The ubiquitous cell phone: Almost all students have one. With at least nine out of 10 college students using a cell phone, and few using landlines, is it any wonder that colleges and universities are developing new ways to use this technology to communicate with students?
"Pushing text messages to cell phones-this is really the hot button right now," says Carmine Piscopo, president of the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education, and the telecommunications manager for Providence College (R.I.).
Within one year's time there have been several new services and applications for higher ed. Text messages are popping up on students' cell phones, with emergency closings and weather alerts. More and more, there are notices about course assignments, or announcements about ticket availability for a big game. There are even messages for students not yet on campus-about applications received, financial aid forms due, and even acceptances.
Universities at Shady Grove (Md.), a higher education regional center that's part of the University of Maryland system, began using Omnilert's e2Campus 2.0 mass notification system in late 2005. "Providing weather-related advisories was the sole purpose for signing up," says Russell Schlosburg, IT coordinator. "We have safety in mind."
USG is a commuters' campus serving 2,000 full-time students, many who come from areas near and far to its Rockville location. The same is true of the faculty. Further, most students are nontraditional, meaning they drive to campus immediately after working all day. They do not always have access to in-depth weather reports, notes Schlosburg. "We want to reach them before they get too far."
The service was put to good use one day in fall 2006, when classes were cancelled because of high winds and a tornado warning.
To date, USG has collected 400 cell phone numbers, which students were asked to give voluntarily.
Baruch College, another commuter school and part of the City University of New York, began using Rave Wireless' early alert system two years ago. A Rave representative had contacted Arthur Downing, CIO, at the very time when he was thinking of developing a homegrown text message-to-cell phone system. "I usually don't take cold calls," quips Downing, who adds that this fortuitous contact helped put his plan into action. Texting to cell phones keeps Baruch in step with student trends, he notes.
Students have "abandoned e-mail" in favor of IM, or text messaging on their phones, says Downing. Important messages sent to e-mail were being missed.
Students arriving on campus are hurrying to get to class; they spend little time hooking up laptops, logging on to the system, and reading e-mail. It might take them days to read higher ed-related e-mail messages, adds Downing. "They have structured their lives to make decisions on the spot." He views it as his job to help students make the best use of "interstitial" moments-the time between classes or when classes are over but students haven't yet made the trip home. Those who opt to can have event notices and guest speaker information sent directly in text format to the cell phone instead.
The college's own internal studies on text messaging and cell phones convinced Downing to focus his new program most on incoming freshmen. "Students just coming to college had spent far more time on their phone than the others," he says. Younger students view e-mail as something that "old people" use. To date, he has collected 4,000 cell phone numbers, which is not quite 25 percent of the total student enrollment.
The most urgent use so far happened this past summer, when the Baruch campus closed one day after ConEd, the utility company, issued a warning about a drain on energy resources. "We had to power down the entire campus in one hour," recalls Downing. "We pushed out a message saying that the buildings would be closed."
Rave, along with partner Sprint, has just signed another client, Georgia Gwinnett College. The agreement calls for the company to give cell phones to students and faculty at the newest higher ed institution in the state. Billed as the "campus of tomorrow," GGC's mission is to keep up with new technology trends, setting a new pace in Georgia.
Beginning with classes in fall 2007, students will be using cell phones in myriad ways: downloading course announcements; sending text messages to professors; accessing academic information that was digitally "tagged" during a lecture. They will also use their cell phones in the classroom-as direct response devices that allow for instant polling on surveys and quizzes.
A group of 20 students and several faculty members, currently testing the technology, will act as a focus group for shaping the rollout later this year, says Lonnie Harvel, CIO and vice president for educational technology.
Utah State University has come up with yet another use for texting: to send sports enthusiasts ticket info. The athletic department has been doing this for about 18 months, says Tom Hale, director of the Big Blue Scholarship Fund.
USU uses SCO Group's Shout program to push messages to defined groups. For example, alumni who played football at USU receive tailored messages about upcoming games. Scholarship fund donors receive invitations to specific dinners and fundraisers. In addition, USU can turn voice mail into e-mail that can be text messaged to a cell phone or sent to a standard e-mail client. A voice application can be activated, allowing USU to send customized messages. "A head football coach can issue a personal invitation to a game and a student can give news on recent events," says Hale.
The word is out about text messaging to cell phones, which explains why more companies are jumping on board.
Hobsons, which helps IHEs with online recruitment and other technologies, just announced a new service allowing customers to text message and post RSS messages to their web feeds. Research from students and prospects indicates that these are the formats they want to access, says Paul Freedman, managing director of Hobsons EMT, the company's e-mail and web-communication division. Conducted online with students who use the CollegeVue search site, the research shows users are most open to alerts about application deadlines, financial aid reminders, and status updates on pending applications.
Horizon Wimba, www.horizonwimba.com
NEC Unified Solutions, www.necunified.com
Rave Wireless, www.ravewireless.com
SCO Group, www.sco.com
Horizon Wimba's learning management system has added the Pronto service, allowing students and faculty using Blackboard and WebCT to text and IM each other. Grand Rapids Community College (Mich.) has signed up more than 100 users for Pronto, says Eric Kunnen, coordinator of instructional technologies, who foresees the program as helping students and instructors to work more collaboratively. GRCC will eventually use it for crisis communication.
NEC Unified Solutions released its Emergency Campus Notification Solution in mid-2006. In a partnership with XTEND Communications Corp., the company can send alerts to all students, or segments of a student population. Emergency notices can be pushed to all cell phones, PDAs, websites, and digital signs on campus.
Also allowing users to push alerts and urgent information to digital signage screens on campus is Chyron Corporation.
Sending messages to cell phones costs money. Sometimes students pay a per-message fee, which they agree to do when they give up their cell phone numbers, and sometimes the fee is absorbed by the IHE. At USG, Schlosburg has agreed to pay a licensing fee to e2Campus for the right to send 300 to 400 messages per month. The service is completely browser-based, allowing administrators to log on, create a message, and send it to cell phones, website pages, PDAs, and other media.
Downing at Baruch shares that his agreement with Rave has the college paying a flat annual fee for each of the 4,000 students who have provided their cell phone numbers. That fee is "less than what it would cost to buy venti-sized coffee at Starbucks. (A venti-sized cup o' Joe is the largest-size and the price is usually a couple of bucks.)
Further, Rave can supply cell phones to all students, a cost that can be as low as $15,000 for a smaller-sized student population, but as high as six figures for others, says Raju Rishi, Rave's COO.