Security Enterprise Services / Education: K-12 / Education:University

Rethinking Mass Notification: Not Just for Security


In today’s era of budget cuts, education leaders are looking for ways to leverage existing resources to meet institution-wide goals, as opposed to buying new, expensive tools that may or may not work as intended.

Most colleges already have some form of mass notification system in place today. Not only does the 1990 Clery Act mandate all universities to issue “timely warnings” about anything that poses a serious or ongoing threat to the campus community, but recent tragedies on campuses have also pushed many colleges to implement a notification system. But if emergencies are – thankfully – rare, how can administrators feel comfortable using the system in a crisis? And how will students perceive a message if there is no trusted, familiar voice behind it?

That’s why it surprises me that many of these notification systems remain unused outside of emergency situations. Most institution officials don’t realize that a reliable, standby notification system can also be used to engage student populations, improve faculty-student communication, address retention issues, manage enrollment and more.

In the last decade, services for education – and virtually every other industry – have moved first online and now are going mobile. Gone are the days of the auto dialers for mass communication systems. But today’s students aren’t interested in booting up, logging on, checking email or websites to get pertinent information. They live in a texted- and tweeted-world and are likelier to consume information and access services if they are mobile-friendly and easily accessible. Thankfully, next-generation technology allows officials to reach students in a variety of ways – like phone, text, voicemail, email and social media. The most successful systems offer instant reporting tools that can be used to track message delivery, have customizable interfaces, allow for two-way communications and have targeted outreach capabilities. This allows recipients to flag the topics they are interested in, giving messages a greater chance for consumption.

With all of these new options available, why limit communication to only emergency situations?

Take Baltimore, Maryland’s Coppin State University (CSU), for example. CSU linked its emergency notification system to its course management platform and started sending automated exam and assignment reminders that were personalized to students’ specific classes. Students receive direct phone messages, emails or texts from professors with information on office hours to tutoring – and they consistently share positive feedback, noting the reminders help them stay on track and maintain high GPAs.

In July 2012, CSU’s Enrollment Management department also sent voicemail and text messages to more than 1,000 returning students who were eligible to enroll, but had not yet done so for the fall 2012 semester. This tactic aided in an immediate 20 percent increase of enrolled students.

Federal Way Public Schools, a large district located between Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, uses its system to send parents daily attendance notifications at both the middle and secondary levels. As a result, the district experienced a 70 percent reduction in unexcused absences – a huge boost that is instrumental to ensuring adequate student performance on standardized tests. The school also sends messages if a student is in jeopardy of falling below a C. Messages are sent every two weeks to ensure parents have sufficient time to act before the next reporting period.

Westminster College, a private liberal arts college in Salt Lake City, uses its two-way SMS system to connect with prospective students. The school recently sent out 800 text messages asking if recipients planned to complete an application and – almost immediately – received a reply from 48 percent of the target audience.

Though often adopted for emergencies, there is no reason these systems should remain on standby. Providing regular updates tailored to recipients’ specific preferences – on the topics they’re interested in – can save time, resources and boost engagement. Using these systems on an ongoing basis ensure message senders and recipients are familiar with a system should an urgent situation arise, which can make all the difference. 

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