Text Messaging Booms at U.S. Colleges

News Analysis: The rush to more efficiently send out emergency text messages to students at universities has been intensified by the Virginia Tech shootings.

Colleges and universities across the United States are moving quickly to adopt text messaging as their first line of emergency notification, experts said.

The rush to find ways to send tens of thousands of SMS messages to student cell phones was only intensified this week by the tragic events at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va.

However, this incident is not the only recent incentive for schools to look for ways to reach their students in an emergency. Other reasons include weather emergencies, especially in the South where hurricane evacuations are almost an annual event.

And, of course, theres the fact that the U.S. Department of Education requires colleges and universities to have the means to reach their students in a timely manner in times of crisis. The question for university administrators has always been what is the best way to notify students, and in many cases, that boils down to e-mail, since virtually every student has a school e-mail account. The problem is, as Virginia Tech found to its sorrow, that e-mail is rarely an adequate solution.

"Mainly, what we think is that colleges should be using text messaging systems," said Katherine Andriole, program director for Security on Campus, a nonprofit organization that works with the Department of Justice to help fight crime on campus.

Andriole said that using SMS-based text messaging makes sense, if only because college students are almost never without their cell phones. The advantage, Andriole said, is that, "Messages go out simultaneously. What we saw at Virginia Tech is that the communications system was pretty inefficient. They relied on e-mail and word of mouth. A lot of students said they didnt check their e-mail."

Andriole said that its not uncommon for e-mail alerts on college campuses to remain unread for hours or days, rendering even timely alerts useless. Fortunately, there are a number of companies that provide such alerting systems, some that are limited to SMS alerts, and some that handle a wide variety of messaging options.

Bryan Crum, director of communications for Omnilert in Leesburg, Virginia, described the system thats offered by his company. "Its a Web-based service so theres no hardware or software for the university to install," Crum said. "Once the system is integrated into the universitys Web site, which takes about 10 minutes, a university official can log in, type a message, select the group they want to send it to, and hit send. The message is sent simultaneously via the messaging the sender chose."

Crum said that Omnilert users can choose SMS messaging to cell phone, e-mail, RSS feeds and Web site updates, or any combination of those. Crum said that the cost of such a system depends on the size of the school, but averages less than a dollar per student per year, regardless of the number of messages sent.

Crums company is unusual in that it insists that all students being put on the list for emergency alerts specifically opt in. He said that his company does not just load the student database into its system and force students to be part of it.

/zimages/4/28571.gifWireless problems played a part in the chaos at Virginia Tech. Click here to read more.

However, other companies, and many universities take a different view. Brian Payst, director of technology and system support for the division of student affairs at the University of North Carolina, said he is considering making it mandatory for students to provide their cell phone numbers for emergency notifications, although he said they can opt in for other functions.

Currently Payst is running a pilot program for about 400 users thats strictly opt-in.

Casey Paquet, Web manager at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., has already made his decision, and in his schools case, students must sign up for the service.

"With students its not opt in or out. This is important enough that we dont feel theres an ethical issue in using their numbers," Paquet said. He noted that the school has been evacuated five times in the last three years for hurricanes, and without some form of emergency notification, students wouldnt be protected.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...