When Hurricane Sandy made its impact on the East Coast last month, the University of Massachusetts was using Twitter, Facebook, its website, texts and email to communicate with students about closings and other relevant information.
“Technology has given us the opportunity to communicate with the UMass community in every possible avenue,” said UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons. “From broadcast emails reaching everyone, to mass text messages, and with our social media accounts, it is much easier to communicate with everyone during times of crisis.”
During Hurricane Sandy, social media played an important role in how the University communicated with students. Many students asked the University questions about services such as if the dining commons were open through Facebook and other social media.
“I kept hitting the refresh button on my computer, trying to see if there was any new information regarding the storm,” said UMass sophomore Eben Spalding. “And I was actually on the homepage of the UMass website when they posted the announcement that school would be cancelled the next day.”
Freshman Kelsey Crawford remembered getting a Tweet on her phone from the UMass Twitter page as well as a text message alert.
“It was pretty convenient and I was able to get this information very quickly,” Crawford said.
Hurricane Sandy wasn’t the first time UMass used these technologies to communicate during emergencies. In the 2011 October snowstorm on Halloween weekend, the University relied on these forms of communication to update students and workers on power outages, and a mass email was sent out to let the community know that school would be cancelled.
“When powerful storms are in the area, the faculty comes together to decide on what to do. Once we come up with a decision, we let everyone know about it through email, text messaging, Twitter, and all of our other resources to get this information to as many people as possible,” said Fitzgibbons.
Universities are becoming increasingly involved in more and more forms of media, according to a Sept. 10 article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. The article discussed the difficulty of the balancing act Universities face in trying to reach the most students possible, without becoming annoying an annoying presence on social media websites.
“Everybody’s looking for a silver bullet (that allows them to reach the most possible students),” said Eric Stoller, a consultant who advises colleges and universities on their use of social media in the Chronicle article. “They want it to be Facebook or Twitter or a blog or Pinterest.”
UMass is no exception, employing almost all of these methods to engage with students both in emergencies and to simply spread the word about campus happenings.
In addition to the official Twitter feeds, both Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life Jean Kim, among other campus officials, have Twitter feeds specific to their jobs on campus. The Isenberg School of Management even has a Pinterest where it posts tips for what appropriate business wear looks like.
These technologies are still fairly new to the University, according to Fitzgibbons. The Facebook page and Twitter account are only about two years old, and the mass text messaging system is relatively new as well.
Fitzgibbons – a graduate of UMass – remembers when it wasn’t so easy for the University to connect with students. He said that in fall 1979, Amherst lost some water due to warmer weather and there was an intense drought.
“The university police had to patrol the campus, informing everyone to leave the area until the water supply was restored, and the news basically spread like that,” Fitzgibbons said. “We couldn’t get text message alerts or even emails at that time. It was all through verbal communication.”
The University’s Office of Emergency Management will continue to search for methods on how to improve communication between the faculty and the university community through technological resources, Fitzgibbons said.
“As technology evolved, we updated our methods to make sure that our means of communication became more convenient to reach our students and workers,” said Fitzgibbons. “We will always be on the lookout for possible means that will make it easier for us to communicate with the university to make sure everyone is informed and safe.”
Daniel Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.