Virginia Tech After Thoughts: How Can Information Technology Help

I know I am not the only one deeply saddened and disturbed by the events that unfolded on the campus of Virginia Tech yesterday. Blacksburg is a town not much unlike State College in many ways and it saw the deadliest mass shooting in the history of our Country. As a parent my body is filled with a dark feeling that I cannot shake — each of the 30-plus victims were the children of people just like us. I know what these college students are like — I see their faces every single day here at Penn State. I’ve taught the freshman on their first day of classes and have seen the fear and excitement in their eyes … I’ve worked with them as they’ve grown to be on the verge of graduation and have seen how driven and committed they are. What wonderful young people many of them are and the unlimited potential to be leaders in anything they set their minds to. In an instant yesterday 30 of them died, dozens were physically wounded, and thousands more left emotionally scarred forever. It is a dark feeling.

I have worried about a scenario like this for years on my own campus … I teach and there are times I feel unsafe. These same students who are so full of promise are also pushed to the edge of their breaking point via academic and social pressures. There are times you can see how people can snap. Many students find normal outlets for their emotional stress — sports, groups, clubs, parties, and many other activities that are designed in many ways to help balance the emotional strain higher education can inflict. I have worried about violence in my classrooms and in my office and I am thinking more and more about how we as information technologists could make a difference. I for one would love to know what you do on your campuses in the case of an emergency. I know there are others starting this conversation as well … as an update, there is a good article at MSNBC today.

Here are my early thoughts on using technology to help be proactive in times of emergency (and we can lump weather, pandemic response, and violent actions into this):

  • Cell Phones: Recent PSU survey data indicates that 93% of our students own cell phones. Many of these phones have text messaging capabilities. As a first line of communications, I think we should establish a campaign to have all students have a mandatory sign up to receive only emergency text messages from the University. We already have an “Alerts SMS” service in place … let’s leverage the infrastructure and take it to the next level through education and awareness.
  • Email: There is a huge push to not email stuff to students — we say they don’t read it. But at the end of the day it is a very low barrier to entry option that can and should be used for things like this. Educate them that only specific emails will come through from the University and use special subject lines to notify them.
  • Home Page & Blog Space: Pull the typical home page and replace it with the news burst. Not too tough, but a critical step in getting the word out. I would also link it to an emergency response blog or other easy to update news source that can be constantly refreshed as more information comes in. This could also be a first step towards an emergency RSS feed.
  • Twitter: Maybe not Twitter itself, but an instant ad-hoc tool that allows information to flow very quickly. Earlier this year when PSU closed because of weather most of the the people I know first heard about the closure via Twitter. The message provided by the University was a little confusing and the instant conversation that erupted on Twitter saved a lot of people the need to call or travel into work for clarity. I’m not sure how this would go down, but a quick and easy PSU Twitter environment would make sense.
  • ANGEL CMS: Last month we had about 70,000 students with activity in ANGEL. ANGEL is our University-wide course management system. Most students log in not only everyday, but several times a day. In the case of an emergency the log in page on ANGEL should be instantly replaced with any emergency related content. That could be done from anywhere on and off campus. Additionally, the impact from the canceling of classes for weather or pandemic purposes could be lessened with stronger training for faculty on the use of closure day activities that can be remotely scheduled and supported — post an article, open a discussion board, use Adobe Connect to give a lecture. The tools we have can support and inform students in extreme and not so extreme cases.
  • The FaceBook: In an age where most of us (I am pointing the finger at me as a higher education administrator and instructor) are bemoaning the effects of social network tools, we are missing one of the greatest opportunities of all time. 90% of PSU students are in the FB and many of them report at least daily log ins — 25% spend more than 5 hours a week in it! THis morning I searched for a list of victims at VA Tech and what turned up first (via was a FB group started by VA Tech students. This instant community happened for many reasons, but the one that jumps out at me is that the FB is easy and instantly available to our students. In many cases, they can use tools like that to inform one another quickly. Why aren’t we working more closely with the FB people to find ways to leverage the environment in moments of extreme emergency? I could see an easy way that anytime someone logged into the PSU FB, they would see a massive alert before they could move on to their profile and other information. I know it is possible, it is a matter of making the connections with the FB people. How about a PSU account that we ask all students to become friends with so U-wide announcements show up in their news feed upon log in?
  • University Cable System: Students all have access to the PSU campus cable system in the dorms. We have our own channels … use them. Don’t over use them — save the use for extreme cases.
  • Greater Use of Card Access Systems: One of the things that jumps out at me in the VA Tech situation was the inability for faculty and students to keep the gunman out of the classrooms. Physical security can never be overlooked … in many cases, physical security is a critical first step in protecting anything. We lock the front doors of our homes to protect ourselves and our children — why not do the same thing for them while they are in class? Every corporate campus I visit is a total card access system — every single door. Might be time to consider this … we have the class lists, the ID cars have the information on it, we know what classes they are in, and can mange that within a system.
  • Kiosk Systems: In our student Union (the Hub) we have flat panels all over the place running advertisements for campus events, clubs, and other things. These should instantly flip over to a bold announcement … easy enough.

This is just a morning after brain dump … what are we doing wrong? Our campuses are huge — it could take you an hour to walk from one end to the other here at PSU. How do we physically secure these environments? I’m not sure we can, but we can be more vigilant and proactive in our use of the tools we have at our fingertips to help avoid another VA Tech situation. All of this costs money, requires resources, and screams for a plan — can we avoid doing it and feel good? I can’t.

