Campus Cells

This fall colleges will take phone technologies in new directions -- dealing with academics, student safety, and some professors' greatest annoyance.
July 13, 2006

About 500 students at Wake Forest University this fall will have a special cell phone/personal digital assistant that will have a feature that could be a professor's dream: The cell will automatically be linked to students' course meeting times, so it will be silenced during class hours.

Students at Montclair State University, in New Jersey, and several other institutions will have a new feature as well -- for those nights when students end up taking that long walk to a parking lot or off-campus apartment when it's late enough to feel a little uncomfortable. Students will call a number, punch in a code, and indicate how long it will take to reach their destinations. Then campus police will track students' progress until they again use their code to deactivate. If students don't deactivate in time, police officers will call the person and, if he or she doesn't answer, will then show up to find out what's going on.

Both the Wake Forest and Montclair State projects reflect work going on this summer to introduce significant changes this fall in how students at some campuses communicate. Over the last decade, as cell phones have become ubiquitous on campuses, many institutions have rethought the value of having land lines in dormitory rooms or many campus facilities. The latest moves, however, go beyond just acknowledging that students use cells or setting up group rates for students.

It's still a small minority of colleges, but some are starting to either require students to use a common cell service, or are finding ways to encourage students to do so -- with the aim of using the cells to advance certain academic or social goals. Allen University, in South Carolina, this fall is giving cell phones not only to students (covered by tuition) but to faculty members as well. And other institutions, while not giving away phones, are signing deals with companies to provide software to enable phones to perform campus-related functions.

"I talk to colleagues at other institutions, and a lot of them say 'I don't want to touch this business. I'm glad to be out of the phone business.' That's a valid position and I understand it," says Fred Siff, vice president and chief information officer of the University of Cincinnati, which is offering deals this fall to encourage (but not require) students to use a common phone system. Siff says he moved away from the widely held view when the student government came to him and asked for the university to negotiate bulk rates to give savings to students "who were getting killed on fees."

After investigating the possibilities, Siff says he became convinced that "this is a service we can provide and it can be a revenue source for us and improve quality of life."

Because Cincinnati doesn't plan to require the students to purchase its "Bearcat Phones," Siff says that the discussion and planning has focused on what students will find attractive enough to motivate them to drop what they are using and switch. "You gotta offer the killer apps," he says.

Many college officials say that one of the best things for them to promise is that students "can hear you now" anywhere on campus. Even when colleges play no role in cell coverage, campus technology offices receive complaints about poor reception in parts of campus and some students perceive that their institutions are letting them down in some way.

So Siff says that Cincinnati -- in a deal with Cincinnati Bell -- will be promising this fall "full coverage, anywhere on campus," including parking garages, for those who use the university's cell phones. And while Cincinnati won't be offering as sophisticated a security program as Montclair State's, it will offer speed dial to campus police. "And you can only really offer security if you offer complete coverage," Siff says.

Other services as well will be based on practical needs that student focus groups said they wanted. Cincinnati has a large campus, and many students rely on shuttle buses. So the university -- like a number of others planning to expand service -- will have devices on the buses that will allow a cell phone user to see how far away from a stop a bus is.

Montclair State has been using pilot projects and this fall will require all freshmen to use phones that the university has set up with a range of services through Rave Wireless, a company that specializes in software for college students' cell phones and that anticipates starting 12 new colleges on its services in the fall.

"We were seeing that students had their arms to their ears all the time, so the question was what we could do with this device," says Kathleen Ragan, associate vice president of student development at Montclair. Besides the safety service and a bus service like that at Cincinnati, Montclair will introduce numerous academic applications. Professors will be able to use the phones for in-class polling to see if concepts are getting through, or to quickly reach students with course announcements or schedule changes. The $186 that students will pay per semester is competitive with other cell services, and students can opt to pay more for special features, such as if they need to link their cell with that of other family members.

Wake Forest's MobileU has also placed an emphasis on academics. Professors have put special quiz programs together so students can test their knowledge online. The library is making available style guides and search tools, so that students can gain access to the kind of information they might want any time.

"My goal is to eventually standardize a communications device for students," says Jay Dominick, assistant vice president for information systems at Wake Forest. But he says it is "difficult" to require a plan when students arrive with existing plans, phone numbers they like, and a range of services they have selected. By offering services that students perceive as helping them academically, Dominick says, "we hope to get enough adoption to get us to a tipping point." And by including features -- like silencing phones during class times -- that appeal to professors, the university hopes to create an environment where many people at Wake Forest are excited about the idea of a common phone system.

Rodger Desai, CEO of Rave Wireless, says that the colleges that have the most success with cell plans will be those that see the different motivating factors for different groups. "Universities and professors want the academic piece of this. Parents want the safety, and students like the social," he says. "You have to cover all the constituents."

Some of the campuses that are expanding their use of cell phones are dominated by students who live in dormitories or apartments with the latest flat-screen terminals to work on. But several of the colleges focusing on cell technology are institutions where many students can't afford their own full-fledged computers. As a result, educators at these institutions say cell technology is even more important, as it may be the only technology to which students have 24/7 access.

Baruch College of the City University of New York is an institution whose students spread out all over New York City when they aren't in class, for jobs and to care for their families. "A lot of our students are doing so much with Baruch and full-time jobs that everything they do is rushed, and they don't have a lot of money, so our plan is to help them interact with the campus and build a sense of community, and not charge them anything," says Arthur Downing, the CIO.

"Air Baruch," as the college's system is called, had a pilot test last year and will be introduced for all freshmen this fall. Software (through Rave Wireless) will allow students to use their cell phones to check on class assignments (through Blackboard), check on PC loans available at the library, and reserve study rooms. Through the "entourage" feature, student groups will be able to tell when other members of their clubs, classes or friends are on campus or off (a big issue on a campus with many people who hold down jobs).

When Baruch did the pilot test last year, college officials found that students quickly started using the entourage feature and reported that they didn't need to rush to computer labs to do functions they could now perform on their phones.

The philosophy, he said, is that you shouldn't need to be first in line at the computer lab or have enough money to own a computer to get good access. "Given the economic status of our students, we want all services we provide to not add costs or disenfranchise anyone from information," he says.

At Allen University, a historically black college, computer ownership is small -- probably less than 10 percent of students -- according to Anthony Spearman, vice president of operations and professor of physics. Compared to laptops or terminals, "cell phones are less expensive, more flexible and more common for our students to have," he says.

Allen's arrangement was set up through Rave and Nextel. Spearman says the cost to the college of providing cell phones to all 700 students, plus faculty members, is about the same as the costs that had been projected to replace land lines in two buildings undergoing renovation (a replacement that won't be made.)

Spearman tested the system in his physics class last year, which led to the go-ahead for a campuswide program in the fall. "You've got to be pragmatic. Students like the text messaging," he says, but even if they start texting for social reasons, they also start to connect with students in their courses to talk about problems, assignments, etc.

Allen stresses close faculty-student interaction, which Spearman says is essential at an institution educating many students who didn't necessarily go to the best high schools and whose talents may not be fully developed. By giving students and faculty members phones, he plans to send a message about expectations. "It's 8 at night and a student is having trouble with an assignment I've given. I might be at soccer practice with my kid, but I can text back to say 'You need to check this page of your book,' " he says.

"I want students learning the whole time they are awake," Spearman says. "The pervasiveness of cell phones may make this possible."


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