Txting lrnrs: Using ALEC’s new SMART phone

hd-android-gingerbread-widescreen-380322Ok, so i bought an android phone… I’m pretty much a staunch apple iphone user and I’ve had pretty much every version of the iPhone since it was released. Mostly it’s been a great experience, but I’ve had some issues with my iPhone 5 recently including battery and lightening dock connector failure. Hopefully, these will get resolved when I upgrade to the iPhone 5S at some stage.

However, I want to write about my new Android phone. Hopefully, I’ve done something clever here… although the jury is still out on that.

In Taupo, we run a local community education programme. It’s funded by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) with a focus on literacy and numeracy including digital literacy. Our learners come from all walks of life but they are often unemployed or underemployed and many come from the kinds of groups that are over represented in the statistics for low adult literacy and numeracy skills.

And they have issues as well. One of these issues is around technology and using computers. But most of them have a mobile phone of some kind. And what we’ve found is that we can communicate with them by txt messages much more effectively than by almost any other means.

These local learners are sometimes hard to track down. They have to commit to roughly 100 hours of learning with us. But the reality is that we’re dealing with people who find it hard to commit to sometimes just a few hours of anything. This means they often drop in and out of contact with us for every reason you can think of.

They don’t like answering their landlines (if they have them), and often they won’t answer their mobile phones either. If we leave messages, they won’t check them or don’t respond. But… they will often respond to txt messages if we communicate directly with them.

Txt messages are non threatening from their point of view and they can choose to respond in their own time and take some time over their reply if they need to. We like txting as a medium because it’s encouraging our learners to use a written form of communication. We know all the arguments around using txt language, but we still think it’s great. It’s about communication and getting a message across from one party to another. It encourages great communication, so we’ve been using it.

We’ve had some issues though. One is that we often send txt messages from our personal phones. Most of the time this is not a problem. However, we are conscious of how things could go awry and the current legislative changes around cyber bullying (among other issues) have meant we’ve put some thought into how to best leverage this technology moving forward. It’s not perfect, but we’ve been working on it.

So I bought an Android phone to replace our work phone. I had a whole list of demands for my ideal solution. The list went something like this:

  1. I want to dump our land phone and line charge but keep the landline phone number which should divert to the new phone and I want to retain our land line broadband.
  2. I want multiple staff members to be able to send and receive txt messages through one account – the same account – and I want to be able to do this both from the handset of the phone, but more usefully from inside the browsers of our computers.
  3. I want to assign a new 0800 number to the landline which, like the old land number will divert to the new handset.

It seemed like too much to hope for. It’s impossible to do this in the Apple ecosystem at the moment from what I can make out. Apple has iMessage, but this of course only works on apple phones. You can also use Viber, but then you need a phone with Viber installed. Many of our learners have the cheapest phones you can buy and will never own an expensive iPhone.

After a very quick conversation with John, my computer guru, I worked out that I could do what I wanted on an Android phone, and even better I had a list of phones to work with as well as a recommendation for the right software product to make the computer to SMS function work.

Here’s what the shortlist looked like:

  • Has to be a phone with Android 4.0 or higher on board.
  • Needs to be one of the following phones: Sony Xperia, Motorola Droid and Samsung Galaxy. Actually, the Nexus was first on the list but not available in NZ.
  • Try Mightytext for web-based computer to SMS texting.

I went with the Samsung Galaxy 4 in the end mainly because I liked the look of it and had seen it around the most. My first experience with the phone wasn’t great. I couldn’t even figure out how to turn it on or where to insert the sim chip… I’m pretty good at making my iPhone work for me but I was a totally Android virgin and needed some help.

Also, I messed up the set up process. We run everything out of Google Apps and I made the mistake of setting up the phone using my own account. This meant that even if I switched it off, my personal emails were exposed on the phone. This was a security risk, so I uninstalled everything, and then set up the phone again using a generic gmail account that none of us used for anything.

This meant that no one’s personal details were exposed via the handset. This was a high priority for me as one of my main motivations for setting all this up was to create a situation where all of our staff could access the same text messages for the same account for cyber-safety and other reasons.

To make it work we now have two browsers open when we’re working. In one browser, usually Chrome, we stay logged in to our personal Google Apps accounts, and in another browser (either Explorer or Safari depending on who it is and what computer they’re on) we stay logged in to the generic gmail account we’re using for the phone.

I ditched the 0800 idea as it was going to be too expensive for what we needed, and with some help from my local telecom business rep, we diverted the landline number to the new mobile handset. This took 2 days to happen, but it’s working now.

I also found that I had to keep my landline phone charge as it was bundled with the broadband. I also had to sign up to a new mobile phone account. I didn’t mind that but I had been hoping to dump the land line charges.

Then I signed up for a MightyText account linked to the generic gmail account from my computer and a staff member loaded in a bunch of student contact details from her computer. These synched with the handset and we were in business. I could watch the gmail contacts populating the MightyText account on my computer while my colleague loaded them in from hers. Pretty cool…

It’s taken a week to get things working, but we can now all log in to the same MightText account from different computers and browsers and all use the same account to text our learners.

I’m also feeling rather affectionate towards the Samsung. This is usually followed by a moment of guilt where I feel that I’m cheating on my iPhone.

The MightyText application is now tracking all of the txt conversations. It’s still early days, but it’s working pretty well. I don’t tend to send a lot of txts to this group of learners  myself, but I can log in and monitor them. If I needed to I could print or save the dialogues which are currently stored for 90 days. Hopefully, I’ll never have to go down this path. But we’re set up for it if a situation arose where we needed to.

It also means that we can change the kind of conversation we have with our learners at induction. That discussion might sound something like this moving forward:

“Yes, we can txt each other. We’d like to encourage you to txt us and stay in contact. Just be aware that any of us can read your messages and reply. Your messages come to all of our computers so we’re all up to speed about the electronic conversations that we’re having via txt messages”.

I think this adds a measure of safety for staff and learners, and I think it’s a clever business application at a reasonably low cost.

Will I convert to Android for myself? Not sure, but I’m picking up the orange cover for the Samsung on Friday, and I’ve already thought of a name for the phone. I’m going to call it the SMART phone. Perfect for ALEC…

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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