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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

A Hack Education Project

Text Messaging

This post first appeared on Hack Education on December 5, 2011. Part 3 in my "Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2011" series.

As I've planned this series of year-end posts, I've tried to approach the ed-tech trends of 2011 from a 30,000 foot view. In other words, rather than looking at too many specific companies or specific events or dwelling on the minutiae of the ed-tech sector, I want to outline some of the larger patterns that I've observed over the course of the last twelve months.

In a lot of ways, pointing to text-messaging as a major trend seems to runs counter to that.

Mobile Learning

Text-messaging could easily fall under the larger "mobile learning" category. After all, early in the year, the Horizon Report pegged mobile learning as something with imminent adoption. 2011 did seem like a transformational year for the adoption of mobile devices, among students and at schools -- and not just because of the iPad (trend number 1 in my series). It's because of the iPod Touch. It's because of the cellphone.


Ah, the cellphone. The hand-wringing. Students bring them to school anyway, you know. They have them in their backpacks, their pockets.

In some schools, students must turn their cellphones off or store them in their lockers. "It's a distraction," teachers say. But students say that their inability to use their phones in the classroom is a major obstacle to their learning. They know that a cellphone is a calculator, it's a note-taking device, it's a camera, it's a real-time messaging device, it's a podcast tool, it's a Web browser.

In more and more schools, cellphones are being allowed in the classroom, for all the reasons listed above and more, things to do polls or flashcards, for example. As such, text-messaging could, I suppose, have been dovetailed into the larger story of the growing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement, whereby students are permitted to bring their own devices (laptops, netbooks, and yes cellphones) to school (along with all the ramifications of such policies).

Kids Have Cellphones

Almost all teens do now have cellphones. The most recent Pew research on cellphone ownership among teens is now more than a year old, but in August 2010, Pew found that 75% of 12 to 17-year-olds owned one. The 2010 Speak Up survey, released in April of this year, found that 51% of 6th through 8th graders owned cellphones; an additional 34% own a smart-phone. And according to stats from Nielsen in November 2011 -- the most recent research I can find --about 40% of 12 to 17-year olds own a smart-tphone.

"The App Gap" (The Digital Divide)

The world is approaching 100% cellphone penetration, and it's hard not to imagine that that all kids will have cellphones. All kids. Globally. But they might not be smart-phones. Not yet at least. And that's a reminder of the continuing problem of the digital divide, one that this year even got its own special subcategory to talk about those children and families who don't have smart-phones: "the app gap."

No doubt we've seen a lot of amazing educational mobile apps released this year. And there's been a recognition too of the importance of the mobile Web and HTML 5. (Sigh, Flash -- that's a different story. And definitely not a trend.)

But truth of the matter is, even with all the phenomenal native apps available now, if you want to build an educational mobile tool that "everyone" has access to, you turn to SMS.

And so, it's the trend I've chosen to highlight.

Text-Messaging Startups

Kids have cellphones. Kids text. Oh man, do they text: the average teen sends a some 3000 per month. Parents have cellphones. Parents text with their kids. Teachers have cellphones. Teachers text. Schools are loosening their rules on cellphones. Schools text.

We have a new, powerful and largely untapped way to communicate about school "stuff" -- in the classroom, between home and school, between parent and teachers, and among classes.

And so no surprise, a number of new text-messaging startups were founded in 2011:

REMIND 101: Remind 101 allows teachers to send messages home to parents. The startup was part of the inaugural class of the Imagine K12 education startup incubator class. I wrote about Remind 101 here and here.

CELLY: Celly is a Portland, Oregon-based startup, and one that provides a text-messaging tool with a lot of possibilities for community organizing, beyond just what happens in a classroom or around a school. While some of the text-messaging startups in this list restrict the messaging to a one-way communication between teacher and student, or make it something just between parents and teacher, Celly provides a toolkit to make messaging groups to suit different needs, including the ability to pipe RSS feeds or hashtags into specific "cells." I wrote about Celly here.

SNAPP SCHOOL: Snapp School, based out of New York City, offers simple communication between home and school. Like many of these offerings, Snapp School protects the privacy of cellphone numbers of both teachers and parents; it also offers options for parents to receive notifications via email or SMS. I wrote about Snapp School here.

CLASSPARROT: ClassParrot was build as part of a Mega Startup Weekend in the Bay Area, one that included an educational track. Indeed, ClassParrot won first prize in that section by building over the course of the weekend a text-messaging tool that allows teachers to communicate with students (parents can opt in to the messages). Unlike some of the other tools, ClassParrot isn't free (alternate reading: it has a revenue model). You get a certain number of credits (i.e. free text messages) per month, and you can purchase additional credits, with a system that works a bit like Dropbox: recommend the tool to someone, earn some free messaging.

TEXT2TEACH: Text2Teach was the winner of Seattle's Startup Weekend EDU this fall, an event I covered here. Like ClassParrot, Text2Teach offers communication between teacher and student, but Text2Teach's target is specifically at-risk students, those who could use some extra encouragement and messaging.

There might be other startups too, as well as teachers devising their own hacks, like Wes Fryer did. That makes this a tough market, no matter how exciting the trend has been this year.