Gauging the issues with VCU-made texting software

Institutions of higher learning are increasingly making efforts to tap into campus climate as a mechanism for affecting policy.

Few technologies, however, can analyze, translate and disseminate data collection results to policy makers and university leaders as quickly as VCU’s Climatext.

Climatext is an anonymous text-messaging platform by which VCU students choose to participate in data collection on hyper-local issues. It’s been used to check the temperature, if you will, on VCU’s stance on remote learning or vaccination mandates. It’s also been used to check broader regional and national issues of cultural, political, and socio-economic significance.

The product was envisioned in late 2018 by Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., vice president and vice provost for VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success. The vision was realized with the support of Jim Yucha, deputy director of application services at VCU Technology Services, and Sam Yerkes, VCU’s former webmaster. VCU Innovation Gateway worked with Nasim to protect the invention. Today, thanks to aggressive campus campaigns, it counts upwards of 1,000 participants that collectively represent the diverse VCU’s student body — from gender and ethnicity to majors, first-generation status, and more.

Demographics are key, Nasim said. When a student opts in, Climatext uses their cell phone numbers to access student records. Identifiers that would link that phone number to an individual student are removed, so Climatext responses remain anonymous.

Climatext works fast, often aggregating data within a matter of hours so that it can be available for analysis within a day or two. Traditional collection methods, whether old-fashioned paper-and-pencil surveys or even modern online questionnaires, often take months to analyze, Nasim said, which means “whatever the issue was at the moment has already passed.”

“It’s not just about collecting the data in real time,” Nasim says. “It’s really about what we do with it and how it affects change.”

One example: Climatext data was used by VCU President Michael Rao when decisions were made to open the campus for the fall of 2020.

“It plays a huge role in terms of our policy making,” Nasim said, “but also for program support that we provide to students and faculty.”

Within the last five years, collegiate senior administrators everywhere “have more of a vested interest in understanding student concerns and being able to meet students where they are,” Nasim said, particularly with regards to issues of race and gender, “so they can make responsive decisions and provide accommodations to make sure all students see their institution as being inclusive and welcoming.”

Just how universities and colleges do that, however, Nasim said, “is where we distinguish ourselves as an institution.”