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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.

Some rarely use e-mail; with friends, it's quicker to instant-message or Facebook or call. Others check e-mail often but don't get to the official messages in their overstuffed inboxes.

Students at Trinity University in the District often ignore their campus e-mail accounts, President Patricia McGuire said. "Mailboxes fill up -- they don't answer anything. At the end of the semester, IT has to go in and empty everything. It's a mess, it's really a mess."

It is a worry, said Betsy Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College. "It's just ironic that here we are with more gadgets than any of us need and we find it more difficult rather than less so," she said.

Ryan Brier's e-mail box is bulging with announcements from George Washington University. "I try my best to sort through the subject lines, but definitely some e-mails have fallen through the cracks," he said. Like the time he almost missed a deadline and had to scramble to register for his next-semester classes in a couple of hours.

"Most of us are pretty OCD about checking e-mail," said Melissa Minsberg, a senior at GWU, "but whether we read it or not . . ."

Like most students, she has several accounts to keep track of. Although she's constantly deleting random messages from GWU, her campus inbox fills up every couple of weeks, she said, and e-mails get bounced out. "I'll get announcements that I could care less about, or fellowships that don't pertain to me," Minsberg said. Sometimes she opens something quickly, then forgets about it -- like the time she didn't sign up for housing in time.

Campus accounts can be clunky, with not enough storage space or too much spam.

Brier never gives out his GWU e-mail address -- except to people he doesn't really want to hear from.

Some schools still send out mass messages to the campus dorm phones, to voice mails that many students never check or never bothered to set up.

"I don't know anyone who has a land line," said Georgetown University junior Ted Reilly.

But reaching students by cellphone can be tricky, too: Many students consider the numbers private and switch them often. Some school officials talk of "trying to capture cell numbers," conjuring up images of people running around with butterfly nets.

For the most important announcements, such as Virginia Tech's manhunt, schools usually try means such as campus TV and university-wide software. "Oftentimes it takes multiple attempts," said Kara Danner of George Mason University. "There's not one clear way."

Many schools are going ever-higher tech, trying to catch up with their students.

At the University of South Florida, several thousand students have signed up for a cellphone program that links them in groups to one another and to the administration. Soon, the school will launch a program that will allow students to use their cellphones to check things such as menus and emergency closings and will allow the administration to send simultaneous messages to all.

Some schools, including the University of Maryland and GMU, are launching Web portals, in effect customizing the Web site so that each student gets just the e-mail, basketball scores and updates he or she needs, said Danner, director of portal communications at GMU.

GWU students can sign up for text-message alerts to their cellphones from the District's emergency system; Virginia Tech is considering signing up with a company that works with other universities.

At GU, students have said they might be interested in text alerts -- but not for routine announcements. They said it would be too intrusive, , and they didn't want to get stuck paying for them.

Schools add updates to the Web, post podcasts and send feeds to subscribers.

Most schools avoid putting notices on sites such as Facebook, although they know that students would find them. "That's like nailing Jell-O to a wall," McGuire said, with sites shifting in popularity and new ones popping up.

Brier said that recently a friend realized at the last minute that he needed to fill out paperwork to graduate from GWU. He couldn't believe that the school hadn't e-mailed a reminder.

Brier laughed and told him, "They probably did."

E-mail certainly isn't perfect, Brier said, but added, "I don't know if there is a better way."

Sometimes, McGuire said, the most effective way is the lowest-tech: At Trinity, they scatter paper notices on lunch tables and tape them to the insides of restroom doors. "You get right in their face," she said.

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