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Innovation

Getting through to students isn't easy

Email? They don't read it. Cellphones? Turned off. Social networking sites? So last year. Some school opt for cellphone trees, other good old fliers and masking tape.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor on

It is the irony of the "plugged-in" generation that for all their electronic tethers, it's increasingly hard to get a hold of them. The Washington Post reports that despite that fact that students have cellphones, iPods, instant messaging, email and network profiles, it's tough for administrators to reach students.

"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.

This hole in communications became apparent when administrators at Virginia Tech needed to warn tens of thousands of people on campus to stay inside so that police could search for a gunman on the first day of the fall semester.

"That was a very clear indicator that the ways that we reach students are changing, that we have to stay ahead of the curve," said spokesman Mark Owczarski.

The amount of technology out there is overwhelming. Emergency warnings and routine announcements, such as deadlines for housing, tuition bills and registration, can get lost in the deluge of information.

Part of the problem is that schools are large bureaucracies that have trouble keeping up with the speed of technological changes. Although something like email may work for teachers and administrators, students rarely use it. They use instant messaging or their cellphone if they want to be in touch.

"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," said Trinity University President Patricia McGuire.

Cellphones are ubiquitous but many students turn them off. The University of South Florida is signing students up for a cellphone program that links them in groups to one another and to the administration. The administration hopes this might answer the emergency notification issue.

Some schools put notices on Facebook sites where they know students will find them.

"That's like nailing Jell-O to a wall," McGuire said, with sites shifting in popularity and new ones popping up.

If high-tech doesn't work, some schools try the old-fashioned approach — scattering paper notices on lunch tables and taping them to the insides of restroom doors. "You get right in their face," said McGuire.

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