Emergency notification and public address systems at colleges and universities have probably changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty years prior.
During the anthrax scare following 9/11, someone at my small Pennsylvania college with a bad sense of humor and terrible judgment thought it would be funny to mail envelopes full of baking soda to two friends. It didn’t go well: Within hours the student union was shut down, sealed up with plastic and swarming with local and federal law enforcement officials and investigators clad in hazmat suits.
After a few hours, email alerts trickled out and for the next few days continued to irregularly update the college community about the ongoing investigation and the dislocation of most of the school’s core functions – with the mailroom, cafeteria, bookstore and most administration offices housed in the student union, most of us retreated to our rooms and lived a very disjointed life for a few days. And while we did get those sporadic and vague emails from school officials, most of our information was based on conjecture, rumor and word-of-mouth.
Colleges and universities today have a vast array of tools at their disposal to broadcast just about any type of news. Text messages, automated emails and calls to cellphones combined with digital signage displays across campuses in strategic locations can alert faculty, staff and students to unfolding emergencies. Those digital displays can also deliver day-to-day updates on more benign types of campus news – schedules for finals, upcoming events, the results for the school’s sports teams, promotional announcements.
Of course, whether they come by way of a clunky Telnet system from 2001 or an HD digital display in a 2011 dorm lobby, the quality of a school’s notifications depend on the administration’s commitment to sharing information with students and, just as importantly, how well IT administrators maintain such notification systems.
Recent campus tragedies have painfully illustrated the value of swift emergency notification systems.
But the more day-to-day functions of contemporary digital signage have the ability to reach students and create an engaged campus like flyers on bulletin boards never could. Schools that value such qualities must ensure they are willing to make the commitment – and that they have the staff and the capabilities – to diligently maintain such systems lest they become pretty, costly displays of stale information that do no more to engage students than the most active rumor mills.
Postscript: The Internet tells me that said student who mailed those envelopes did a brief prison stint, eventually got a degree from a different college, and today leads a happy, successful life. All’s well that ends well.