• August 30, 2015

As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up

Colleges Search for Their Place in the Booming Mobile Web 1

John Gurzinski for The Chronicle

"I used it to sign up for classes. I used it to check e-mails," says Laura Patterson, a junior at Nevada State College, about her iPhone. "I used it all the time, for everything."

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close Colleges Search for Their Place in the Booming Mobile Web 1

John Gurzinski for The Chronicle

"I used it to sign up for classes. I used it to check e-mails," says Laura Patterson, a junior at Nevada State College, about her iPhone. "I used it all the time, for everything."

When Laura Patterson, a junior at Nevada State College, had to wait two months for wired Internet access in her new apartment, she relied on her iPhone instead.

"I used it to sign up for classes. I used it to check e-mails," she says. "I used it all the time, for everything."

Hand-held devices like smartphones and tablets are fast becoming the primary way many people use the Internet. Half of all college students used mobile gear to get on the Internet every day last year, compared with 10 percent of students in 2008, according to Educause, the educational-technology consortium.

But many colleges still treat their mobile Web sites as low-stakes experiments. That attitude risks losing prospective applicants and donors through admissions and alumni portals that don't work, and it risks frustrating current students who want to manage coursework and the rest of their lives with their mobile phones, says David R. Morton, director of mobile communications at the University of Washington. "For so many institutions," he says, "mobile is a part-time job, almost an afterthought."

Colleges that have put some effort into mobile have taken one of three paths. Some buy applications from Blackboard, the educational-software and technology giant. Others opt for a competing open-source platform created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is free to use. Colleges in the third group have built applications themselves. iShoe, an app to track college athletics at Ohio State University, for instance, is expected to help turn casual football fans into connected alumni.

It is not clear which approach will work best. The mobile Web in higher education resembles the Internet as a whole during the late 1990s, says David M. Olsen, a programmer at West Virginia University who has contributed to MIT's open-source platform. "It's a fantastic opportunity to figure out what people really want to accomplish on their computers," he says. "It's 1998 all over again."

Blackboard vs. MIT

Most colleges do not have the resources to build their own mobile applications from scratch. The environment is changing quickly, and developing new products for each new major device—iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android phones, iPads—can be prohibitively expensive.

That's what Kayvon Beykpour is betting on, anyway. He is vice president of Blackboard Mobile, which builds and maintains mobile applications for dozens of colleges. For "just a yearly subscription, we'll help be your R&D department," he says. The app includes a campus map, a searchable directory, athletics information, and news about the client college. The annual fee is said to be in the ballpark of $30,000, depending on the size of the college.

He has been working on college mobile apps since he helped build one of the first, an iPhone directory and map of Stanford University, when he was a student there. In 2009, Blackboard bought the company he co-founded, for $4-million, and started offering a product based off of his design.

The investment in such a young group is a departure for Blackboard, a company whose headquarters, in Washington, resembles a law firm more than a start-up.

Last month, as Mr. Beykpour welcomed a delegation of college clients to its branch office here in San Francisco, the group passed a beer keg, hastily covered up with a towel. Downstairs, programmers coded software while Weezer and table tennis could be heard in the background.

The college officials were meeting to discuss Blackboard's newest offering, a software-development kit, designed to encourage colleges and companies to contribute to Blackboard's basic platform. The idea is to establish the company as a thriving marketplace of college mobile applications, akin to Apple's App Store, Mr. Beykpour says.

The effort is meant to compete with iMobileU, the open-source project started by staff members at MIT, which offers many of the same features as Blackboard's product. Neither platform offers a native application for the iPad; both teams plan to do so.

Colleges can use open-source software free and modify it as they wish. Instead of paying for a company to manage iMobileU, they use their own staff members to install it and to ensure it works with other campus systems, such as the student directory.

The open-source approach has the support of a network of developers at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere, but colleges must dedicate their own staff to support it. Blackboard brings its own team and can spend more on product development, but colleges have to find the money to pay for its services.

