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."