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Free and Easy Mobile Campus Services
What does it really take for a college to create a mobile app? If you start with a pre-existing template and experienced programmers, two weeks ought to cover it....
- By Dian Schaffhauser
The Amarillo College app is available in both the Apple App Store and Android Market under "MOX." Once the app is installed on a mobile device, the program will ask which school to affiliate with.
When Amarillo College CIO Lee Colaw heard during an executive forum in September 2010 just how easy it was to set up Datatel's freely available Mobile Access (MOX) platform, he called up his IT staff during a break to ask how come they hadn't implemented it yet. After all, the institution had obtained the software in June. Their response: "It looks pretty challenging."
After all, only five other campuses had implemented the free app, which delivers school information on mobile devices. "Well, jeez. I want us to be the sixth in the country to do it," Colaw responded. That particular dream didn't quite come true; but just two weeks later, the college did complete its first generation of campus app with no real expense other than the value of the time of the in-house programmers who worked on it.
At the Heart of the MOX Mobile Platform
The college has been a Datatel customer since the mid-1990s. Datatel Colleague, the company's flagship product, is a mission-critical application for enterprise resource planning of business transactions, including financial aid, enrollment, admission, and student records.
In mid-June 2010 the vendor released MOX, an application for the iPhone and iPod Touch that provides a number of campus apps, including a directory of campus services and departments; events and news; maps; and a function through a third-party app called DUB that allows users to exchange information with other users, keep contact details up to date, stay linked via social networking sites, and back up the mobile address book to a Web site. For users who can authenticate on the network, the app also integrates with school applications to provide more private information, such as details about courses; deliver notifications; and provide a directory of students, staff, and faculty.
According to Wayne Bovier, senior product manager for teaching and learning and mobile at Datatel, building mobile apps isn't nearly as difficult as the post-development work: distribution, maintenance, and upgrades. That's why, he said, he expects colleges and universities to adopt platforms such as the one from his company to address campus mobile needs. "Getting an app built the first time is fine," Bovier said. "Getting it out on phones and making sure it runs properly, on all the types of devices, then porting it to other devices, upgrading it when new versions of the operating systems come out, and 'QAing' it again, the question is: Does the school want to be a software company?"
For that ongoing support of the mobile apps, Datatel charges its clients a maintenance fee, which Bovier described as "pennies per student."
Like three-quarters of Datatel's customers, Amarillo College's IT team opted in to try the app software, but that's as far as the effort got before it stalled amid the myriad work of an IT operation serving 11,675 degree students.
The Clock Starts Ticking
The Monday following his trip to the executive summit, Colaw was back on campus and holding a meeting at which he told the IT Services organization, "Let's take this as a challenge. We need to implement this for our students, faculty, and staff. It's one more way to obtain information, to help the community, and to show that we're state of the art."
He appointed Terry Kleffman, director of programming services, to lead the effort, which also involved members of the programming team that customarily worked on the Web site and on Colleague.
Colaw set a September 24 deadline for accomplishing the project. That gave the team exactly 10 business days to do the work required for launch. Why the rush? This would make for a fresh change of pace, Colaw explained. IT was bogged down in long-term technology work--wireless deployments at multiple campus locations, upgrades of classrooms with smart technology, and unified communications, among other plans. "Here was something we could work on, we'd accomplish it, and it would be done."
What Colaw didn't realize when they started was that the endeavor to provide a mobile app for the campus community would also provide a side benefit: It would help the college clean up some of its historic data.
For example, one aspect of MOX is the ability to enter GPS locations for buildings, along with photos, into the Colleague system. The app would generate a set of maps displaying buildings all over campus--or in the case of Amarillo, all seven of its campuses. When it came time to prepare the data about those buildings, however, the app team found that there wasn't a common name for many of the buildings. "When we wanted to make out one common map, we had two or three different names for the buildings," said Colaw. "We understood what we were all talking about, but we had to clean that up and get one common name."
Taking building photos also presented a dilemma: What image of a building should be included? "We have thousands of pictures of buildings on campus, but maybe not one showing it in a way a new student or faculty member walking to the building would see," Colaw observed. "So we had to go out and take a bunch of pictures."
Adding a GPS location posed a similar dilemma: What should be the GPS location? The center of the building? The back doors? The front doors? Colaw's staff tried all of those options. "We just had to play with it for a while," he said. The final decision on that: the front doors, since "that's where you'd want to get somebody who asks for directions."
Contact phone numbers were another variable. While the college has several assistance centers to help people in person, the mother of all assistance centers is "AskAC," set up to respond by phone, e-mail, and chat and staffed, as Colaw put it, by a group of "highly skilled professionals who can answer any question." When it came time to load "important numbers" into the app, everybody looked at each other. "We didn't have important phone numbers. We just called one number when we needed help." Replicating that particular practice for the mobile app meant that anyone with a question would be channeled through a single funnel instead of being directed where they really wanted to go--IT, the registrar, the cafeteria, or someplace else. "It took us several days of reviewing what we called 'important numbers' to produce that list," Colaw added. Now, the app provides a directory of campus services that runs from the "AC Foundation" and "AC Police" at the top of the list to "West Campus" and the "Wyatt Dental Clinic" at the bottom.
The final touch was hooking in news and events via RSS feeds. "When people talk about an RSS feed, they think, 'You just hook this RSS feed up and it works.' Well, not exactly," Colaw sighed. "That took us a couple of days."
The Place for Campus Mobile Apps
The current generation of campus mobile apps generally addresses nice-to-have features, not need-to-have. Students can live without maps or a directory of phone numbers. But eventually, Bovier predicted, the mobile app platform will begin to offer functions that go beyond the mere shiny. "Say a professor needs to change [his or her] classroom to another building. Instead of putting a note up on the door of the old classroom, the professor can send out a communication." That update, he noted, will be delivered via a channel that students will pay attention to.
Mobile devices can also provide a vehicle for receiving materials related to the curriculum, Bovier added. "I've seen this in the corporate training world, he said. "The most compelling part to me is delivering recorded videos, recorded audio files, PowerPoint decks--anything that's self-paced." What's less likely, he added, is that mobile device will be used for mainstream teaching and learning. "The screen resolution will never replace a classroom setting."
Not No. 6, but Still a Happy Ending
The Amarillo College app team met its deadline of Sept. 24 for creating the iPhone edition. It has since put out a version for the Google Android platform as well. When Datatel releases a version of MOX for the Blackberry in the first quarter of 2011, the college will be right behind to release a mobile app for those devices as well.
And although the college hasn't formally launched the apps with great fanfare yet, word has gotten around. The iPhone edition has had several hundred downloads, according to Colaw. Shortly, the college will announce the availability of the apps through Facebook, on the home page, through e-mail, and through a news release. "Everybody will pick it up in a different way," he observed. "It's a wide open world."
The initial goal that sparked Colaw to pursue a Datatel-based mobile app for his college--being the sixth campus to do a deployment--turned out to be more elusive than he thought. Two other schools beat him, putting the Amarillo College deployment as the eighth in the nation. Nor does the current generation of the app use the authentication features of the MOX platform, such as providing a full list of the campus community or course information. Colaw said he'd take the guidance for making additions to the app from campus committees such as the IT Council, the Dean's Council, and the President's Cabinet, among others.
"It's all a matter of will to implement this," Colaw insisted. "It's not difficult or harder than anything else we've done. It's simply paying attention to the audience we have out there coming to school wanting to work on what we call the new front office environment."