Mobile Computing | Feature

Boston Marathon? More Like a Sprint

After first creating a basic mobile site, Boston College doubled down to launch a services-based mobile site in just eight weeks.

With the growing popularity of smartphones and tablets, students and faculty are now relying on their Androids, iPhones, iPads and BlackBerrys for many aspects of campus life. In turn, college IT departments are scrambling to deploy technologies that provide the best user experience on these handheld devices. Early in 2010, Boston College (MA) was among those scrambling.

A mobile website had been on BC's list of priorities for some time. While Information Technology Services (ITS) administrators had held a few meetings about it, each get-together seemed to generate more questions. "We wrestled with the issue of how to create a mobile version of the entire university website, while also offering portal-based services and fancy new widgets," says Scott Olivieri, web technology manager at BC. "And how can we do this quickly? Because we're behind, aren't we?"

Start Small
Faced with these challenges, BC decided to take a two-pronged approach. It would take small steps by first developing a mobile version of the BC website. And with that complete, it would then build a second, services-based site--something to which authenticated services could be added in the future.

In collaboration with the Office of Marketing Communications (OMC), Kul Thapa, an ITS interface designer, developed a basic mobile template to be used in the CMS. It featured a mobile-friendly layout and navigation, larger fonts, and retained the design of the school's main site. The navigation was changed from a top hover menu and nested left navigation to a bread crumb-based system.

"We needed a global hover menu, but knew it had to be compact so that it would function on a mobile device," explains Olivieri. "Rather than jam thousands of web pages into a small screen, our goal was to make a mobile version of bc.edu which did not stray from the design of the main BC website and was built from the ground up with regard to content and navigation."

BC has more than 200 websites and nearly 500 content contributors. In collaboration with OMC, ITS convened a dozen site owners to discuss their needs for a mobile BC website. "We made it clear that this was the first step in a phased approach," notes Olivieri. "The priority was to get mobile content out there. Services and custom mobile development would come later."

In meetings with the content owners, ITS and OMC showed them the templates and helped them create mobile pages. "Everyone is so busy," says Olivieri. "To get this done, we knew it had to be easy."

The key was to enable site owners to reference content from their existing websites. The CMS has the ability to reference any block of text or image from any page and pull it into the mobile template. The content can only be edited at the source location, but if that source content changes, so does the content on the mobile page.

The mobile team was able to create a mini mobile site for one of BC's schools in less than an hour. It consisted of a dozen pages with an overview of the school, degree programs, some images, and news. "It was readable and usable," notes Olivieri. "It was a subset of the main school site, which is exactly the point."

After initial setup, content contributors can simply edit their original website pages, without having to worry about the mobile site. The university soft-launched the mobile site at bc.edu/m, without any advertising or even any redirects that would send mobile devices to the new mobile home page. "We wanted to coordinate the official launch of bc.edu/m with the new mobile site that would be services-based," explains Olivieri.

Involving a Vendor
For this second site, the university needed a framework to help speed development. "It was time for something driven by ITS, something that was new and device-independent and not clearly defined," says Olivieri. "We needed something that was a miniportal, with authenticated services, public services, and new modules that would somehow magically present the most important information and services to our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors."

Rather than developing the site in-house, BC turned to Modo Labs, a company in nearby Cambridge, MA, that works in the mobile space. "We were immediately impressed by the vision, enthusiasm, and collaborative approach," recalls Olivieri. "And the core product, the Kurogo mobile framework, was open source [based on the MIT mobile framework] and therefore easy to try out."

A senior software engineer from Modo Labs worked with two developers from BC, training them on the Kurogo system and its extensible framework. The BC development team consisted of these two developers (both part-time), plus a web administrator, a designer, and a project manager. Despite the team's small size, BC was able to release its services-based mobile site, called Agora Mobile, in just eight weeks.

The Kurogo mobile web framework formats pages not only for cutting-edge smartphones such as Android or iPhone, but also for mobile devices with very different capabilities such as BlackBerrys and standard-feature phones. Even tablets such as the iPad receive a specialized template that provides an attractive and expanded user experience.

Kurogo features standard modules that most universities will find relevant: Shuttle, Events, News, Maps, and Directory. "The events module was very simple to set up, pulling in an RSS feed from our existing event calendar," says Olivieri.

Additional modules are available for more specialized needs such as tours and reunions. The Kurogo engine can also create custom modules, and a federated search can find items across all modules.

While Modo Labs offers professional services to help create these custom modules, its use of non-proprietary programming languages and open standards means that university staff can handle development in-house, if desired. With the mobile landscape changing so rapidly, the ability to make rapid changes to the system--coupled with Kurogo's constantly updated device-detection system--the hope is that BC's investment will serve the institution for years to come.

The service-based BC site has been up and running since June 20. "We've had no issues," notes Olivieri. "and we've received a lot of positive feedback from the campus community."

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