Project Spotlight

Custom Texting Application Helps College of Westchester Communicate With Students

text message communication

The College of Westchester in White Plains, NY has developed a custom application to help staff communicate with students, using text messaging as a primary method of staying in touch rather than waiting for students to reply to e-mails and phone calls.

Keeping in Touch

The project was born in 2012 when the college embarked on a three-year strategic technology plan. Kelly Walsh, the chief information officer of the college, and his team conducted a series of interviews as part of the process, and people kept bringing up the idea of texting students to stay in touch. "Back in 2012, it felt like this was a brave new decade and the question came up about why are we not texting students," said Walsh. "These young students just love it and are much more likely to reply than if you call them on the phone or send them an e-mail."

Customizing the App

Walsh began researching the various texting services that were available on the market, and he came across Clickatell, a provider of SMS messaging services through its own proprietary gateway. The company offers an application programming interface (API), so third parties can integrate their own applications with the service, and it sparked the idea for Walsh. "I thought, hey, maybe we can use this to do our own, to integrate texting into an application," he said. "It's been my experience that when you develop a custom tool, you just get so much more flexibility and you can often control costs. That was definitely the case here."

Clickatell's API was very inexpensive, yet it offered powerful functionality, according to Walsh. Since the college already had a talented programmer on staff — John Jurgens, senior programming analyst —Walsh knew the idea of developing a custom texting application in-house using Clickatell's API was realistic. "We absolutely had the skill set," said Walsh. "Once we realized that we could come up with a model that worked and wasn't overly complicated, it was just a matter of investing some labor."

The college has been using the CampusVue student information system (SIS) from Campus Management since the early 2000s, and Walsh wanted the college's new texting application to integrate with its SIS. One reason was that he wanted the security provided by the SIS, so staff members using the texting app would only have access to as much or little information about students that they already had access to through the student information system. The other reason was that he wanted a way to maintain a record of outgoing and incoming text messages in the system, so staff could refer back to them as needed.

Jurgens spent several months developing the application, and the college started using it in February 2013. Initially the app supported the college's academic advising team only, but through an iterative development process Jurgens added support for financial aid staff, career services staff and student success coaches.

The CW Communicator in Action

During the planning phase for the application, Walsh had been concerned about the potential for overusing text messages as a method of communication with students. He wanted to ensure that staff could use it only for specific and purposeful communications with students, not for general message blasts, and only with students who had given explicit permission to text them.

"In CampusVue, we keep a record of students who have given us permission to text them, and we wanted to leverage that as part of the solution — that we would not text somebody who had not given us permission," said Walsh. "And we also needed to associate the messaging with some kind of trigger, something that said, well, why are we communicating with this student in this instance."

The CampusVue SIS keeps a record of action items, called activities, associated with each student, and the college's texting application, called the CW Communicator, is organized around those activities. When staffers launch the application from their desktop, it displays a list of students with whom they have open activities in CampusVue, and they can use the application's various filters and tabs to see what actions are required. They can then send a text message directly from the application, and the application stores a record of the message with the associated activity in CampusVue.

"We only show the activities and the students and the information that the users already have access to in CampusVue, and we leverage the CampusVue security model to make those determinations from within the custom app," said Walsh.

Results

The CW Communicator has made it much easier for staff to connect with students. "Being able to connect with students that it's normally hard to connect with is a huge benefit," said Walsh. "There are so many students who won't respond to e-mail or a normal phone call, but they will respond to a text message, and they'll often respond very quickly — so not only are we having successful communications that we weren't having before, but in many cases it's a faster back-and-forth dialogue."

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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