U Cincinnati Links Blackboard to Text Messaging

While many colleges and universities scramble to get an emergency messaging system in place in the wake of the Virginia Tech mass murder, the University of Cincinnati is already there.

Thanks to administrative decisions made last year, the university piloted a text messaging system this semester that works in conjunction with Blackboard to send routine class announcements to the mobile phones of those students who sign up for the service. Although the system is designed--and intended to be used--for daily academic messages, it can also be used in an emergency. It was used twice last winter to send weather alerts.

With the pilot complete, the university has decided to roll out the messaging system, from clearTXT, university-wide.

Students who choose to opt in, through Blackboard, can receive a text message any time something changes within a course in Blackboard. Students with a Web-enabled cell phone plan can also receive a URL link embedded in the message and can click to view the posted change through their mobile phones. Instructors can also opt in to choose what type of course information they want to send on a regular basis. An e-mail component also allows students to elect to have messages sent to their e-mail accounts as well.

According to Fred Siff, vice president and CIO, the university is simply using the communication method most familiar and accessible to its students. "Text messaging is how they communicate." In fact, he said, student requests spurred the decision originally to offer a Blackboard-connected text messaging system based around academic use.

"Students these days are very mobile," agreed Paul Foster, manager of faculty support services at the university. "The use of technology is so integrated into their lives.... This is just a natural extension of that."

According to Michael Lieberman, dean of instructional and research computing, clearTXT has been made available through Blackboard to all courses at the University of Cincinnati. Professors can log into the system and quickly send a text message to students when a grade is posted, a new assignment is made, or to remind students about an upcoming quiz.

Text messaging uses SMS, or Short Message Service, a feature available in nearly any cell phone; it allows the user to receive and send short written messages. Depending on the provider and plan, phone users generally either pay a fee each month for SMS capability, or--as many parents well know--pay a charge per message. An individual text message is limited to 132 characters in the clearTXT system.

According to Lieberman, who used the system during the pilot to send routine announcements to students in his molecular genetics course who signed up, using the clearTXT system through its online browser interface was simple and straightforward. "There wasn't much for me to do. I'd go into the control panel [and] indicate which items I wanted to send to students."

The school also used the system twice during the semester to alert students to cancellations owing to snow.

The University of Cincinnati has received attention for its two-year-old UC Mobile  program, in which it is distributing a university-supported cell phone to each of its students. "Across the country, housing directors are saying, 'My students don't use land lines, so rip them out,'" Siff said. "This is an approach to dealing with this new technology."

The university mobile phones offer features like five-digit on campus dialing, a special help number (so that students who dial "*UC" are immediately connected with the public safety office), shuttle bus arrival notification in real time, and now the Blackboard alerts.

This fall, the 4,000 resident students who receive their "Bearcat" cell phones will automatically be signed up for the clearTXT service. "If something were to happen in the residents' halls," Siff said, "we have their numbers.... They'll get alerts."

In addition, Foster said, "We will be encouraging faculty and students [to sign] up for clearTXT." Campus-wide, about 1,500 students and instructors, out of some 35,000, signed up for the service. With the pilot behind it, the university expects to greatly increase participation as it begins to heavily promote the service and its advantages.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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