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Students Don’t Always Get the [Electronic] Message

Georgia Tech posterOn August 1, NPR’s health blog, Shots, reported on the effectiveness of campus communications at Georgia Tech after a massive outbreak of pneumonia sickened 83 students last fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the outbreak was “the largest reported at a university in 35 years,” causing five students to be hospitalized.
The University leapt into action, alerting students of the health risk via email, social media, updates to their website and printed posters,  and reminding students to wash their hands frequently, cover their coughs with their elbows and stay home if they felt sick. But when the CDC surveyed students about the communication they received about the outbreak the results were disappointing. In fact, the majority of students (54 percent) weren’t even aware there had been an outbreak. Even more shocking, among those who had heard about it, only 2 percent learned from social media.
The news is discouraging, especially for those of us who have spent long hours in crisis meetings, followed by late nights crafting messages and disseminating and information in all the same ways as Georgia Tech. But—as students start moving back to campus during the next few weeks—it’s also an important reminder that though we rely on the fact that “students live online,” it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re reading the messages being directed at them. For me, this example has been a great reminder of that, and the fact that some messages are best delivered in person (by professors in classrooms, at town hall meetings, etc.), in addition to the electronic messages we have come to depend on so heavily.