How to Send Text Messages to Students via Email for Free

I’m intrigued by the increasing growth in the use of SMS (ie: text messaging) in mobile communications and it’s implications for online learning. I’ve recently been experimenting with providing my students the ability to contact me via text message (sms) as well as to allow them to opt-in to receiving course-related news and reminders as text messages from me. I’ve explored several different work flows and options for accomplishing this and am sharing here the text messaging approaches I’ve tried thus far.

Google Voice

First off, I setup a free Google Voice account at http://voice.google.com using my Google Account. When setting up a Google Voice account, I received a phone number that I can give out that when called, simultaneously rings any of my phone numbers that I wish. I setup my Google Voice number to simultaneously ring my work phone and mobile phone. My Google Voice phone number is in fact is the phone number that I give out to all of my students to contact me if needed.

What I also realized is that in addition to voice calls, I can also receive send and receive text messages from my Google Voice phone number for free! So, if my students send a text message to me at my Google Voice number, it goes to my Google Voice account.

I also installed the free Google Voice app on my iPhone so that now when I receive a text message at my Google Voice phone number, it shows up in my Google Voice app.  I can then choose to send a reply back if I wish, again for free directly from the Google Voice app. Here’s the home screen of my iPhone with the push notification that I’ve received a new text message in Google Voice.

Launching the app, I see a preview of the message that I can click on it to read the complete message. My Google Voice Inbox also contains any other voicemails that I may have received at my Google Voice phone number.

With my Google Voice app, if I have my students’ mobile phone numbers, I can send them text messages for free from my Google Voice app. This is a great free solution and allows me to give my students and single phone number to reach me at, either voice or text message.  However, I was also looking for the ability to more quickly broadcast a text message to all my students who opt-in to receiving such messages.

SMS Email Gateways

Nearly every mobile phone carrier provides free delivery of text messages using a sms gateway.  The list of SMS gateways at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_SMS_gateways tells which email address to use if you want to send an email and have it arrive as a text message on someone’s phone. The number must contain no punctuation. For instance, to send to a number typically expressed in the USA as 987-555-0100, you would email 9875550100@SMS-gateway.

I invited my students to opt-in to receiving text messages from me by simply emailing me their mobile phone number and carrier.  The carrier part is important, as each carrier has a different SMS gateway. As each student sends me their phone phone number and carrier, I lookup the SMS gateway for their carrier and add the sms email address to my list of email addresses for the class.

Then, to send a text message to my students, I simply launch my email client and copy/paste their sms email addresses in the BCC field and then enter my message to be sent in the body of the email.  It’s important to remember that text messages are limited to 160 characters, so emails sent via sms with more than 160 characters will be truncated beyond 160 characters.

I opted to not include a subject in my email as many phones don’t display the subject. Upon sending the email, each student receives the email as a text message.

This is the option that I’ve preferred to use for sending announcements as text messages to students.  I’ve also send personalized feedback to students using this same work flow.

Twitter

A third option for allowing students to receive course news and announcements via text message is to setup a Twitter account for the class where news and announcements will be posted and then make use of Twitter’s built-in follow via sms feature.  I gave this a try for my Illinois Online Network Spring 2011 “Social Networking in Online Learning” advanced online seminar.  This course introduced Twitter to students, so it made sense to try Twitter’s sms delivery capabilities.

I setup a Twitter account for the course at http://twitter.com/ionsn1111 where I posted course-related news and announcements.  I then posted the following message in Moodle for my students:

Are you the type of person that prefers to receive text messages over email? Did you know that you can receive our course news announcements that I post to Twitter at http://twitter.com/ionsn1111 also as text messages to your mobile phone? Simply text “follow @ionsn1111″ to 40404 to receive all future course announcements as text messages.

If you’d like to try out this feature of Twitter and then later no longer want to continue receiving the text messages, you can text “OFF @ionsn1111″ to 40404 and you’ll no longer receive the messages.

Here’s what the text message sent looks like, as well as the automated receipt send to subscribers confirming that they are subscribed. New subscribers also receive the latest message posted to the Twitter account for the class.

Students don’t need to have a Twitter account!  They will receive all future tweets posted to the class Twitter account as text messages.  Using Audioboo to tweet audio announcements, students in this course subscribed using via sms also received audio announcements!

This third option using Twitter is perhaps the simplest for the instructor as the students need to take the responsibility to follow the course Twitter via sms and the instructor simply posts to the class’ Twitter feed.  The drawbacks are that this approach doesn’t allow the instructor the flexibility to send a text message to an individual student and students can choose to un-follow course news via sms.

Overall Impressions

I’ve found my experiment with communicating with students via sms thus far to be a very positive one and I plan to continue making use of sms for communicating with my students in the future. I’m curious to hear at the end of the course feedback from my students who tried the texting experiment their thoughts on the value of texting in fostering social presence in our online community.  I’ll be collecting feedback from my students and will continue to refine my texting practices and plan to share my findings in the future.

I’d love to hear from others who also are using text messaging in their teaching. Do you currently make use of text messages in your teaching?  If so, what work flow works best for you?

Also, if you found my instructions here useful, leave me a comment and let me know your experience!

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  • http://www.itbabble.com Patrick Cauley

    Jason, great article and nice screen caps. I am wondering with services like GroupMe, BBM, and the new iOS 5 iMessage, do you think that text messaging will be standardized across the board in the near future or at least have programs that will let you manage multiple accounts in one app?

  • http://www.remind101.com Brett Kopf

    Hey Jason,

    It’s awesome that you set this up! We initially built a system that sends messages via mobile gateway but it wasn’t very reliable…once we started sending a decent amount the carriers would just que it.

    We decided to build a product specifically for what your doing called remind101. It’a free and you never share your personal number with students and they never share theirs with you.

    Check it out! http://www.remind101.com

    -Brett
    co founder

  • http://jasonrhode.com Jason Rhode

    Brett – Your tool sounds like it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for and will be a much more automated workflow than what I’ve been doing manually. I’ll definitely give Remind101.com a try! ~ Jason

  • Cherese Bass

    I am a teacher in Houston TX and we were looking for a service at my school. My principal was skeptical about these sites because he wanted to be able to monitor all outgoing messages from the teachers at the school. He decided to sign our school up with http://www.followmyteacher.com. This site allows the principal, teacher, students and parents to have their own profile page; It is like an educational facebook. As a teacher I can send text messages and email notifications. It is pretty cool!

  • Marc

    My company, Data24-7, offers a service which returns the email-to-sms gateway addresses for your phone numbers. It’s knows almost instantly when a phone number has been ported to another carrier, so it’s extremely accurate. The cost is $0.006 per phone number.

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