February 08, 2005

Cellular phones becoming extensions of classroom

by Bonnie Marx


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — It wasn't so long ago that talking on the telephone meant being tethered to a spot by the cord. When cellular telephones — digital wireless technology — stampeded into the mass market about a decade ago, they quickly became a universal favorite.

Now professors and staff at Southern Illinois University Carbondale are working to make the ubiquitous cellular phone an extension of the classroom.

Only one other university uses short messaging service or "texting" to communicate with students, but its only purpose is marketing. SIUC is the first to test the waters for academic use. Meet "Dawgtel."

No, it's not spam by telephone. That's the biggest misconception, says Gordon C. Bruner, SIUC professor of marketing. "Up front, everyone sees spam written all over it," he said. "It's a big educational challenge."

It works by registering "receivers" — those who receive text messages — and recruiting "senders" — those who send messages — including local and national businesses and organizations, who will pay a fee to the University to advertise their products or events.

"We want to make it as free as possible for the University," Bruner said.

People who want to receive the text messages will complete a detailed form that allows total control over the messages they want to receive. Senders, on the other hand, can specify a target group and find out instantly how many names are in the group.

Bruner said professors might send messages to class members for such reasons as correcting an in-class error or sending out deadline and date reminders and announcements.

A placement center might send out news of externships and career fairs or to inform people of unexpected interview openings and job tips.

On the commercial side, Bruner expects the service to appeal to such establishments as restaurants, bookstores, tanning salons, video rental, hair salons and many others.

So, if you're a receiver, your self-completed profile will keep your text messages narrowly focused. Suppose you hate Chinese food and love pizza, but only from one particular establishment — it's on your profile. Only messages from those chosen by the receiver are allowed.

Senders get the opportunity to specify certain consumers (males ages 20-25, in the 62901 ZIP code, with an interest in computers, for instance), assuring them messages reach only their target audience without having to use a shotgun approach.

Dawgtel also will work with pagers or through e-mail, "but mainly it's a cell phone thing," Bruner said.

Dawgtel, the brainchild of Information Technologies, which provides the service, and the College of Business and Administration, which provides the marketing expertise, moves into phase two of the program next summer and early fall, when students and professors at the college will test Dawgtel for usefulness and efficiency.

In the meantime, Bruner and his colleagues will offer initial seminars for local vendors in an effort "not so much to sell but to educate," he said. "We're bending over backward to make people feel comfortable."

They'll also be soliciting more professors and staff members around the University.

"If all goes well, we will be the model," Bruner said.

Bruner gets keen enjoyment from being the first one out of the gate on the issue. "How many times are we on the cutting edge, in control, versus begging?" he said.

On the academic side, Bruner sees Dawgtel as a phenomenon that will lead to papers, presentations and articles that will help set the stage for what happens in years to come. Already five students completed projects about Dawgtel.

Bruner already knows that the future of Dawgtel will be constantly evolving, as short messaging service evolves into multimedia messaging service, and as print advertising and video come into the picture.

"We know what's going to happen," he said. "We have the opportunity to have a national service over time, maybe within a year or two. We just have to learn to walk before we run."

Leading in research, creative and scholarly activity is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(Caption: Unique approach – Gordon C. Bruner, a professor of marketing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is working to develop Dawgtel, a short messaging service available to cell phone users, as an extension of the classroom. Students and faculty in the College of Business and Administration will test the service next summer and Bruner hopes to have Dawgtel in full swing by the start of fall semester.)

Photo by Steve Buhman