Mr. Morton, at the University of Washington, plays both sides of the street. He is a client of Blackboard and has helped to build iMobileU. Not surprisingly, he says colleges should consider both options. iMobileU may call more college resources, he says, but it is also easier to customize than Blackboard's product.

Third Roads and Next Levels

The third path, building it yourself, appeals to many colleges that are interested in tailoring mobile Web sites and applications to particular groups, says Douglas Gapinski, a creative director at mStoner, a communications firm that creates Web sites for colleges. They want to know if there is "content we can generate that's specific to prospective students," he says. Or "is there content that's specific to alumni? Can we see events that are close by to your area?"

Ohio State's application is aimed at one such audience: sports fans. It has been downloaded nearly 10,000 times. While watching a football game at the stadium, they can bring up game and player statistics. They can also watch instant replays, useful when some plays are not shown on the giant screen.

The app has engaged alumni and shown potential corporate partners that the university can develop applications used by a wide audience, says Rajiv Ramnath, an associate professor of computer science who helped build the project. The hope is that it can be used in the future to notify alumni of fund-raising and other campus events.

Stanford officials are having similar discussions about how to reach external audiences with the university's mobile app, iStanford.

Its campus map allows users to browse buildings by their official names, such as Sequoia Hall. But Tim Flood, a senior technology consultant at Stanford, believes that the map could be improved. Using building names might work for students and employees, who already know the campus, but that kind of navigation leaves visitors and prospective students in the dust, he says.

"If you look at our map, you cannot find the physics department—you can only find a physics building," Mr. Flood says.

The map should be more accessible to those who have only a vague idea of what they are looking for, he says. For example, the app could use the visitor's location to provide context-sensitive information about campus events, landmarks, and navigation within individual buildings.

Stanford has a big campus, Mr. Flood says. "There's a lot of explore and see here. We're very mindful of those outside demographics."

Getting off the Desktop

One key to these projects is recognizing the mobility of mobile devices, and not treating them as if they were small desktop computers. Among colleges, even the leading mobile applications and Web sites still function like add-ons; students and others can get much the same information on a personal computer, although perhaps not as quickly.

But many college officials say that will change within a few years. As more people adopt Internet-enabled mobile phones, colleges will be able to take advantage of features like the ability to record information on the fly or to determine somebody else's location.

Colleges often do not realize how far their Web services have fallen behind what students are used to, says Mr. Beykpour, of Blackboard. The Stanford graduate recalls that signing up for courses online was so difficult that it was a "running joke" in the computer-science department.

"Students are using Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, all these Web 2.0 systems every day," Mr. Beykpour says. "It's like their top five Web sites they use. And the sixth Web site is the school Web site, because you have to use it. And that's where the biggest disconnect is."

A student's online relationship with a college still involves such requirements as signing up for classes and checking grades, he says. But, he goes on, colleges house a tremendous amount of data about student choices and social connections that would be useful in helping their students navigate the institution online.

For instance, a mobile app could recommend courses based on what students with similar interests have liked taking. Or an application could allow students on a field trip to instantly post photos and discuss them with classmates. "That's where we're headed," Mr. Beykpour says. "The way I would summarize it all is making your online experience at university more social."

Mr. Flood notes that software used in higher education typically subjects students to nothing more than a series of transactions. That is a missed opportunity, he says. Mobile devices, in contrast, give colleges the chance to bring together all of their key services into one portal that students always have with them.

Creating a cohesive mobile platform does not mean that colleges should try to move everything from their Web sites to a smaller screen. It can be impossible to know in advance what people want to do on a smartphone, and what they would prefer to leave to a full-size computer.

Stanford learned that through experience. It released a mobile version of its course directory in 2009, assuming that many students, like Ms. Patterson, at Nevada State, would want to enroll in courses on their mobile phones. But few did, surprising the Stanford officials who worked on the project.

