In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, which took place April 16, 2007 and left 33 dead including shooter Seung-Hui Cho, university administrators across the country scrambled to evaluate their safety procedures and communications systems. E-mail has been universities' most common method of notification, whether the concern is a weather-related school closing or an intruder on campus. At Virginia Tech, officials sent the student body a vague notice over e-mail two hours after a first round of shootings killed two and just minutes before a second round left another 30 dead. Since the massacre, many have criticized the school's officials for notifying the students with too little information, too late and via e-mail.
Although e-mail is far-reaching universities give .edu addresses upon enrollment students need an Internet-connected computer to access it, or their own BlackBerry or iPhone. Once sent, an e-mail may take up to two hours for a single message to transmit to so many recipients. And administrators admit to spamming their students with other kinds of "official" e-mails like a note introducing a new dean so when an important message actually gets sent through, students won't necessarily read it.
Hundreds of universities across the country are turning to e-mail's hyperactive younger sibling text messaging to bridge the digital divide between administrators and students. Ninety percent of students carry cell phones and 70% use Short Message Service (SMS) technology, more commonly known as text messaging, on a regular basis, according to the online statistics aggregator ITfacts. Most university chief information officers agree that it makes sense to deliver urgent alerts to devices that students have with them all the time. And in addition to having a far reach with college kids, text messages are delivered fast; unlike e-mail, thousands of messages can be transmitted within a few minutes.
But this touted technology is not without problems. Getting students enrolled in a voluntary program is never easy. Students say that they're reluctant to share their cell phone number with their institution for fear of receiving spam. Also, without unlimited message plans, messages can cost a cell phone owner 10-15 cents each, which administrators say is a deterrent. Once enrolled, students might also opt out of the program or, if they get a new number, may not update their number in the school's system.
Meanwhile, technology has its share of setbacks like the fact that messages are limited to 160 characters. This paragraph, including spaces, is 160 characters.
A shorthand alert, brief instructions, and perhaps an indication to check the school's website for more details is all a text message can afford. Despite limitations, three text message alert companies formed in 2005 when very few universities were interested in the technology and are leading today's higher education SMS market.
Mobile Campus, a Florida-based venture, offers universities a messaging solution for free but with a few strings attached. Users can broadcast notifications to the entire school and narrowcast to subgroups such as sports teams and clubs, but users must agree to receive up to two advertisements a day from local merchants. "We can send you messages that are incredibly rich and nutritious and targeted," says CEO of Mobile Campus Jim Ryan, who spent three years as VP of consumer data services at wireless giant AT&T Mobility. The company's long-term vision is to fundamentally change the concept of advertising and marketing, and their numbers indicate that it may be working. While the average successful direct marketing effort for any product sees 1-3% redemption rates, Mobile Campus' redemption rates average around 20%. Some of its campaigns see rates as high as 40%.
Since 2005, Pennsylvania State University has been served by e2Campus, a D.C.-based text message notification company, and currently has 15,287 subscribers out of 80,000 students. At the cost of about $1 per student per year, schools can have e2Campus' no-frills alert system up and running and ready to deploy in 20 minutes. The company has focused on not overbuilding with features like ringtones and mobile applications. CEO Ara Bagdasarian says: "It's better to have a really good technology with outstanding customer service and support, versus having an outstanding technology with mediocre support and service." So far, e2Campus has over 120 campus clients about one hundred more clients than most competitors.
The heavyweight of higher education mobile technology is Rave Wireless, based in New York City. Rave offers beefy technology for safety, academics, community, and utilities and reliability that other alert companies don't have (yet). Rave's alert-only system runs at about $10,000 per year for an entire campus. After two months of setting up, and for a few thousand dollars more, the "Rave Campus" system puts the functionality of an Internet-connected computer and the campus itself in the palm of every student's hand by turning an ordinary phone into a very smart phone capable of receiving email, checking bus schedules and dining hall menus, and more.
Revered by school administrators and parents, Rave Campus' Guardian application gives users the option of activating a GPS tracker when they feel unsafe. If Guardian is not deactivated by a set time, campus police are notified with the student's photo, exact location, and relevant data. "It makes it easier for the police at the university to handle the call," says Sergeant Paul Giardino of the Montclair State University police force. "Now I have a lot more information."
Arguably the pinnacle of Rave's model is its unique partnerships with Sprint and AT&T through which students are offered severely discounted phones and phone plans. For the campuses that need it, Rave can get carriers to improve cellular coverage. And most importantly, Rave can send messages directly through the carriers without going through an SMS middleman increasing reliability in a way that other text alert companies can't.
SMS technology offers various services to schools with different needs and tastes. And text message alerts have a lot of potential with students but they are just alerts. "The best communication tools in the world are not going to prevent a crazy person from coming on the campus and harming someone in 30 seconds," says Annemarie Mountz, assistant director of public information at Penn State.
And administrators still have make the decision to send out an alert, a process that leaves plenty of room for judgment and human error. That's something that even the best technology can't fix.