Good Call

Jersey university taps the power of the data-enabled cell phone.

by / November 5, 2006

If administrators want college students to hear them loud and clear, they'd better keep up with the times.

"Students don't want to read e-mails from us. They don't want to receive letters from us," said Karen Pennington, vice president for Student Development and Campus Life at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J.

Members of the rising generation open their cell phones to find out what's new. So four years ago, Pennington asked Edward Chapel, Montclair State's associate vice president of IT, to look into how the school could use the ever-present devices riding in students' backpacks or clamped to their ears.

Today students at Montclair State use cell phones to get all kinds of information from the university and their peers. They can check what's on the dining hall menu, broadcast text messages to groups of friends, locate the nearest shuttle bus in real time, get the word on canceled classes or contact campus police if they feel unsafe. In the future, the university might use its Campus Connect wireless data service to deliver recorded academic lectures and "your laundry is dry" alerts.

Making the Connection
Working with Rave Wireless, Montclair State piloted Campus Connect with 100 students in spring 2005, and launched the program that fall, making it mandatory for all incoming freshmen living on campus. All new students and on-campus sophomores must subscribe to the service, which costs $186 or more per semester, depending on the level of service. Other students may enroll at their discretion.

Enforcing a cell phone standard was a better solution than wrestling with all the incompatible, nonintegrated wireless technologies students bring to campus, Chapel said. "We decided to enter into an arrangement that would systematize what [students] would use, and we could have a uniform means of communicating out to them, and them back to the university and amongst themselves."

To operate Campus Connect, the university resells wireless voice and data service from Sprint Nextel, which installed cell sites on campus to boost coverage. New students and returning sophomores who have packages with other carriers may still use them, but must also subscribe to Campus Connect. Those who want to make Campus Connect their only wireless carrier can transfer their phone numbers from other services. The program also reimburses as much as $100 of another carrier's early termination fee for students who switch. About 85 percent of students who subscribed to other services opt to use Campus Connect exclusively, Chapel said.

Montclair State requires students to subscribe to Campus Connect because the service supports academic applications. "It's part of the equipment for being at the university," Pennington said, adding that it lets students access course information through the Web-based Blackboard system and communicate with professors, and is helpful when transacting business. "It would be foolish not to have this in your hand and do it, as opposed to having to go to a building, find a lab or boot up a laptop."

Now You See Me, Now You Don't
One of the first applications Campus Connect introduced was access to dining hall menus, Pennington said. Students also wanted a way to check events listings and see when they could catch the next shuttle bus, which along with several other location-based services, comes courtesy of the GPS chips installed in their mobile phones.

Students can turn the location feature on or off at will, ruling out the chance that the school will employ it to spy out who's skipping class or gathering for underage keg parties. Students use the feature to make their locations known to selected groups of friends and find those friends on campus. With GPS devices installed on shuttle buses, a student can see when the next bus is due at a specific location.

The GPS-equipped phone also serves as a security tool. If a student feels uneasy for any reason -- maybe she's walking across campus late at night or has taken ill -- she can turn on the Rave Guardian, which activates a timer. If the student doesn't turn off the feature before the timer runs out, or answer a call from police after it does, an officer will check on the student. A large screen at the police department displays the locations of students who have turned on the Guardian, and a database stores student profiles, including any medical conditions.

One advantage of Rave Guardian is students can use it in private, Pennington said. "Sometimes the male students, the more macho students, don't necessarily want people to know that they have some of those fears. It gives people the little extra feeling that it's ok to use it, because nobody's judging you."

Goodbye, Dorm Phones
Montclair State also needs the new wireless service to replace standard telephones in its residence halls, which are headed the way of the woolly mammoth. "Students aren't using their landlines," Pennington said, "and we are therefore spending a lot of money for an item that's sitting useless on a desk."

Students used to pay the university for long distance calls from their dorm rooms, and those revenues underwrote the residence hall phone service. These days, students mostly use cell phones for those calls. "We were, and are, at break-even with students who are still using landlines," Chapel said. "But it was clear that we would be in the red in short order." Montclair State is phasing out the residence hall landlines, leaving only the most basic level of service for emergency communications, he said.

As with the landline service, the university charges just enough for Campus Connect to cover costs. "We didn't do this to make a profit, but to have a sustainable system," Chapel said, adding that the school doesn't rule out the possibility of operating the service for a profit someday.

Few students or parents protested when Montclair State made the service mandatory. Kathleen Ragan, associate vice president of Student Development and Campus Life, said less than 5 percent of the population affected by the change complained.

Mandatory programs like Montclair State's aren't common, but it's not unusual today for colleges and universities to offer services based on cell phones, said Jeri Semer, executive director of the Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education. "They're looking for ways they can accommodate the students' desire to use their cell phones, while maintaining and even trying to enhance the campus living and community environment."

Some schools endorse one or more cell phone providers, and develop programs to give their students discounts and special services from those providers, because of volume buying arrangements, Semer said. Others allow students to use whatever phones and service plans they bring to campus.

Lectures on Demand
At Montclair State, administrators are developing new uses for Campus Connect, Ragan said. The university will make the phones a delivery option for Lecture 123, an online program that provides recordings of faculty lectures and other audio material.

"We'll have the critical mass beginning this fall, with an entire entering class using it, to ensure we'll have classrooms where every student has the Campus Connect devices," Chapel said. Then faculty members can start using the phones, for example, to test how well students understand their lessons. "Students can use the cellular phone as a clicker, answer a question, and the data will come up on a projection screen, compiled in real time," he said.

"We're also thinking about having laundry services report to students when their dryers are stopped," Chapel said. The mobile phones could someday serve as authentication tokens to authorize access to restricted locations, he said. And after substantial development and the addition of a magnetic strip or proximity chip, students' cell phones will be their student ID and point-of-sale cards.

Since Montclair State started working with Rave Wireless to develop and test its mobile data services, several other higher educational institutions have implemented Rave applications. Among them are California State University at Monterey Bay, Eastern Michigan University and Georgetown University, to name a few.

Other schools are looking at Montclair State's experience with interest, Pennington said. "I think some are a little more hesitant to go whole hog into this as we have. But they're watching us to see how it goes, and I think some of them will probably pick it up after they see if we've made it work."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs