Web Portals

Going Mobile: University of Illinois Delivers Its Portal to Mobile Users

Log onto the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Web site and you'll see an option that you wouldn't ordinarily expect from an institution of higher education: the ability to access a site specifically designed for lower-bandwidth, mobile device users. Known as "UI Mobile," the option strips out most of the graphics and sticks to the basics so that Internet-enabled mobile phone users can get information (such as staff directories and dining/menus) while away from their computers.

Jim Wilson, director of Web services for the institution, which has three campuses and about 40,000 students, said the mobile site was originally set up for the school's higher-level administrators about two years ago. "Our chancellor and provost wanted to be able to see the university news via a mobile site," recalled Wilson, who turned to Usablenet, one of the school's existing IT vendors, to facilitate the process.

"Our existing Web site looked terrible on a phone; it was unusable," said Wilson. "We had other services through Usablenet that we were happy with, so when they rolled out a mobile service, it made perfect sense to us."

Based in New York, Usablenet helps organizations support their users of mobile and assistive technologies for Web access. Its solutions (which include Usablenet Mobile, Usablenet Messaging, and Usablenet Assistive) are deployed by about 300 organizations to achieve mobile Web accessibility.

At the University of Illinois, the mobile Internet implementation was handled entirely by the vendor, which provides the solution via a hosted service. To determine what type of information would be displayed on the mobile site, the schools IT team came up with the top 10 topics that would be searched via a mobile phone, such as news, events, a campus directory, library search, and weather reports.

"We looked across the 700 educational units--each of which has its own Web site--and found the most important things that someone walking across campus would be looking for," said Wilson. Stored in the university's content management system, the information is summarized and handed off to Usablenet Mobile, which in turn displays it on the mobile site.

"We don't update anything on the mobile site because all of the information is dynamic," said Wilson, who added that the solution itself operates in the background and doesn't even come up in discussion. "We don't even have to edit anything on the mobile site, which is kind of unusual. It's so successful that we don't even think about it."

The solution also handles the manufacturer-specific filters required to make the content useable on a cell phone. A student who has a Blackberry, for example, will be automatically routed to the site designed for the best display on that type of phone. "Usablenet gave us a list of phones, and if any requests come in from phones that aren't already enabled," said Wilson, "the system just automatically hands it off to the vendor and creates a filter for it."

Since being introduced two years ago, the institution's mobile site has gained in popularity among students and professors, many of whom now carry their own Internet-enabled cell phones. "Students keep coming to campus every year with nicer phones, and they're using them to surf the Web from everywhere," said Wilson, who pointed out that grades are not available via the school's mobile site.

Wilson, who said his department hasn't received any complaints or negative feedback since installing the mobile site, called the system "completely transparent" and a "no-brainer" for the school, its staff and students. In fact, when budgets were slashed recently, he said the Usablenet solution was one of the few expenses that was not cut.

"We've had to cancel all of the other services that we contract out which we pay for because of budget reductions," said Wilson. "This is the one that we've decided that we simply cannot live without." Wilson credited the fact that the solution operates without intervention, is user-friendly, and makes the university stand out on the Web with helping him make the case for keeping it in the budget. "Most universities have a full-blown Web site that's completely unusable on a cell phone."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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