Washington's Mr. Morton wishes more colleges would share news about what works on mobile devices and what doesn't. "The thing that we are struggling to do is that we need to form better ways of working as a community among ourselves," he says. "Stanford tries something—what things work for them? We try something. Duke tries something that's really out of the box. How did it work for them? What failed?"

Mr. Flood says he runs focus groups with students every six to 12 months to get input about what is working and what isn't. Reaching students on a mobile phone is an opportunity to build loyalty and demonstrate something about Stanford's core values, he says.

"What differentiates Stanford University from other prestige private institutions?" he asks. "Well, one thing is we establish better relationships through mobile technology, and we have that kind of brand standard as an innovator.

"Institutions that are really thinking about the competition in the future are going to say: Wait—with a very low investment here, we can both increase service and brand our institutions in a much better way."


1. dmolsen33 - January 23, 2011 at 02:54 pm

For those schools interested in pursuing one of the open source mobile web-focused solutions they should check out:

- iMobileU: http://www.imobileu.org/
- Mobile Web OSP: http://mobilewebosp.pbworks.com/(my project based on the MIT code)
- The Molly Project: http://mollyproject.org/

All of these projects are quickly evolving.

Their are also communities starting to develop around mobile use in higher education. I believe iMobileU is really meant as a community first and software second. There is also the the University Web Developers mobile group at http://cuwebd.ning.com/group/mobile.

It's early days for this technology. Not only for higher education but for the industry in general. That's not to say we shouldn't make mobile a higher priority at institutions but I also don't think higher ed in general is "failing." I have a list of over 160 schools that at least have a mobile website. Quality varies but it's a good first step. I'd be curious to see a review of the state of mobile in higher education in a year to see how much has changed.

2. dmolsen33 - January 23, 2011 at 03:26 pm

Also, it might be worthwhile for readers to be able to see what the mobile solutions featured might look like and try them out. These are the sites for the schools listed in the story.

Harvard - http://m.harvard.edu/
MIT - http://m.mit.edu/
Stanford University (Blackboard) - http://m.stanford.edu/
Stanford University (non-Blackboard) - http://stanford.edu/m/
University of Washington - http://m.uw.edu/
West Virginia University - http://m.wvu.edu/

3. pstisser - January 23, 2011 at 09:35 pm

I would like to suggest a third source of a few products from MoblMedia. MoblMedia is offering unique Native iOS Apps and Mobile Web Apps that are synced to an innovative software called Simple Updates. Simple Updates allows any person to create an app with a click, drag, cut and paste content into the application. MoblMedia makes it at easy as creating a PowerPoint. And like the Software's name, to modify your application all you have to do is make your content changes and click to build a new version. The application instantly flashes and a new version is available to everyone. Moblmedia uses this software in its multiple programs of MoblU, MoblEd and theExpoApp.

MoblU is designed uniquely for H.E. Administrative Programs. You name it and the Programmers can make it happen.

MoblEd utilizes the Simple Updates software as an Instructional Application Tool for the classroom and other content management.

The Expo App is a terrific tool for campuses to use as a support for Conferences and Educational Events.

Contact me if you would like more info


4. henanicole - January 24, 2011 at 04:27 am

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Delhi Escorts

5. jamil_hx - January 24, 2011 at 07:01 am

If you are interested for a complete solutions, check out this start up company for mobile soultions. We used them at our university and quite pleased with them.


I agree that it's early days for this technology. There are different companies doing different things but the current student focus groups (for this project) wanted things for themselves other than just the basic web information.

6. garay - January 24, 2011 at 07:53 am

The key point to realize, as university administrators and educators, is that bringing institutional Web services, educational content and Teaching & Learning activities to mobile devices, like smartphones, tablets and other mobile Internet-enabled devices is not just a fad or a cool marketing scheme, but an outright necessity.

Mobilizing our campus services and educational mission is no longer an option.

