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Putting Student Communication in Con-TEXT

Colleges and universities are struggling with or are beginning to realize there is a growing problem with their communications with students. Living "in the moment" as they do, many students are beyond regularly checking e-mail, so sending their important and timely communications that way is increasingly fruitless.

Even in my own family, I cannot remember my 18- and 21-year-olds' e-mail addresses, if they even continue to use them, because when I do send them e-mail I never, ever hear back, and often do not ever find out if they even received my message. Despite my own utter dependence on e-mail, I have not received an e-mail message from either one of them in more than a year, even though I hear from their grandmother, my 81-year-old mother, by e-mail at least weekly.

At some institutions, administrators are negotiating with local pizzerias to implement "on time, on demand" communications stickers containing official university information that can be slapped onto the top of pizza boxes before they leave the store. It may be possible, even, for pizzeria customer databases to communicate with institutional enterprise systems to individualize student messages, right down to communicating deadlines for class papers and projects.

Okay, I made that last part up, although students do eat regularly, so communicating with them in some way that connects with one of the few things we know they will do no matter what we want them to do is an intriguing concept.

The problem of how to communicate with students is real. I can't even rely on getting one of my three kids--the two above, plus the 23-year-old--to answer a phone call. It appears to be routine practice now not to answer calls, but to consider instead the act of someone calling you to be the equivalent of "asking" for a call back at your convenience.

My personal solution is also the one that a growing number of colleges and universities are coming to: text messaging. I simply have my kids' phone numbers as "buddies" on my instant messenger service, so I can type a message to them in IM, and they receive it as a text message on their phone. At the moment, nothing else captures their attention with the same effectiveness.

I knew that in many countries, texting was a primary communication method, especially in parts of Asia, but my first exposure to the concept of large-scale, one to many communication via text messaging came with the news accounts of the evacuation of extranationals from Lebanon during the bloody and inane hostilities there in 2006. As presumed adults began stupidly battering each other and innocents with military weapons there, the Swedish government used a series of text messages to get its citizens out of Lebanon, even before the United States had seriously mobilized its effort to just begin getting Americans out:

"In the last week we have sent out five text messages to everyone in Lebanon who is registered with a Swedish mobile network," [ Nina Ersman] told The Local. Telia's Jan Sjöberg explained that its mobile subscribers who were in Lebanon were sent an SMS as early as last Friday, which told them that an evacuation would be taking place. Since then, further messages have told people to get to a certain hotel at a certain time, depending upon their priority status.
(Source: Outside the Beltway)

"Wow" was what I thought at the time. The "wow" factor is gone, but the value of text messaging grows. Who would you expect to be among the first adopters of this communications method? How about football coaches?

One of the best descriptions, from the student perspective, I have found of the value of a service like this comes from the student body president at Middle Tennessee State University: He recently traveled with a couple of university administrators to examine how a functioning system already in place works at Montclair State University (NJ).

The simplest way to explain this is: The university will send you a text message when you need know important information. At first, it sounds pretty intrusive, but it is all an optional service.

With this program, students are able to stay connected by being members of groups. Each class you are in is a specific group, and each club or organization you are in can also be a group. If a class is canceled or a meeting is changed, a text message can be sent from the teacher or the class or president of the club to the members of that group or class notifying them immediately. How many times have you walked to a class just to find out the professor canceled it? With the cellular communication, you can get text message before you leave from home. Instead of driving to school and walking all the way to the classroom door to read a posted note, you will read a text message as soon as the teacher cancels.

Like many of you, I receive a wide variety of e-mail alerts about various things, the most time-sensitive of which is weather alerts from the Emergency e-mail Network. (In the context of researching this column, I learned that it now has extended its offerings into text, so, sigh, there is one more decision to make about how I want to receive those kinds of communications.) The Chronicle wrote about this last fall: E-Mail Is for Old People.

I really don't know the answer to capturing the attention of young people for the important messages we want them to see. But it is clear that e-mail is no longer "the solution" we can rely on to cover our bases. Also coming into focus may be the awareness that this is a moving target that is going to require our institutions to shift gears on a cycle that matches our student-customers' adoption of new technologies. We look forward to an "interesting" future.

Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP).

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