To Catch a Truant ? Try Texting
By Anne Francis Torres, Fri May 25 00:00:00 GMT 2001

"Gone malling!" Kids from a Singapore high school find it hard to play truant. Grown-ups are now using the younger generation's gadget du jour - the cell phone - to make would-be truants think twice.

If you are a student at the Yishun Town Secondary School and you are thinking of skipping class for a day at the mall...forget it. For these Singaporean schoolchildren, the days of playing truant are over. And parents have technology to thank.

No, weíre not talking about GPS or some other high-tech tracking device; just your simple cell phone.

On April 2, officials of the Yishun Town Secondary School in the northern part of Singapore launched a novel system of reporting studentsí activities to their parents - via short messaging services or SMS.

Let d fngrs do d tlkng

By 11 am on schooldays, the text messages are sent out. After taking the daily roll call, homeroom teachers forward the class attendance to a central system. Parents then receive this message: "Are you aware your child is absent from school today?" The message is followed by four options which the parent can send back to the school:

1) will give a medical certificate

2) will send an excuse letter

3) donít know child is absent

4) call me

"Our responsibility is to inform the parents about their childís whereabouts," says the schoolís vice principal, Cheng Hwee Yeang. So far the program has received a favorable response from the parents. School officials hope this will make students who want to skip class think again.

According to Cheng, most parents are at work during the day and only find out that their kids skipped school days after.

"This system was conceptualized to enhance parent-school communication," Cheng says. "Itís the fastest way to contact parents."

The system is also used to inform parents about upcoming exams and special school events.

Teachers are also thankful for this innovation. It has lightened their workload. Instead of having to contact the parents themselves, the central system takes care of the work leaving them with more time to attend to their teaching duties.

MTV generation shows 'em how

School officials noticed that cell phones have become a natural extension on the arms of their students. And since text messaging is virtually free for most phone plans, the students prefer SMS to communicate quickly with each other. So they thought: why not tap into the technology themselves?

For its initial launch, the school is only sending out text messages to the parents of the 13-year old Level 1 students. The officials discovered that 70 percent of these parents own a cellular phone. Eventually, the school hopes to hook up with parents of the rest of its 1400 students.

They bought the system from local SMS application provider WorldRemind for a one-time sum of $5,000.

Singapore's SMS boom

Singapore may be an SMS johnny-come-lately but since itís introduction three years ago, it has become one of the biggest things in recent times to "hit the screen." Itís popularity stems from Singaporeansí penchant for chatting. SMS became the perfect foil for the fast-paced Singaporean lifestyle - a variant of chatting while on the move.

An estimated seven million text messages go through the networks owned by SingTel, M1 and StarHub each day. These companies offer 300 to 400 free text messages a month, depending on your phone plan, and 5-cents for every message thereafter - a much cheaper option than voice calls.

Making thumbs go to work

As text messaging garners more momentum, certified texters are discovering additional innovative uses for it. Charity work has gone the SMS way through donations for the National Kidney Foundation.

In neighboring Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has set up six telephone numbers dedicated to text messages from the general public. Messages are screened, sorted and sent to relevant government agencies for action.

From stock quotes to daily horoscopes, from traffic updates to truant schoolchildren notices -- the potential uses of SMS are as broad as imaginations can flex.

Anne Torres is a TV reporter for a newsmagazine in Manila, Philippines.