Our students' appreciation for intuitive, elegant and intelligent (useful) native apps specific to their mobile device du jour and campus technology, in general, is akin to one driving around the neighborhood before purchasing a house, trying out a pair of shoes before buying them. No, colleges and universities are not solely picked based on how good the school's home page is, or on how ubiquitous Wi-Fi and technology in general is on campus, but these things play a role, an important role, and having a mobile-friendly campus *is* the latest crave.

Necessities aside, mobilizing our services and our Teaching & Learning indeed present us with a great opportunity to further engage our students, our campus as a whole, and afford us additional ways to provide improved campus services and to actually enhance education.

Ubiquitous learning, for example, not only facilitates convenient comfortable Teaching & Learning to take place anytime and anywhere, asynchronously or in real-time, but it actually engages students in active learning activities, in ongoing class communication, fosters collaborative learning, overall, it makes it possible for students to consume and interact with educational content as part of their daily digital lifestyles.

How our schools get there is a decision that each of our institutions will need to carefully analyze and decide. One-size indeed does not fit all. How soon do you want certain Web services mobilized? How many mobile app developers can you afford to have on staff (for the long haul)? iPhone/iPad app developers, Android developers, HP Palm webOS developers, Windows Mobile developers, Blackberry developers, as well as miscellaneous computer programmers supporting your student information system, learning management system(s), athletic department systems, the library, campus housing, marketing, public affairs, the association, ad nauseum.

All of a sudden, those $50,000 a year that Blackboard charges for their off-the-shelf Blackboard Mobile Learn and Mobile Central campus apps for multiple mobile devices (as well as their Web accessible mobile Web app) seems somewhat reasonable and appealing, unless you have a team of sustainable programmers, like MIT and some schools have, ready and enable to mobilize your university.

As usual, a hybrid model is best, at least from my perspective :: pay Blackboard for their cool mobile apps suite and look to open-source to develop additional custom apps in-house. iMobileU, the Android mobileU equivalent and others have great stuff; it's good to have options. I also think that Blackboard's mobile APIs and software development kit, events like their recently-held Stanford mobile development summit, and anything else that Blackboard and others can do to serve as catalyst for further mobilization Utopia is fantastic and will go a long ways to helping colleges and universities bring their campus services and teaching mission to students pockets and digital backpacks, as well as to our mobile faculty, staff and alumni.

Greetings from Chicago.

7. predfern - January 24, 2011 at 09:24 am

I think garay hit it on the head when he said, "as university administrators and educators, is that bringing institutional Web services, educational content and Teaching & Learning activities to mobile devices, like smartphones, tablets and other mobile Internet-enabled devices is not just a fad or a cool marketing scheme, but an outright necessity."

But I would argue that we need to think about mobile devices in the context of the institutional brand as well as the integrated marketing plan. Mobile devices are just one more way to engage with your audience.

Paul Redfern
Gettysburg College

8. dmolsen33 - January 24, 2011 at 09:27 am

@garay While we're approaching this from slightly different angles (I'm not involved in the academic side of the house) I do think the notion that schools need native apps, along with the resulting staff, and that they have to be there for a school to truly get a mobile program going is a bit of a red herring. As we've found at our school, mobile web is a great first step for engaging users and finding out what they need. I'm not saying mobile web is the be all and end all but it's the one place schools can leverage existing staff, resources, data, and knowledge to get things kicked off. We have a total of one person assigned to mobile and our mobile site has had 11% of the traffic to our home page* to open the semester. Going mobile web might not allow an institution to dig too deep into academic material since that is usually in a black box somewhere (a la Blackboard) but something is better than nothing when dipping an institution's toe into the mobile waters.

I'm not saying native apps shouldn't be pursued at some point but using mobile web for a calendar, directory, or, especially as Mr. Flood noted, a campus map is a great first step. It's interesting that while the mobile OS market is expanding (as noted with your extensive list) all of the OSs you listed are (expect WinMo) are standardizing on WebKit as the mobile browser of choice and it becomes just a bit easier to develop for.

