Universities Refine Mobile Strategy

As students demand more mobile services, universities shape and align their mobile strategies to provide services that make sense in the big picture.

by Tanya Roscorla / August 10, 2011 0
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed iPhone and Android apps and will consider a mobile web site as part of its mobile strategy. | Screenshot from Mobile UW

As students demand more mobile services, universities shape and align their mobile strategies.

Along the way, they hurdle obstacles, consider mobile apps and websites, and provide students with personalized information.


Universities make progress on mobile strategies

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed a Web presence, a portal and mobile apps for the iPhone and Android platforms. And the university may consider a mobile-optimized website.

"I think the conversation we're having is, 'Ok, there's a strategy, at least implicitly, behind all these efforts, but the strategy is not necessarily aligned,'" said Chris Holsman, director of enterprise Internet services.

To align these efforts, the university is working on a comprehensive governance structure and strategy.

Southeastern Louisiana University has been expanding its Wi-Fi coverage, working more with cell providers and bringing WiMAX on campus through an agreement with Clearwire. The IT team has also developed apps for the iPhone and Android platforms.

"Access for the students must be very easy, it must be reliable and it must be secure," said Mike Asoodeh, assistant vice president for technology. "And when they do access the system, we don't want them to have a long wait."

In May, students checked their grades through the university's mobile website for the first time. They can access information like this through a mobile solution from HighPoint Consulting that's written for the Oracle PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning system.

The university is also developing a mobile strategy for its learning management system. It currently uses Blackboard, but is piloting Moodle.


The obstacles that universities hurdle

As universities develop their mobile strategies, they face a number of challenges.

Financial and human resources limitations

Southeastern Louisiana University has dealt with financial and human resources issues during its mobile push, Asoodeh said. By using student technology fees and other available funds, the university financed the mobile offerings. And it's figuring out how to use current staff to test the new systems.

Keeping up with demand

Students and the public demand access to university information from their smart phones. But the time, effort and costs involved in developing mobile services are fairly substantial, Holsman said.

The university faces the challenge of keeping up with demand while finding enough resources to invest in mobile. So far, the IT team has proceeded as rapidly as it can and made deliberate decisions about strategy.

Time to learn development tools

Developing native mobile apps takes a daunting time investment, said John Lewis, chief software architect of the consulting group Unicon Inc.

"If they're just kind of looking at how to do this from scratch, it can be pretty daunting," said Lewis, a member of the Board of Directors for Jasig, a consortium of colleges, universities and businesses that sponsor open-source software projects.

After brainstorming at the Jasig Unconference in November, a small group of Unicon consultants and universities came up with an idea for a mobile framework. 

Unicon invested its development time, created the initial project roadmap, found sponsors and formed a working group. Developers built uMobile on technology from uPortal, a Jasig open-source enterprise portal framework.

On July 27, version 1.0 released. In the next phase, more universities will help steer and sponsor the project.

As Yale University considers packaging a number of applications together in one place, it sees promise in the open-source project.

"The thing that I think is especially attractive about uMobile is kind of the existing framework for pulling that together and controlling the access for a lot of users," said Susan Bramhall, solution architect in Information Technology Services who's part of the working group.


Providing feature-rich information that's not redundant

The working group includes the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and over the next few months, the university will decide whether to include uMobile in its strategy.

"What we don't want to do is undermine our current efforts by sort of providing another channel for information that either is redundant or not as feature rich," Holsman said. 

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is figuring out how its mobile strategy fits with existing Web and uPortal strategies.

Since uPortal now appears properly in a mobile browser, Holsman's team has to decide what to provide through a mobile portal app and a dedicated app. For example, students can enroll in classes through the portal, but should they also be able to do so through a mobile app on a smart phone? 


The mobile app and website advantages

The University of Wisconsin-Madison developed dedicated apps to take advantage of location awareness and other native capabilities of phones. The native apps also allow the university to provide features that weren't necessarily available on the website or portal.

For example, an app for campus information would allow you to search for libraries on campus, Lewis said. The search would give you the library hours, computer lab station availability and walking directions to the closest library based on your location.

After the Sakai Conference in June, UCLA shared a cautionary tale from its experience that illustrates why universities should have a mobile app, Lewis said. The university had built out a lightweight Web development framework for mobile browsers that colleges and departments could use.

UCLA didn't have any native app plans, but students from USC did. 

They built an app for the iPhone that pulled in content from UCLA Web pages and charged a few bucks for it in the app store. UCLA students started buying it, and when the university figured out what was going on, it asked Apple to remove it.

"The moral of the story is that a lot of users these days aren't going to go find the mobile website for something they're interested in using," Lewis said. "They're going to expect to be able to go to the app store or the Android market."

Southeastern Louisiana University created apps for students at first. And those apps are still available. But everything the apps had is now on a mobile website.

"Basically the students have one point, one place to go to and have access to everything we provide to them in the mobile sense," Asoodeh said.

Through the mobile website, students don't have to download anything, can use any smart device, and view content that's adjusted to their device. If the university needs to produce other apps that the current system doesn't provide, it can pursue that avenue down the road.


Universities consider delivering personal v. generic information

Through the mobile website, students access their grades and schedules. They apply and enroll in the university. And because the system has the student financial and will soon have the human resources pieces, students easily and securely do these tasks.

Southeastern Louisiana University provides students access to their information. Because of uMobile's connection to uPortal, it will do the same. 

But much of the commercial and a few open-source mobile services that have come out over the past few months in the higher education market are oblivious to the identity of the user, Lewis said. Students can't log in, and the information is anonymous, generic and public content. For example, Blackboard Mobile says you can look at the course schedule, but you can't look at your courses.

And students will find that personal information more desirable and useful, said Bramhall, from Yale.

"I think what's more important is, 'Where's my class meeting today?'" 

As universities develop and refine their mobile strategies, they'll keep an eye out for platforms and tools that will help them build their mobile websites and apps. And they'll also look at how mobile technology changes the way IT operates.

"It's an interesting area," Holsman said, "and like a lot of new technologies, it provides lots of opportunity for rethinking how we do business with technology on the campus."