Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The World At Your Fingertips (Or Not): kgb_ 542 and Literacy

It may be stretching a little bit here, but I wanted to discuss the uses of text messaging "answer your question" services like Cha Cha and kgb_ 542. I finally gave in to life without a cell phone back in February (I tried, but it was too hard not being in touch with everybody) and went to the extreme by getting a Blackberry. I don't really find much of a need for services like Cha Cha and kgb_542 because I have the internet at my fingertips pretty much anywhere I am, which is a new concept for me.

I've had times where I'm out, and need to know the number to a place, or need to check on something, and I can look it up on the spot and find out what I need to know, without having to call directory assistance or my wife at home to look it up on the computer. So this is a novel concept that is revolutionary in many ways. For a lot of people who don't carry a "smart phone," they're beginning to rely on these text message answer services.

So I decided to sign up to become a kgb_542 "agent," someone who sits on the computer and finds the answers to peoples questions and sends them out to their cell phones via SMS text. The first thing I noticed is that the legitimate questions are pretty straight forward, things like "I'm looking to buy a 2003 Ford Ranger, what kind of gas mileage does it get?" These are the types of questions that owners of smart phones like Blackberry or iPhone would just jump online and find, so this is a valuable service in that respect.

The vast majority of those seeking answers seem to be teenagers just blowing time. They ask novelty questions, or attempt to antagonize the agents at work (which doesn't make sense, because if you continue a line of questioning, the same person won't get it). So working for them was somewhat interesting for a few days. I made a few bucks, and decided it was a neat experience, but it was pretty tedious and boring after a few days.

Now, for the implications on education. The whole "world at your fingertips" thing is the next logical step in the internet. It was a revolutionary idea when the internet started up and search engines like Yahoo! started indexing the web. Most classrooms have some sort of internet access, pretty much making encyclopedias obsolete (unless the individual teacher decides, as I do, to have students still use book based information on top of computers). But now, we are able to carry the world in our pockets.

The argument could be that this changes the world because there's unlimited information out there for anyone to get at any time. But who is actually seeking that information? Is it really changing the world? Text messaging services don't have educational implications, mainly because they're expensive ($1 a text at kgb_542, and only 4 texts every two days at Cha Cha) and because the answers the agents offer are often incorrect or very lacking in their substance.

I do intend on taking a step next year to incorporate texting into the classroom. I already use online classroom tools (Moodle and Goodreads.com), and have students keep portfolios online. My gradebook (Teacherease.com) is online and parents can access grades and reports at anytime online. I am going to offer, to my parents next year, the ability to subscribe to text message alerts from me. I will send out important announcements and such this way. I think this is a good first step for incorporating this technology, at least on the elementary level (I'm a 4th grade teacher next year).

So as far as kgb_542 and Cha Cha goes, they're neat, sure, but they're novelty. They're very shallow and aren't reliable resources for education. I'm sure many students use them to get a quick answer to homework problems, but considering that homework is pretty worthless to begin with, that doesn't change much.