The Social Web Steps Up

I have been amazed at how the Social Web has stepped up in the face of the VA Tech tragedy. The major news sources were the first to the scene, but with content mostly contributed by i-Reporters … shortly there after, youtube was flooded with videos showing different views of what what had unfolded and tributes to victims. If you spend some time at Flickr you can see first hand what was going on during and after the events on Monday. These sites gave us all a view that we would never had gotten prior to current user-generated scene we are all living in and was certainly the fastest way to start understanding what was going — news conferences just didn’t cut it.

Perhaps the most interesting and amazing of all these spaces is the FaceBook. Instantly, FB groups emergered from all corners of their networks. Within hours, the PSU FB Network had already errupted into a half dozen groups. I searched for stuff from my Alma Mater, WVU, and instantly found the same thing going on there. Here at PSU, students rallied together to decide to create a giant VT in the stands of the annual Blue and White Spring football game this weekend — all within the FB. Within hours of the group forming it had over 800 members … all of them committed to showing support for VT.

I think this my be a turning point in our appreciation of tools like the FB. Students understand the power of social tools and so many of us are now seeing just how amazing these tools are for creating instant community opportunities. What I am also finding so interesting is how traditional news and the social sites are playing off each other to round out each other’s coverage. A traditional news site pulling profiles of victims from friends’ stories all over the web is just one example. Almost all of what I found on the FB was publicly accessible, so I am sure reporters used these same self-organized social spaces to discover much of the information they are reporting in the traditional news environment. In great respect of the tragedy, I find it all very interesting and think we are stepping into new waters — waters where traditional news sources (and the general public) have gained a new appreciation for user-generated content. I also think it starts the FB down a path of general acceptance and as a hub of information gathering and distribution.

VA Tech … What to Say?

At this point I am unsure of how to say what I am feeling … my community has been rocked. I don’t live in Blacksburg, VA but I might as well … I live in a sleepy college town and I spend all of my time in higher education. I know these kids — not the ones from Tech, but students just like them who are too young to really know what is going on around them … but yet old enough to know all too well what they are feeling. I feel for them and I want to find a way to reach out to them all.

I am hurting and I am saddened by the images I see on TV. I am dismayed at the lack of answers to the questions our media is asking and I have to ask myself how can this happen to so many innocent people. Several of my colleagues here at PSU have said that they haven’t felt this way since 9/11 … I haven’t either. What terrifies me is that we have a reference point for this kind of feeling.

I look into the eyes of my two children, babies really, and am horrified that they have to grow up in a place like this. A place where violence and death is real. A place where hate is palpable … a place where going to work in the greatest city in the world or attending classes in the Blue Ridge Mountains has become deadly. I am just at a loss for words and thoughts. My heart goes out to all the families of the victims … my heart goes out to all the students, faculty, and staff of VA Tech … my heart goes out to all of us.

I hope we can all look down the road and decide it is time to think differently about things like mental health, gun control, privacy, protection, service, and so much more … I am sick of political perspectives and I am sick of apathy. We are all members of our communities — higher education, towns, cities, whatever … it is time to step up. I am not sure if this is the last post I make on this subject, but I can guarantee it will not be my last thought. I am sorry to go off topic here, but at this moment, writing is the only thing that is keeping me from crying.

The greatest thing I have heard through all this is, “today, we are all VA Tech Hokies.”

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.