MU evaluates test of new alert system

Friday, July 26, 2013 | 5:49 p.m. CDT; updated 9:52 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 27, 2013

COLUMBIA — Thanks to MU's new alert system vendor, Blackboard Connect, there might be less instances of students tromping through the snow to class only to find out classes were canceled. But there will still be some who don't receive the text alerts.

MU was evaluating Thursday's test of a new alert system's texting feature. Anecdotal evidence pointed toward the new program getting more messages through at a faster rate than the old program, but official statistical evidence was unavailable at this point to tell for sure what times messages were received.

With the previous system, many people signed up for the alerts didn't receive them at all. Terry Robb, an MU Division of Technology spokesman, said he compared the report from Thursday's test to the report from Feb. 21 when an alert was sent out announcing school was back in session after a winter storm.

"I never got my text message with the Feb. 21 alert at all," Robb said. "And I'm the administrator."

Robb said he received Thursday's alert test message within one minute after it was sent.

Of the 14,741 people signed up to receive text alerts, 11,868 texts were sent Thursday as a test of the new system through Blackboard Connect, Robb said.

That means 2,873 text messages were not sent out. Robb said he does not know why those weren't sent, but he said he is going to find out the reason for the discrepancy with his contacts at Blackboard in order for it to be fixed so everyone who signed up for text messaging receives an alert.

But even if all the texts are getting sent out, MU cannot verify whether some texts were received because once they send the texts, phone companies sometimes decide the messages are spam and do not push them through to people, he said.

"They were successfully sent to 99 percent of the 11,868 we sent Thursday," Robb said.

When 40 people around campus were asked Friday when they received the messages, 15 said they received a message before 9:05 a.m., which is within 15 minutes of the original message being sent. Fifteen people surveyed were not signed up to receive the text messages at all. Two said they received the messages in the afternoon and both said they use AT&T. 

Eight people said they were signed up for the alerts, but never got them. Three used AT&T, one used Sprint, one used T-Mobile and three declined to say which phone company they used.

There were different reasons as to why some of the messages weren't sent. About 100 numbers were invalid, Robb said. In addition, some numbers were international phone numbers and texting was not enabled on them, he said.

There are two methods of sending text messages to people. One method sends the messages as a SMS text from Blackboard, and the other sends the messages through an email address. Based on anecdotal results, the SMS message seemed to come within one to five minutes and the messages via email came an average of ten minutes after the SMS message, Robb said.

The SMS message will be the preferred method in the future, but he said many statistics about the delivery of these messages are unavailable to MU. The SMS messages seemed to be coming in a lot faster, he said. But administrators can't know exactly what time everyone is getting the message on average because it depends on whether the phone company sends the messages through or treats them as spam. Robb said his office can only see when and if the messages were sent out.

"It looks generally all right," Robb said.

He said MU plans to do a campus wide test in September or October when more people are signed up for the program to get a more accurate count of how the program will function.

It's too early for him to say for sure whether the program works better than the old one because he said he doesn't know the new program that well yet. But given the speed and the accuracy of the people he talked to, he said he thinks it's going to work out just fine.

People can sign up for the text message alerts on MU Alert's website.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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