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Among the more interesting workshop topics at this year’s National Middle School Association conference was text messaging as an educational tool. The workshop was called: If You Can’t Beat ’em…

Staying true to the title of his workshop, presenter Tom Bronson asserted that currently banned or discouraged student behavior of sending text messages during class could be mined for sound academic results. He postulated students sending text messages unknowingly train themselves to be better note takers by summarizing complex ideas into 160 characters or less including spaces (the maximum character allowance of a single text message).

Accepting ReadingQuest.org’s definition of summarization as “how we take larger selections of text and reduce them to their bare essentials,” Bronson’s assertion is obvious and true. The ability to effectively summarize is a key skill in preparing students for notetaking in college. A search for the term “notetaking” on Google resulted in several college and university sites promoting the benefits of good notetaking. The California Polytechnic State University lists several methods of formal notetaking.

Bronson likened the abbreviations and anagrams used in texting to shorthand, the system of abbreviation that provides for greater writing/ recording speed. However, unlike the Gregg or Pitman systems, the notation system for text messaging is for the most part derived from an informal collection of shared understandings. As far as I know there is no single acknowledged authority on “text language” or its etymology, though there are several sites with lists of the most common notations.

During a review of some of the notations used in text messaging, Bronson commented how he didn’t understand how 143 represented “I Love You.” A participant pointed out that the numbers represent the number of characters in each word; 1 for I, 4 for Love, and 3 for You. I was immediately struck by the “sensibleness” of the language. Counting the letters that form such a poignant phrase in an environment where character count matters makes a lot of common sense.

Netlingo and Webfriend provide lists of the messaging notations used. The former cites “831” as being the notation for “I Love You,” where the latter agrees with what has been stated. This disagreement or alternative understanding presents an interesting problem in terms of usage. How do two people using the same language communicate if there is no agreement on the meaning of its words? How do I say: I Love You? 831? 143? Or (in the case of IM messages) <3?

It cannot be denied text messaging or SMS (Short Message Service) is the new form of communication to be reckoned with. It has already been used to organize whole populations in protest of their government like in China and Korea. In the US an estimated 2.5 billion text messages were sent this past June alone. So I agree with Bronson, why don’t we as educators utilize the increasing popularity of texting to push our academic agendas?

The question is how do we as educators formalize a language that is still very informal and highly colloquial. We can point out to students that when they compose a text message, they are practicing notetaking skills but is it enough to justify devoting time to teach texting?

Bronson will be piloting teaching with text message this academic year. I am interested in the outcomes. The immediate analogy that comes to mind is when the New York artistic elite attempted to legitimize graffiti by containing it within gallery walls. Or maybe it’s more a disco analogy? Once the 30something crowd caught on all of the 20somethings that made it cool found something else to make cool.

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