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Colleges’ high-tech security alerts will plug some holes but not all

It’s troubling to consider the substantial holes in Twin Cities colleges’ current emergency-alert systems. Most send mass e-mails and voicemails to campus accounts, but the vast majority of students neglect to use them in favor of their cell phones and Gmail accounts.

Less than 35 percent of Macalester College students, for example, set up their campus voicemail boxes last year. The percentage that consistently checked those messages is even lower.

So when the need to reach students rapidly arises, most colleges are in trouble.

Thankfully, change is under way. Several colleges and universities are testing improved emergency alert systems. Last year, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system invited its 32 members to pilot ConnectED, a system that can send text or voice messages to a large number of telephones or email accounts. Thirteen colleges opted to conduct the pilot, which began last January and ends next month. It cost MSCU about $50,000, which is a discounted price.

In September, the University of St. Thomas installed an emergency notification system called CityWatch, which can send a combination of voice and text messages to the cell phones, home phones and email accounts of all university students, staff and faculty. It will cost about $5,000 to use each year. Last week, the University of Minnesota unveiled its text-message emergency alert system, which will cost $10,000 annually for five years.

The testing and likely implementation of similar systems in the coming months marks considerable progress when it comes to emergency responses.

Security lag time surprising
Still, it’s surprising how long it took colleges to update their sorely-inadequate systems. It’s not as if text messaging is new technology; we’ve been texting our “American Idol” votes for five years now. And the shootings at Virginia Tech, where officials concluded that a superior emergency notification system could have spared lives, occurred seven months ago.

The problem is, as soon as the horror and headlines of a campus tragedy fade, this item falls into the important-but-not-urgent quadrant of colleges’ to-do list. Plus there’s that off-putting price tag, which is hard to justify when you’ve never had an emergency in the history of your school.

That’s true of Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, which is currently piloting ConnectED. Mark Peterson, director of academic technology and computing services, can’t help but question the value of such a purchase. “The cost is about $5 per person for a year,” he said. “So we’re looking at $25,000 a year. In four years, you’ve spent $100,000 for a system you hope to never use.”

Even new systems have holes
Although a revamped alert system would plug major holes, information technology directors at Twin Cities colleges are quick to point out the notable leaks it leaves. The biggest one: Colleges don’t have students’ cell-phone numbers on record, and they cannot require students to hand over this personal information.

“An emergency notice system that depends on text messaging will be ‘opt- in,’ which is not optimal,” David Sisk, Macalester’s associate director of information technology services, wrote in an email. “This is the gaping hole in the strategy.”

Persuading students that it’s in their best interest to opt in will not be easy. More so than any previous generation, the pop-up ad generation is wary of spam — which they define broadly, including everything from Viagra ads to campus fundraising requests. Sending even one notification that students don’t deem a genuine emergency could prompt many to disregard future notices.

“Students get really nervous about overuse, that they don’t want to be contacted if it’s a matter of, ‘Hey, my grade just got posted for science class,” said Jason DeBoer-Moran, coordinator of user services at Concordia University in St. Paul.

That’s why Sisk said he’d urge Macalester to send text-message alerts sparingly: for police reports of nearby muggings, assaults or rapes, suspicious persons on campus, disaster information or severe weather warnings.

Those guidelines seem on track, but they still leave some wiggle room. For instance, what determines “severe” weather?

Many students hard to track
At the core of this challenge is the tendency of college students today to elude many traditional trackers, such as land lines and phone books. And they like it that way. As the headline of a Nov. 2 article in the trade journal EDUCAUSE Quarterly puts it, college students are “always connected, but hard to reach” — especially when the messenger is not one of their peers. Getting young adults who have mastered the art of tuning out to tune in when it really matters is a tricky feat.

St. Thomas has not collected students’ cell phone numbers yet; officials are waiting until the next semester begins to ask in its bi-annual request to verify contact information, said spokesman Jim Winterer. The U of M is asking students to register now, dangling a ripe incentive: Register by Dec. 15 and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free iPod Touch.

Even if a college is lucky enough to obtain a comprehensive list of students’ cell phones and wise enough to send emergency notifications judiciously, the new alert system could invite other problems.

Sisk identified two in an email: “What happens when students change cell providers or numbers (how many would remember to call the registrar’s office to report a new cell number?) and the cost of calling students with cell phones registered in other states or other countries.”

Not to mention that many academic buildings have thick cement walls and are buried in the ground, thus thwarting cell-phone reception.

The greatest problem a higher-tech system could produce is overconfidence, said Mark Peterson, Inver Hills’ IT director. “Whenever you make a choice about sending out information, and you don’t have a means to confirm that it was received, because it’s not a two-way street, then you’re going to be making choices on a guess. We can’t assume they know,” he says.

“Technology always seems like it’s a magic bullet, and it seldom is, because it just introduces new questions. It suddenly becomes a check box on a survey: ‘Do you have an emergency response system?’ ‘Yes.’ Nobody ever asks: ‘How effective is it?’ ‘Oh, well, we’re not really sure.’ It’s not like doing a fire drill in a school. They know compliance; they watch people come out of the buildings.”

That’s why Bill Doyle, vice president of information technology services at Bethel College in Arden Hills, is planning to implement a supplementary alert system: a fire alarm to communicate loudly and immediately to everyone on campus.

It sounds decidedly low-tech. And it sounds like a good idea.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Albert Maruggi on 11/23/2007 - 08:11 pm.

    I wonder if the would try Twitter, Utterz or some other microblogging platform. the issue of getting cell phone numbers should not be a deal killer just have it as a required field to register.

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