In High-Tech World, Access To Students Still Difficult

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

College students now are wired, wireless, Sidekicked, Facebooked, YouTubed and bleeping with instant messages and text messages. But try getting an important announcement out to everyone on campus.

It's the flip side of all the technology: Students are more connected than ever -- but surprisingly tricky for administrators to reach.

Land lines are all but obsolete. Cellphone numbers are slippery. And e-mail gets lost, overlooked, erased or ignored.

"Everyone is hoping there's not some emergency where they can't get in touch with students," said Gwendolyn Dungy of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

At Virginia Tech, a police search for a gunman on the first day of the fall semester left administrators scrambling to warn tens of thousands of people to stay inside. "That was a very clear indicator that the ways that we reach students are changing, that we have to stay ahead of the curve," spokesman Mark Owczarski said

Few miss an update about a snow day -- in part because everyone is looking for it. And there's no question news can travel more quickly now. But some administrators say that technology can complicate both warnings and routine announcements, such as deadlines for housing, tuition bills and registration.

School officials are more worried about this now "because in the past we didn't have so many options," Dungy said. "They had telephones -- land lines -- and they used them. Now, with so many options, people are trying to find the ultimate, the sure-fire. And there is no sure-fire today."

Every school has a crisis plan, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Parents assume that their children can be reached immediately. But although parents usually have their children's cell numbers programmed on their phones, most school officials don't.

And technology changes so quickly that by the time the bureaucracy at the institution is up to speed, Dungy said, something new has come out and the students have moved on to it.

Schools across the country are experimenting with a bewildering array of tactics to contact students. And everyone's watching for the next big thing -- something simple that would work.

It's not that students don't have the tools; nearly every single one has a cellphone, and most have laptops. But they don't use them the way administrators do.

Take e-mail. It's a cheap, easy and instantaneous way to blast a message across the quad. Most faculty and staff rely on e-mail for both business and personal messages. But for many students, it's an afterthought.

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