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Same message, new delivery

Orientation takes high-tech turn for YouTube set

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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The same messages ring out at freshman orientations each fall, delivered via droning panelists, cheesy skits, and dry PowerPoint presentations: Welcome to college. Meet your diverse classmates. Explore a ton of classes and clubs. And don’t cheat, binge drink, or use your roommate’s bed for amorous activities.

And each fall, many incoming college students tune out the talking heads that fill their days-long orientation schedules and - let’s be honest here - nod off.

To capture the attention of the YouTube generation, some Boston colleges are spicing up traditional start-of-the-year programming with short videos, text-messaging polls, and social-networking bulletins like Twitter. Officials at Boston University, Northeastern, Emerson, and Fisher colleges say they hope the technology-infused format will help new students better connect with one another and with their schools, while making the litany of rules more palatable, even entertaining.

“This is the way young people now get their informa tion - from multiple sources, in short bursts, in very visual ways,’’ said Kenneth Elmore, BU’s dean of students.

“In the past, we let presenters go on and on, and students got bored,’’ he said. “They were falling asleep, or they were pulling out their cellphones and texting each other instead of paying attention.’’

So for last week’s orientation, Elmore rolled out a series of videos. In one black-and-white spoof on “The Matrix’’ movie, Elmore donned dark sunglasses and a black overcoat to play an ever-present specter as he warned students against using fake IDs, smoking or selling marijuana, and throwing couches from their dorm windows.

The normally yawn-inducing message - that students should exercise personal responsibility - drew laughs from the crowd of more than 1,000 freshmen.

“I expected orientation to be long and a lot of talking. The videos took away from it being so boring,’’ said Nicole Aviles, a freshman from Connecticut.

Nicolas Coburn, a senior and a leader for new student orientation at Emerson College, sent a video rap to freshmen over the summer to introduce himself and pump them up for the start of school: “Enjoy your summers, but school is gonna rock; at Emerson your boat of life is fin’lly gonna dock; orientation’s gonna take your mind to the extreme; that’s my peace out, gangsta rap, welcome to the team!’’

Emerson orientation leaders typically mail handwritten letters to each freshman, but Coburn decided to film his message to appeal to teenagers more accustomed to the slick medium.

“It would feel more like a chore to read through a two-page letter than just clicking a mouse,’’ said Coburn, 21. “We’re kind of in a YouTube culture right now, and students are easily distracted, so you have to find a way to keep them entertained but at the same time, share information and prepare them for what’s going to be happening when they get to Emerson.’’

Coburn’s 2-minute clip has received more than 630 views on YouTube, and the college has posted it on its new official Facebook page.

To build excitement for incoming BU students this summer, Elmore began using Twitter, an electronic bulletin board that allows users to send messages up to 140 characters long.

“E-mail is for old people,’’ he said. “Students won’t look at them for weeks.’’

As he traversed the country for new-student receptions, Elmore “tweeted’’ his whereabouts to his electronic following of more than 1,700 people.

BU has also embraced text messaging, introducing an interactive poll during this year’s orientation in which students’ responses, sent via text on their cellphones, would show up on giant screens for all to see.

Last week, as they filed into the ballroom at the student union, nearly 300 freshmen had answered a question on what excited them most about coming to BU.

The free-flowing exchange surprised many students, who delighted in seeing their anonymous text messages posted publicly. Some said it calmed their nerves about starting college with a sea of strangers and helped them connect to one another.

“It makes me feel more comfortable knowing that all students are kind of just like me, sort of immature,’’ said Ismael Rasa, a freshman from Belgium, who wrote “laaadies’’ in response to the poll question.

Others wrote about “getting ripped at the fit rec,’’ the BU championship hockey team, and the free cookies left on their chair.

Some posted their phone numbers. Others texted in Chinese, French, or Italian.

“It reflects what’s on our minds and young people’s culture,’’ said Hua Li, a new student from China.

Northeastern University will use the same text-message technology at its orientation this week for a live poll about students’ academic preparation, said David Navick, an associate dean at Northeastern’s college of engineering.

Answers to their question - whether they took calculus in high school and the types of Advanced Placement courses under their belt - will help academic advisers customize the rest of the students’ orientation schedules.

“It’s the lone time in my life where I will say, ‘Please take out your cellphone,’ ’’ Navick said. “It just gives students some confidence if they see some results that look like themselves.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.