Universities staying in touch with students by cell

College students have come to view cell phones over the years as a social need. Before long, they may find them to be an academic necessity as well.

In collaboration with mobile phone technology firms, some universities are looking to make cell phones an extension of their digital information systems, allowing students to keep up-to-date on campus information while on-the-go.

This fall, Montclair State University, the City University of New York and the University of South Florida teamed up with Rave Wireless to develop campus-based networks that let students access anything from class schedules to cafeteria menus directly from their cell phones. Ten additional schools are set to launch systems with the company next semester.

In addition, the Gainesville, Fla.-based company Campus Mobile provides a similar service to the University of Florida and is currently negotiating with 38 other schools to sign on in the near future.

The services allow universities to issue text message alerts to students in the case of class cancellations or campus emergencies. Moreover, student organizations can register with the system to keep their members posted on upcoming events.

The idea behind the venture is for universities to make practical use of a technology that already pervades the student landscape. Todd Piett, vice president for marketing for Rave Wireless, said such a project is long overdue.

“We felt that in terms of the capabilities of what a mobile phone can do, it was very under-utilized,” Piett said. “People were doing all sorts of different things, but they weren’t tying these bits and pieces together in an easy to use fashion that students could use.”

Before launching the project commercially, Rave enlisted a group of 100 students at Montclair and CUNY to develop a pilot program to determine what kind of information services students would use most. Universities that sign up with the company can create their own custom program to suit their particular campus.

At Montclair, which is largely a commuter campus, one of the service’s key features is the ability to access real-time shuttle schedules that update as delays occur. The technology also allows for information to be targeted to a specific part of the student body, such as residents of a particular dorm room or students within a certain academic department.

Yet as the technology expands, a number of technological complexities look to complicate its growth. Not all phone models and service providers are compatible with the service, and many of the program’s features require Web access, which is still not a feature of many mainstream phones.

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