9 thoughts on “Virginia Tech After Thoughts: How Can Information Technology Help

  1. This is a good list… I have been working on a ‘twitter clone’ here and should have it up and running in May. It actually *works* now but we are hung up on recieving SMS… What a pain, but not a big deal I don’t think. It was designed with this type of scenerio in mind although I was using the focus of ‘what if its a snow day.’ Happier place.

    I will certainly be refocusing our efforts to make this app as multi-faceted as possible. It will be open source of course 😉

  2. I agree completely… I’m in another world now, but having worked at the university for over 5 years, these things are all very important. There were many times I feared for my security and many times I was looking for a way out if necessary. I cannot believe that classroom doors cannot be locked from the inside. I cannot believe that in this day and age we don’t require a card swipe to get in a class. I cannot believe that it took Va Tech over two hours to send an email blast to students. All inexcusable. None of them on their own could have stopped this, but crisis management is all about prevention and mitigation. You obviously try to prevent it from happening, but if and when it does happen, you mitigate the effects. Containing this gunman to one place and making him have to shoot out doors to get anywhere else slows him down (and I use the word him in a very intentional sexist manner). Slow him down allows for emergency response and decreases the number of fatalities.

    And I think I mentioned to you, that e-learning has to be for “emergency learning” too. Anytime there is a security, health, or weather risk, keep everyone home until we know fully what is going on. One day in class is not worth 30 lives. We have the technology to engage students electronically. I agree with you completely — we need to use it.

    Oh, and gun control. But I won’t go there.

  3. If you know someone that has a GSM modem or a phone hooked into a computer that is acting like a SMS gateway please send them my way. We can certainly send out email to SMS but we can’t recieve without going with a gateway provider and they are extremely expensive for a uni budget.

  4. Having been in a crisis which required contacting folks on campus, two hours is a little long to send email to everyone, but it is not too surprising. Aside from the chain of command issues to get an email crafted and approved, the technical issues sending 20-30K emails simultaneously can be a serious problem.

    At Mississippi, we developed a system to send emails in batches so it would not overwhelm the spam filters and email server(s). I figure it would take 30 minutes or so to complete. Then the students would need to actually check their email…

    I think a multiprong approach using Cole’s ideas would be a good idea, but to also ‘batch job’ the notifications. Say hitting 10% of the cellphones, 10% of the email addresses, etc. in turn, thus not overloading the system. From what I have been hearing, once the second shooting occurred at VT, the cellphone system was overwhelmed…

    Eric Aitala
    Former U. Miss Webmaster

  5. being an alum*2 and having family in blacksburg … i gotta tell you.
    the ‘kids’ are all over this.

    In the past, Penn State students have been great at getting White-outs organized during home football games. Now it’s time to help out a good cause. Due to the tragic events at VA Tech, Instead of wearing Blue & White this weekend during the game, wear the VT school colors to show your respects. And even if you can’t make the game for whatever reason, still wear their colors.
    Go Hokies, you are in all our memories.

    get out your orange hoodies.

  6. I would not count too much on the “Alerts SMS” system. Use it, but don’t count on it.

    I was just reading an article titled “Wireless Problems Played Part in Chaos at Virginia Tech” over at (,1759,2115133,00.asp). Here is a quote:

    Many students reported being unable to gain access to the wireless phone system either to place a voice call or to send text messages. The reason appeared to be due to a massive increase in wireless call volume, according to carriers serving the Virginia Tech campus.

  7. A weird path of link-clicking brought me here this morning…but reading got me to thinking about the resources we have or are working on creating…

    Cell phones are ubiquitous but why does PSUTXT only have a few thousand subscribers? Simple, students wonder why they should have to pay to receive a text message from the university, especially if it’s information they don’t want. Am I signed up for it…of course but, when I knew about the cancellations and others didn’t and they asked why…they just didn’t want to pay the $.10 to receive it. How do you work out with the vendors to make it “cost-neutral” for the student. Also, from what I’ve noticed during football weekends…text messages almost always get through faster than hitting redial 10 times. Cingular/AT&T and Verizon have learned from not having enough capacity around town on those 8 weekends.

    From a standpoint of displays, we’ve got access to over 2,000 17” LCDs in the labs that we can change the screen saver in just a few minutes and control from our desks. We also have the technology in place to broadcast messages to those users actively using the machines. I know we’ve also begun to look into digital signage on all of the classrooms to broadcast availability…another display that will probably be able to be managed centrally.

    The resources are in place and becoming better controlled as Kellogg mentioned…it’s now an issue of trying to bring everyone on the same page and figure out how to leverage what we’ve got.

  8. it seems to me that we’re thinking in pre-web terms. that is, we are trying to communicate from A-to-B (sender to receiver) in very linear fashion.

    networks (including human networks) are interesting because they are NOT linear.

    so, the question (imo) should be;
    what communication (or network) node, or combination of nodes, need to be contacted to facilitate the rapid spread of information?

    or, perhaps, are communication networks even capable of spreading information in the timeframe required in an emergency?

    i suspect this requires much more knowledge, though i would guess (from some of barbasi’s work) that a web2.0 process would be effective in days/hrs, but NOT hrs/minutes.
    e.g., the maroon&orange facebook group (in prior post) went from ~200 members to ~3000 in approx. 18hrs.

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