SMS your students

For several years now I have been administering tests for my mass communications survey class –both the traditional and the online/distance ed versions– online through That way I do not take up valuable class time with tests where some students finish in 10 minutes (and usually flunk) and others take 90 minutes (and still flunk). Because students have varying work schedules I usually give them a three-day window to take the tests.

The tests are multiple choice and I allow them to be open book, open note. I long ago got over the fear of cheating or the student who tries to look up answers as he goes because he hasn’t read the text. If my students are cheating, most are doing a pretty poor job of it.

Cell PhoneA reoccurring problem, though, has been students FORGETTING to take the test. Yes, I know it is college and they should take some responsibility, but I am interested in student success and look for ways to remind them. I have been trying e-mail, but more and more students tell me that they check e-mail only a couple of times a week. Instead, the other day students suggested that I text them on their cell phones. A dinosaur like me start texting? Not likely.

But I found a way to do it through e-mail, something that is called Short Message Service, or SMS. You can type in the students’ 10-digit numbers in the e-mail address and the appropriate service provider domains and send a text message to your students in one fell swoop. Of course, it takes a little bit of preparation.

You have to 1) collect all those phone numbers and 2) find out which service provider the student uses. I’m used to collecting e-mail addresses at the beginning of a semester, so that shouldn’t be too much extra work. Next you need to know what domain address to send the messages to. I checked Wikipedia and found a pretty good list. Common ones are Cingular (, Verizon (, T Mobile ( and Sprint or Nextel (

Of course, typing all those numbers and addresses is just asking for human error. I store all my students’ e-mail addresses on an Excel spreadsheet anyway, so I’m just going to add a few new columns. In the first column I plan to type in the cell number (if they choose to give it to me). In the second column I’ll type “A” for Cingular users, “B” for Verizon users, “C” for T Mobile users, “D” for Sprint or Nextel users, etc. In the third column I’ll let Excel create the address for me by creating a formula (for my spreadsheet, I’ll be counting Column C for the phone number, Column D for the Service provider and Column E for the calculation).

=IF(C1=””,””,C1&”@”&IF(D1=”A”,””, IF(D1=”B”,””, IF(D1=”c”,””, IF(D1=”D”,””)))))

If you don’t know how to use Excel’s “Fill” function to duplicate the formula for as many rows as you need, learn it; it is one of the most useful functions in building Excel spreadsheets.

Now, every time I want to send a text message I can select and copy Column E and paste it into the address field of my e-mail program.

I’ve only run some preliminary tests on this because it is near the end of the semester and I haven’t collected those cell numbers yet, but it sure looks like it will work. Sometimes you can learn by listening to your students.


6 responses to “SMS your students

  1. Texting your student is a good idea, but, you still have to manually do it. Instead, you could set up a reminder service, which will automatically send out the TEXT reminders at the specific dates/times (and even better, you dont need to care whether it is Cingular, T-obile, Sprint or Nextel, or whatever operator your student is using. And trsut me its pretty easy to do so. Been doing this for a while.

  2. Rich Cameron

    Okay, how do you do that?

  3. Rich Cameron

    I got a personal e-mail with more information on this. Nirmayla runs a commercial site that does this. Looks like it has some good features.

    The FAQ on the site brings up some good issues, such as there is no such thing as free SMS. Either the sender pays or the receiver pays. With the commercial service it is the sender and the cost is as low as three cents per message (1 message x no. of receipts x cost), depending on country of origination and country of destination. A lot of the work is automated and might be a good tool for the non-techie or the techie who wants the best service for the easiest effort.

    Still, I’m dealing with college students who routinely receive text messages and who shouldn’t NEED the reminders I’d be sending out, unless I expanded the scope of my texting mission. I’m not sure I have a problem with them paying, especially if they voluntarily give me their numbers for this purpose.

    I’ll have to think about it, but it is nice to know there are other options.

  4. I just heard about a company, called messageyou, that connects SMS with school database systems to use for other purposes. They advertise themselves as helping to solve “school attendance” by alerting parents of their students absenteeism. Might be useful for test reminders and other classroom communication.

  5. I work for a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking. We’re using text messaging (or SMS) as a way to reach teens on prom night reminding them not to drink. Teens can sign up directly from their phones by texting a predefined keyword to a specific ‘short code’ (similar to a phone number, but shorter). We provide teens with both the keyword and the short code. Or people can sign up to send the safe prom text message to someone else via

    We are working with a company called SayMedia who built the back-end system. Perhaps they can assist you with what you’re trying to accomplish.

  6. I have about 300 students here in China and I have been developing a system to communicate with them called “Bob”.

    I keep track of attendance, homework, classroom participation, quiz scores, etc. on an Excel spreadsheet.

    The top sheet of the Excel workbook is the “Dashboard”. This sheet keeps the totals of all the things I’m tracking on the students and has color coded cells to alert me to students who are having problems or students who are doing very well.

    I have written a simple program in Visual Basic that can go through the Dashboard or other parts of the spreadsheet and send a notification to the students to let them know their currect index (or score) or to prompt them about being absent from class. The program will send the messages out through my cell phone.

    The wording of these messages are individualized using a random function so nearly every student gets a message worded in a different way.

    Dave Kees
    Guangzhou, China

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