Colleges' texting gets students' attention

  • Article by: KAITLYN WALSH
  • Star Tribune
  • May 3, 2012 - 7:55 PM

As a college adviser, Janet Sundquist works to keep struggling students from slipping into academic probation -- or worse. So if she needs to get someone's attention at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, she meets them on their turf -- their cellphones.

"This message is from the MSUM Academic Support Center," reads one of her text messages to students. "We would like to remind you that you have an appointment this week with Janet Sundquist."

Moorhead is among several Minnesota colleges using text messages to reach students who may need academic help. The move represents a new frontier in the way colleges communicate with students -- a move lauded by some students and spurned by others who don't want to see notes from their school in their "personal space."

This year, Moorhead started texting students to get them into the advising office or to check their in-boxes for important information, such as suspension notices, said Denise Gorsline, a dean at Moorhead. She said students often ignore voice mails from their advisers. Texts pop up right away on their phones.

"Using texting is just a reflection of society's change in communication," Gorsline said. "If we knew this is how students communicated, why weren't we doing this beforehand?"

She said advisers write short and simple greetings such as, "You haven't registered for classes yet, contact your adviser." That way, more personal information isn't displayed on students' phones.

More students showed up for appointments when they were prodded with a text, Gorsline said.

Moorhead advisers use an online program, rather than their personal cellphones, and the messages can be reviewed by others. Students can't text back. Gorsline said the school is looking into two-way texting but probably won't resolve conflicts or counsel students via texts because of privacy issues.

Students split on idea

Courtney Edwards, a student support services adviser at Hibbing Community College, has been texting students for two years. Of her 75 advisees, she said, only about 10 percent open her e-mails, and she almost never hears back from a student if she leaves a voice mail. She lets students know they can text her, and she often gets quick questions such as, "When is the last day to withdraw from a class?"

Isaac Thomas, a Moorhead senior and student senator, said students are probably more likely to open a text message than an e-mail because they usually come from someone they want to have their phone number.

But, he said, some students see text messaging from the administration as intrusive, and he thinks students should be able to opt out.

The University of Minnesota is among the hundreds of schools nationwide that use text messages to alert staff and students of emergencies. But except for emergencies, student panels said texts would invade their private lives, said Tina Falkner, of the U's academic support office. "Students have let us know that they don't want us in that space, just like they don't want us on Facebook," Falkner said.

When advisers at Rainy River Community College can't find one of the about 300 students on campus, they'll send a text, said LeAnne Hardy, director of student services. The school has been texting students since last fall using Google Voice. Most advisers know students personally, so texting isn't invasive and is actually preferred in many cases, she said. "I know my kids are texting like crazy," Hardy said. "I will text a student, and they'll show up and see me."

Kaitlyn Walsh is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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