A person reads a text message on a cell phone.
Climatext, an app invented at VCU, assesses student sentiments about campus climate — including concerns related to coronavirus — in real time. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

How are VCU students feeling about COVID-19? A new system is helping VCU find out, and respond to their concerns

Climatext, invented at VCU, assesses student sentiments about campus climate — including related to coronavirus — in real time.

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The outbreak of coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is sparking concern as the number of cases grows across the country and in Virginia. To better understand and address the concerns of Virginia Commonwealth University students, the university has deployed a new technology invented at VCU that can measure in real time how students are feeling about COVID-19.

The technology, called Climatext (pronounced klahy-mat-iks), allows VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success to send out text messages to VCU students who signed up voluntarily to ask about their thoughts and feelings. The students then respond with whatever they’d like to say, even if it’s just an emoji. The system collects anonymized responses and allows the university to score sentiment — positive, neutral or negative — for specific populations of students, such as those who live on or off campus, by age, gender, race, first-generation or not, and more.

“Every university, and every company, strives to become more responsive to their students [and] more responsive to their employees,” said Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., vice president of the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success and professor and director of the VCU Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. “When you conduct climate surveys, it takes awhile to collect the data, to evaluate the data and then to put into action any remedies you want to have. Climatext allows you to do it within a matter of days rather than a matter of months or even years.”

Nasim developed Climatext with Sam Yerkes and Jim Yucha in the Web Services office of VCU Technology Services.

It was first piloted in 2019, asking students, for example, how they felt around exam time. And it was deployed on March 3 to assess student sentiment about COVID-19 as part of VCU’s proactive monitoring and response plan to the coronavirus outbreak. The student sentiment data, which will continue to be collected, will be used to inform strategic communication efforts and to target support services for student constituent groups.

The students were prompted to respond to the message: “Based on what you’re hearing, reading and seeing about the coronavirus (COVID-19), how is this affecting you as a VCU student?”

There was a 49.8% response rate within 24 hours. Data were collected and coded using proprietary software conceptualized and developed by Yerkes, Yucha and Nasim.

Among the initial findings: VCU students ages 18 to 34 were more anxious about COVID-19 than older students, female students reported more anxiety than males, Pell grant-eligible students appeared to be more wary of the outbreak, and on-campus student residents expressed higher levels of concern and anxiety than students living off campus.

The initial survey also found that underrepresented minority and Asian students appeared more concerned about COVID-19 than their white classmates. For example, one student replied, “I’m more aware of my race as Asian American and I’m preparing myself for the racism and ignorance that will come with recent news.”

Findings from a VCU Climate Advisory issued by Institutional Equity, Effectiveness & Success directly informed a March 10 message from VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., that updated the VCU and VCU Health community about COVID-19.

“I ask that you continue to be mindful and respectful of other people, as this outbreak is not limited to any one age group, geographic region, nationality, or ethnicity and race,” Rao wrote.

IES has since expanded on its climate advisory by providing further guidance (listed under “Institutional Equity”) for cases of discrimination related to COVID-19 at VCU. Additionally, IES plans to follow up with the community more broadly by hosting a virtual dialogue for students titled “How Coronavirus Affects Me” on March 27 from noon-1:30 p.m. and a session for faculty and staff on March 30 at 8-9:30 a.m. Both sessions are organized through RAMmalogues and sponsored by IExcel Education

When you conduct climate surveys, it takes awhile to collect the data, to evaluate the data and then to put into action any remedies you want to have. Climatext allows you to do it within a matter of days rather than a matter of months or even years.

Climatext currently has roughly 500 registered students. VCU students interested in signing up can register at https://universe.vcu.edu/.

“Ready to make a difference?” the registration site asks. “It’s simple. We text you. You (anonymously) text back your thoughts and feelings. VCU becomes a better place. You earn free things.”

Students are offered rewards for participating. Each time a prompt is sent, a student can respond to enter a chance to win a MacBook Pro, RamTech at VCU gift cards, Starbucks gift cards and even a chance to become eligible for a paid internship with VCU’s Division for Inclusive Excellence.

Climatext came about after Yerkes, the VCU Webmaster, and Yucha, director of Web Services and deputy director of Application Services, were approached by Nasim with an idea to develop a platform for students to anonymously express how they are feeling, especially in a time where the increasing pressures of college life continue to distract students from their education.

“After iterating on the business requirements and a delivery platform (mobile application or website) I came up with the idea of using SMS texting because it is a familiar communication mechanism for students and doesn’t require downloading and keeping a separate app on each participant’s smartphone,” Yerkes said. “I believed in the value of Dr. Nasim’s idea so much that I coded the majority of the beta version over the winter holiday in December 2018 and January 2019.”

During the summer of 2019, Yerkes said, VCU started testing it with a small selection of student users.

“The moment a prompt from the application goes out to students I get excited,” Yerkes said. “It’s like having hundreds of SMS conversations all at once.”

Charles Klink, Ph.D., VCU's senior vice provost for student affairs, said he believes Climatext will be a "revolutionary technology to assess, in real time, campus climate."

"This technology allows students to let us know their current thoughts, concerns and feelings," he said. "In turn, we are able to be more responsive to their needs. Instead of a survey that solicits student feedback that is dated by the time of analysis, it creates a thread of feedback, tailored to different groupings of students, for immediate consideration and intervention. It is genius."

Climatext will continue to be used to assess student sentiment about VCU’s campus climate, including listening to and responding to student concerns over COVID-19. On March 11, Rao announced that, in light of the outbreak, VCU is extending spring break through Sunday, March 22 and will shift of all undergraduate classes to remote instruction beginning Monday, March 23. 

“The university really wants to know where the gaps are, which constituent populations need more support or services tailored toward them,” Nasim said. “Rather than making assumptions about which populations would benefit from resource support, we can now target groups that are feeling a certain kind of way or sensing an environment that not everyone else is sensing. That’s going to help with retention, that’s going to help with health concerns, that’s going to help our university to ensure the success of its employees, patients and students.”

Yerkes said it is exciting to see the application being used to gain critical feedback from students amid a rapidly changing situation such as the COVID-19 outbreak.

“To date, we’ve run Climatext during finals week and also during the current COVID-19 situation. The familiarity of SMS communication lends itself to soliciting very candid responses, almost as if you were texting with a friend. With the COVID-19 situation, we saw students submit very sincere feedback that at times were intimate and vulnerable. I’m thrilled that this platform allows VCU administration a look into the student body while they make critical organizational decisions.”

Brent Fagg, licensing associate with VCU Innovation Gateway in VCU’s Office of Research and Innovation, said there has been strong interest from other universities looking to adopt Climatext to assess their own students’ sentiments.

“Climatext has quickly proven its value in helping VCU’s senior leadership stay ahead of students' concerns in our rapidly shifting news environment,” he said.