Trends in Mobile Chat Apps and Their Implications for Learning

Image credit: Ognian Mladenov

This article was originally published on Jeremy Riel’s Medium blog

If you were to ask yourself what the under-25 crowd does most on a mobile device, you’d probably come to the conclusion that chat, text, and instant messaging apps draw a good portion of attention. Instead of just the basic text messaging that dominated mobile devices for years, students today carefully curate and send information on many platforms to keep in touch with friends and track the trends and news that they care about. The influx of messaging apps and new functions available to chatters are of interest to educators, as these everyday apps for students can fundamentally influence the ways in which students communicate and process information. Students use chat apps every day for numerous purposes, so using these apps is an alluring hook for educators to get kids engaged and interested in learning activities.

It’s a classic scene today: Kids all in the same room not saying a word out loud, but chatting with each other in real time via their digital devices. Sometimes you’ll hear a muttering of a sound or a giggle, but K-12 students today are very comfortable with having active digital conversations with people in close physical proximity. History has shown that language has continually evolved over long periods of time. However, the means and media of communication today are changing more rapidly than the language itself. This creates entirely new mashups of language and meaning that can be hard to keep track of. As educators, it’s important to keep an eye on the changing trends in how youth communicate so that we can continue to reach students in personalized ways.

Chat apps being used today: The usual suspects

On a typical under-25-year-old’s phone, you can find any number of apps being used for messaging and communication. There are many of these apps in the app stores, far too many to list here. Here are the big players right now in chat apps for K-12 and college students (with this list becoming obsolete in less than a year, I’m sure!):

  • Snapchat. An esoteric app for most adults, Snapchat is an app in which participants send messages back and forth with little planning or consequence, as messages only are visible for a few seconds. It has an easy learning curve, but expects users to share media-rich communications…that is to say that text is usually not enough for Snapchatters. As such, most “snaps” are a melange of images, videos, texts, and annotations that, combined, uniquely communicate ideas. It promotes the ephemerality of information, much like how an in-real-life conversation would go. It’s probably the most popular messaging app of the under-25 crowd.
  • Kik. An app that’s popular with the more younger crowd, it’s a full multimedia chat app that can run over wifi. One thing that has gotten Kik in the news lately is its interests in pursuing chat bots. These are digital robots with which users can interact and have more personalized experiences. Chatbots in a messaging app can be used for games, information, or other help from companies, friends, or online communities.
  • WhatsApp. One of the original phone messaging apps over wifi, this app allows for multimedia communications using video, camera photos, audio, emoji, stickers, images, and text. It may have been the app that got people excited about the new frontier of messaging in the first place, as it allowed people to express themselves in ways that boring old texts couldn’t do. It now has millions of users and supports group chats, as well as all of its multimedia functions.
  • BurnNote. An app that allows you to send self-destructing messages to one another, and it promises to actually delete your messages. An alternative to Snapchat, especially for those James Bond-y types who want to play mission impossible or to sneak messages their parents can’t see.
  • SMS — regular ol’ text messages. Yes, despite all the hype about and use of messaging apps, SMS, or the “simple messaging service” that you use to message phone number-to-phone number is still used by a lot of youth, but only IF they have a wireless data plan. The promise of chat apps is that you can use them on wifi networks, which are more common today than they were when SMS text messaging became prominent.
  • “Mainstream” messaging apps: Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Skype, Apple Messenger. These apps continue to be used by the under-25 crowd, but not at the same level of use as people in older cohorts. Again, these apps will be used only if other friends, colleagues, or online communities (e.g, gaming communities) use the apps. They’re the popular, more mainstream apps, but adoption depends on where a user’s social network interacts.

Features of chat apps: Why are they used so frequently?

On their surface, they’re just simple messaging apps. At their most basic of functions, a user sends text messages to another person or group of people. However, modern messaging apps have some new functions that have found their way into the technology. These have fundamentally altered the ways in which people communicate via the apps.