As Jason Grigsby says, "Not every mobile device will have your app on it but every mobile device will have a browser."

* - we also have a student developed & maintained native iOS app so it's not like users don't have a choice of venues to find mobile-friendly information

9. bworth - January 24, 2011 at 11:16 am

I don't if it will help but we used Straxis Technology, www.U360mobile.com for our comprehensive mobile strategy. We selected them because they specialize in Higher Ed and they offered iPhone App, Android App and Web solution. They gave us the ability to get up and running very quickly and let our students develop to their platform. We have been very happy with them.

10. kayvonbeykpour - January 24, 2011 at 01:24 pm

Josh mentioned that Blackboard and MIT both don't have iPad solutions yet. Just thought I'd make a slight factual clarification that we (Blackboard Mobile) do indeed have a native iPad solution (see: http://bit.ly/mlipad ) for our Mobile Learn application (which integrates with the Bb teaching & learning platform, Blackboard Learn). As for the campus-life related platform that is primarily discussed in Josh's article, he is correct that the Bb platform does not have a native iPad version as of now.

Also, perhaps most importantly, Josh I think you may have confused Weezer for The Strokes ;) The keg(s) observation was spot on, though.


11. jessevickey - January 26, 2011 at 12:24 pm

To help educate some of our college clients who use (or may use) our mobile app for alumni, we've launched an educational series on mobile basics.

Mobile 101 (e.g. "What's an app?")

I hope this is helpful.
- Jesse

12. brethansensghe - January 26, 2011 at 02:51 pm

Love the article! Some great comments by @dmolsen33, @garay, and @predfern

It is good to see a great ecosystem developing to assist institutions in delivering meaningful content to their constituents at any time or place via mobile devices.

I would like to mention a recent release from SunGard Higher Education. We have released Mobile Connection 1.0 http://goo.gl/KnTWT

It is a free flexible platform that helps institutions deliver native applications to multiple device platforms with secure access to institution data.

A key aspect to this platform is the inclusion of a vibrant community. This community is collaborating to help each other deliver mobile solutions. They can share code to expand the features of Mobile Connection with each other.

The launch of the community coincided with the release on 12/3/2010. To date we have 626 (just checked again now 629) individuals that are part of the community! SunGard HE customers can join this community at http://goo.gl/VGmQ1

Mobile Connection will be presented in detail at SunGard Summit 2011 http://sungardsummit.com

(Note: I am an employee of SunGard Higher Education)

I love this stuff!

Bret Hansen
Mobile Architect
SunGard Higher Education

13. passailaigue - January 26, 2011 at 03:21 pm

Very interesting article that definitely speaks to a new future in education as students become increasingly mobile.

AcademyOne's new mobile app for the iPhone and Windows 7 phone is very helpful for students who are looking for a class to take that will transfer back to their home institution. http://www.academicgps.com/ This app aligns with the features on www.collegetransfer.net, but allows students functionality without relying on a computer or laptop.

14. barista - January 26, 2011 at 04:31 pm

Another technology to chase after, with inadequate budgets and staff. What fun. Incidentally, when did the locution 'based off of' replace 'based on'? Or is it a regionalism?

15. cooperr4 - January 28, 2011 at 03:30 pm

As a graduate student, I use my phone like a computer. I know instantly when a student emails me and I wish that my university would move more towards using apps to inform their students. One thing I really liked at my undergrad was their use of text messaging to alert students of campus emergencies. I also use blackboard for every class and am wondering why university doesn't use the free MIT website and cut admission costs?

16. chris_wessells - February 04, 2011 at 12:55 am

The University of San Diego (Catholic private liberal arts university of 7800 students) was one of the early adopters of the Terribly Clever (Blackboard) mobile apps in 2008.


In fact, USD was the 7th university to launch. Working with Keyvon, Aaron and their team has been a excellent experience. For universities like USD without a massively deep bench of developers, the Blackboard solution is a prudent solution.

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