Myers (2010) reinforces that “[m]illennials expect honesty and candor out of their managers”. Challenging and encouraging through text reinforces that the instructor is on their team but will simultaneously demand their best effort. R. Peacock: Hey Ben, my illustrator won’t let me create outlines. The button is there it just

isn’t highlighted for me to click on

R. Peacock: Nevermind, I finally found a blog that had the answer. Me: You’re a WINNER! R. Peacock: Hahahaha I don’t even know what to say.

Figure 6. The author is a supporter of increasingly creative forms of criticism and encouragement.

5. OTHER BENEFITS In addition to the benefits listed above there are also other practical advantages for using text as a means of communication. Text messages carry a higher priority than e-mailed messages. Though most e-mail services offer spam filters, members still receive multiple ads on their email accounts daily. Email addresses are relatively easy to obtain and sell to internet marketers.


Cell phone numbers, on the other hand, are much more difficult to obtain. For millennials, text messages equal real people and authentic conversations. For this reason, millennials are more likely to read their text messages over any other form of written digital communication. Millennials have adopted the view that calling someone is an invasion of their privacy. Sharpina (2010) states that millennials have created a “bias against unexpected phone calls. [T]his stems in good part from the way texting and e-mail have conditioned young people to be cautious about how they communicate when they are not face to face”. Most short, informational conversations between student and teacher can be handled through texting. Simultaneously, millennials still recognize that if a topic is complex enough, the conversation should move from texting to a phone call. Offering this communication service to students can also disarm their excuses. By comparison, a teacher who offers to communicate through text can triple their availability over a teacher who does not. This abundance of availability drives out many conventional student excuses. When students claim that “they did not know” or lacked understanding, the teacher has the authority to state, “Why didn’t you ask?” Kayla: I am so confused! (not surprising I know) what do you want tomorrow?

A map? I thought you wanted research about the area we are from.

Me: Correct, so on your map, not where food comes from, water source, shelter, and

fuel...I send out some examples

Kayla: I saw them. The first one has a utility key. I need to mark

where everything is? Like the water line? What do I even find out where that is ? I really dont mean to sound dumb Me: Where are you gonna get water from?

Kayla: I dont know. Which is why I am confused

about the maps you send. Lol

Me: Should I call to clear up the confusion? Kayla: Yea that would help

Figure 7. Texting will not solve every communication problem, know when to change your medium.

6. DRAWBACKS While there are many benefits to integrating texting into the collegiate classroom there are some drawbacks that are worth mentioning. The most prominent is the time and attention that must be given to offering a 24-hour service. The author hopes that teachers who offer this type of service will be rewarded with fewer office hour requirements. It is also important for the instructor to set boundaries; for example, when he or she cannot be contacted for personal reasons. Let us not forget, working within regulations is an important lesson that millennial students must learn while they are in college. When a text is sent, a text is expected in return. There is no specific timeline wherein responses must be delivered; the typical expectation is at one’s soonest convenience. Not fulfilling this service in a timely manner is worse than not offering it at all. It is also important to note that the individuals using this service are college aged young adults. Be prepared to receive less than professional messages at certain times during the semester.


Texting is a personal form of communication. An instructor will want to avoid the extremes of being too personal or too impersonal. In terms of being too personal, each teacher must establish boundaries of a professional student to teacher relationship. In terms of being too impersonal, each teacher must decide how many students in which they can effectively communicate. The author has found success with offering this form of communication to as many as 30 students. Offering this type of communication to a class of 300 would not only be difficult, but also lessen its effectiveness. Miscommunications happen with any form of dialogue. Texting is no exception (Myers & Shasaghiani, 2010). Misspelled words or errant punctuation can cause a message to be misunderstood. Even the tone of a conversation can be misinterpreted in particular situations. If texting does not work for a given conversation, choose a more appropriate alternative. Millennials will always want face-to-face conversations. Offer it when possible (Myers, 2010). Never underestimate the power of a smile or greeting someone by name. 7. CONCLUSION The divide between teaching and learning needs to be mended. Millennials have entered the colligate classroom and have brought new expectations along with them. They are impatient, relational, multitaskers who want the convenience of the internet and the fulfillment of a one-on one-relationship. Texting will not meet every students’ needs, but it is a trustworthy medium in which instructors can better connect with this generation. If instructors are willing to try a new approach and invest in their students through an atypical medium, the impact can be stunning. With courage, perseverance, and a little help from current technology, teachers will once again be able to engage and inspire this new generation of students. References Choney, S. (2010). ‘Millennials’ an always on, texting generation. Technology and ScienceMSNBC.com. Retrieved from www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35545420/ns/technology_and_sc Coy, P. (2012). Student Loans: Debt for Life. Bloomberg Businessweek: Global Economics. Retrieved from: http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2012-09-06/student-loans-debt-for-life Davis, D. A. (2003). Millennial Teaching. Academe, 89(1), 19. Graubard, S. R. (2001). The American academic profession. New Brunswick, Canada: Transaction Publishers. Hake, R. (1998). “Interactive-Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six-Thousand-Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory Physics Courses,” American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, No. 1, 64. McNeil Jr., R. (2011). Adapting Teaching to the Millennial Generation: A Case Study of a Blended/Hybrid Course. 5-6. Retrieved September 10, 2012 from: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/ refereed/ICHRIE_2011/Thursday/3/


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Embracing the enemy texting