For Ron Chicken and other freshmen at Montclair State University, the new freedoms that presumably came with college age included a mandatory cell phone with which the school could pinpoint their whereabouts on or off campus.

“I think some didn’t like the idea that they had to have it, and some thought it was a new way to track them,” said Chicken, 19, now preparing to enter his sophomore year at the New Jersey college.

But Chicken said that as time passed, students realized that the voluntary tracking system offered added safety and that the required phone had many useful functions.

“Most people have adjusted to it,” said Chicken, now a fan.

With nine out of 10 college students carrying cell phones–and many of them using traditional landline phones rarely or not at all–schools are seeking new ways to maintain a line of communication while deploying technologies they believe students want and need.

As eSchool News first reported in May, some colleges are abandoning the wires and phone jacks in their dormitories. Many of those systems, formerly a source of extra revenue for institutions, now operate at a loss. (See story: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=6310.)

As a replacement, some are introducing their own cellular services and handsets customized to connect students with campus services and information, while adding new tools for security–such as optional Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking–and instruction.

“Communicating with students on a regular basis has become a challenge, and schools are looking for ways to address that issue as well as safety,” said Patricia Scott, a spokeswoman for ACUTA, an association of communications technology professionals in academia.

Although the phone technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) poses another viable option with the spread of broadband access on campuses, some experts see folly in trying steer a wireless-minded generation of students toward anything but a cell phone.

Technology experts and educational groups say they haven’t quantified the number of schools replacing landlines with other technologies. ACUTA estimates that fewer than half the schools in North America have installed VoIP networks, but more are expected to do so in the future.

The University of Scranton in Pennsylvania plans to drop traditional landline service in its dorms this fall, but the school is not providing a wireless substitute.

“We considered issuing our own cell phone, but that would mean students could end up having two cell phones or having to discard their original one,” said Jerry DeSanto, Scranton’s chief information technology officer.

Initially, to help ensure a way to contact students who don’t always provide their cell numbers or even local addresses to the school, Scranton considered requiring students to enter such information at the school’s web site before they could access certain services. The school has backed away from that requirement, however, because it would be difficult to determine which students actually don’t have a cell. Instead, it is creating a network splash page that will urge them to provide the information.

The cell phone program at Montclair was spurred partly by the decline in revenue once reaped from providing long-distance service to students, as well as by requests from the university’s student life department.

Montclair surveyed students to determine what capabilities they’d want, then partnered with Rave Wireless Inc. to develop those software applications for cell phones. The handsets and wireless coverage are provided through Sprint Nextel Corp.

Students can use the phones to get real-time alerts and information from the university, check class assignments, learn about specials at campus restaurants, or track the location of school shuttle buses through GPS technology. GPS also enables the tracking feature that initially worried some students. Students can activate this “Guardian” service, launched earlier this year, if they ever feel threatened on campus.

“Police can track a student’s trip on a large screen in a bread-crumb sort of way until the student deactivates the service,” said Edward W. Chapel, who helped oversee the program before joining another college.

Montclair initially provided incoming freshmen living on campus with free phones and service for last year’s fall semester. In January, those students were required to pay for the service, starting at $186 per semester. The program is being expanded this coming semester to include the new crop of freshmen regardless of where they live, as well as sophomores living on campus. Students can pay extra for higher-end phones and plans.

Purdue University, meanwhile, has turned to a new service from Boston-based MobileSphere, called MobileU, that bundles multiple communications services–including domestic and international long-distance calling from a residence hall, international long distance from any cell phone, prepaid mobile phone service, free domestic text messaging, international text messaging, and more–into a single solution.

For college administrators, MobileU eliminates the need to secure new business partners as technologies continue to emerge in student communications services, MobileSphere says. MobileU can be hosted on a university’s web site, or schools can put a direct link to the service from their site.

Purdue’s biggest challenge was that many of its international students could not purchase cell phones without Social Security numbers (SSNs), and because many could not work, they could not obtain an SSN. The service reportedly works with any phone students already have, and it includes special features such as PeakAirT, which allows students, faculty, and staff to be reached on campus using a single, virtual number, and JoopzT, which enables students to send free text messages from a PC to a mobile phone and back. Students can set reminders and create group messages for up to 20 people.

“We have successfully partnered with MobileSphere for over a year, and our student customers have benefited from reliable, high-quality, efficient service and competitive international rates,” said Michael A. Brzezinski, Purdue’s director of international students.

Links:

ACUTA
http://www.acuta.org

Montclair State University
http://www.montclair.edu

Rave Wireless Inc.
http://www.ravewireless.com

Sprint Nextel Corp.
http://www.sprint.com

Purdue University
http://www.purdue.edu

MobileSphere
http://www.mobile-sphere.com

MobileU
http://www.mobile-u.net