  1. Video, images, and a full media experience. We don’t communicate in text only, although we have hundreds of years of history to contend with in this regard. Most surviving media over the ages are text-based, but in recent years, images, audio and, video have found their way into our communications. Chat apps have extended past text-only to now allow many forms of expression, each of which carry unique meanings. To convey more complex ideas, modern chat apps allow for media to be merged and remixed to create unique messages to express one’s ideas.
  2. Different media, different meanings. Based on the theories of digital and multiple literacies, spoken words may actually hold different meanings than their digital chat counterparts, and these meanings are only good in certain contexts. A message that may have one meaning in school may have an entirely different meaning (or non-meaning) within a group of friends. Students today that master chat apps are becoming masters of codeswitching and navigating different meanings implied by digital app communications.
  3. More media choices open the doors for using analogy and metaphor, or references to other cultural objects that have meaning (e.g., internet memes). It’s important for educators to pay attention to these unique combinations of digital media use in order to understand how students think and communicate. For some people, an annotated photo of where they’re at on Snapchat speaks volumes more than words alone, or a meme or emoji might convey meaning much better than a sentence.
  4. Ephemerality. Snapchat calls it “living in the moment,” which has some merit if you don’t have to worry about a chat history or that you have to polish your prose before sending (unlike an email…). I say ephemerality in the sense that you don’t have to worry about how your words may be taken later on down the road, because there likely won’t be any record of it. When it comes to photos, right-now and never again images are appealing because you don’t have to worry about how bad a photo might look, or worse, how bad your selfie might look. It won’t be shared for more than 10 seconds. The “spur of the moment” and unrecorded aspect of some of these apps also give us a chance as a society to look back on how we’ve been using technology and to question what should be and shouldn’t be put into the permanent record.
  5. Multi-platform, in the sense that the same account can be accessed on any device regardless of the make. In many cases, multi-platform apps also means you can chat in an internet browser or on a desktop/laptop computer — giving users more access to their communications tools. In comparison, Apple Messenger only works on Apple devices. The multi-platform aspect of chat apps is quite valuable as devices become more diverse.

Thinking pedagogically about chat apps

There are a few things to ponder when considering the application and impact that chat apps can have on learning activities. Consider some of the following points when planning a classroom activity in which you would like to try to use some of the communications tools that are being used by students every day.

Access to messaging tools. Some digital tools are still not ubiquitous among all students of certain ages, even it seems every kid has a phone in their hands. Not all students have digital devices, or, more importantly, devices with wireless network plans attached. Some students’ devices will only work on wifi, limiting them to the amount of time they can work. Be aware of your students’ access to the base technologies you employ before assigning work. One of the features of modern chat apps is that they work seamlessly across multiple devices and allow computer-based desktop access, which can improve students’ access to apps used in the classroom.

Influence on group work. Even if you don’t encourage the use of chat apps in class activities, these apps will likely influence group work, especially out of the classroom. It’s just a matter of fact now that these apps are used by many students to communicate with each other. It really gets us thinking about the “proper” and “best” way for students to communicate. In a true philosophy fashion, I’m iffy on requiring students to only use the technologies in the business world, as it is the youth that typically innovate and shift our society’s ways of doing things. If I had to take a stand, I’d say that it should be balanced and that students should be able to communicate in various circles, including their own. It may also be the case that students may not want school in their digital communications. These apps are likely avenues to tap into how students digitally communicate in their everyday lives. However, it is wise to test the waters and ask students about the apps they like to use to avoid appearing clueless to students. It’s important to use apps with a purpose in mind and not just because “it’s cool with the kids.”

On-demand help and differentiation. By communicating with students on their terms, they may be more apt to asking for help and communicating their needs. By setting some terms for communicating with teachers, educators might unlock some great potential in reaching students’ specific needs and differentiate instruction accordingly. It may take a bit more work to get used to a new chat app, but personalized help might be more effective if educators use the communications tools with which students are comfortable and want to use. Find out what chat apps your students are using and pick one or two to accept messages from students. Just remember to set some guidelines on when responses should be expected and what kinds of behavior are appropriate if chat apps are integrated into class work.

Multimodal literacy development. Video, audio, text — and the combination of these — are all key components of chatting on today’s messenger apps. Each medium requires separate literacy skills to understand the meaning behind messages, and meanings change based on the audience and contexts. Critical literacy skills could be taught and promoted by use of multimedia messaging apps. Getting familiar with these different ways of communicating might be useful for teachers to understand how their students communicate. It may also be helpful for developing strategies for developing other communication skills in your students, such as creative writing, long-form writing, communication through more businessy channels like email, and in-real-life speech.

Reminders and notifications on platforms students use can help students stay organized and help teachers communicate regularly with students. Some reminders can even be automated with tools such as IFTTT or by setting up a simple chatbot (which I will cover in a future post).

Considering challenges with chat apps. There are many challenges that go along with embedding communications technologies in class. First, using multimedia and rapid-fire communications technologies helps students grapple with the balance of their real and digital lives. It’s a good opportunity to discuss the trade-offs we get in life by being always connected. Using too many chat apps, or getting messages too frequently may lead to anxiety, distraction, and not knowing how to handle quiet, disconnected time. Second, bullying from classmates or internet strangers remains an issue when using digital communications tools. I’ve discussed this more in depth recently in an article that readers might find helpful. Finally, students have opportunities to consider the challenges with data permanency in today’s app culture. Some apps promote the immediate deletion of communications, while some will store data indefinitely. When using tools like chat apps, it’s a good opportunity to discuss how permanent data storage and distribution can affect one’s life, and how data can be easily duplicated in today’s apps even when you think it’s private (such as when people take screenshots of seemingly impermanent Snapchats).

What do you think?

Do you have any insights on some of the newer chat apps after having tried them out? Have you had any success with using modern chat apps that are popular with students in educational settings? — tweet me at @jeremyrieland let me know what’s on your mind or what’s worked for you. I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.