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Topic: Administrative

September 28, 2007

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, students and parents are demanding that their colleges and universities do more to protect student safety - regardless of cost.

One way institutions are addressing these concerns is by rolling out emergency text-messaging systems. In exchange for increased safety, university stakeholders barely bat an eye at proposals with price tags of $300,000 or more.

Even with the green light to spend so much, is there a better, more cost-effective approach?

Ball State believes there is, and Microsoft is supporting its efforts. Through its Crisis Management Team, which includes members from information technology and computer services, Ball State created a plan that costs less than $10,000 per year, can be expanded incrementally as needed, permits parents and third parties to input and manage their own contact information (which will be up and running by Christmas), and delivers the critical messages faster than any of the vendors.

Ball State solicited bids from several vendors but found subscription costs, which included tens of thousands of students and employees (even if they never signed up for the service), ranging from around $60,000 to more than $100,000 annually. This was high but seemed in line with what another in-state university was paying, according to Loren Malm, assistant director of security, policy, systems and assessment. (Purdue University shells out $300,000 per year.)

However, the vendors' proposals did not include a key element: parents and third parties. They either did not provide a way to include these important audiences (as they were priced by subscriber head count) or required them to be added and maintained by the student. Further investigation revealed additional flaws, such as slow delivery times, which sparked Ball State to launch its own system in early September.

"Some vendors promise to deliver 18,000 messages per minute, but the only proven record is around 200 to 300 per minute," Malm said. "Instead of relying on a single vendor, Ball State is using multiple vendors of text-message services so that emergency messages can be delivered through several paths simultaneously." 

As a bonus, Ball State's system will soon have the ability to process nonemergency messages. The university's "messaging center" will be a clearinghouse for students and parents to subscribe to various categories of information. (This will be available in the next three months.)

Students and other subscribers will be more likely to keep their information current if the system is used to manage other communications they routinely receive, Malm added.

Because of its leadership of the Services Oriented Architecture Working Council within the Higher Education Consortium, which is sponsored by Microsoft, Ball State will soon be able to share its design with other universities for a system that provides greater functionality at less cost. In addition, Ball State could partner with other universities to offer each other redundant services so that messages could still be delivered in the event local technology infrastructure is unavailable.

To increase the effectiveness of the system, everyone in the Ball State community is encouraged to sign up for the service, Malm added. For more information on the opt-in message service, go to www.bsu.edu/emergencyalert.

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