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Breaking Mobile Down

Institutions need to take a dual approach to their mobile strategy.

At an intriguing CT Forum conference held in Long Beach, CA, last month, the issue of connectivity--wireless connectivity--played a prominent role. In an opening keynote, Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, laid out a compelling vision of a society whose technological underpinnings are so ubiquitous and reliable that consumers are no longer even aware of them. Just as we don't walk into a room and check to see whether it has electricity, he said, students of tomorrow--and some would say of today--will have the same expectation for wireless service. It will be the norm.

As many of the sessions at CT Forum illustrated, however, many campuses are a long way from being able to deliver this kind of ubiquitous, five-nines service. Indeed, a lot of schools are reeling from the speed with which the BYOD wave has crashed onto their campus shores. In a presentation about Central Michigan University's efforts to manage the mobile tsunami, Network Manager Ryan Laus noted that the number of unique devices accessing his network daily has risen from 14,000 in April of 2011 to nearly 23,000 just a year later. And the tide is still coming in.

How schools handle this onslaught could have far-reaching repercussions for institutions. As student expectations rise, those schools that fail to deliver may even see their application numbers drop. This is serious stuff, yet I sensed that many IT administrators at the conference were talking at cross-purposes.

For many participants, developing a mobile strategy wasn't about infrastructure at all--it was about deciding what kind of app to build and the services it should deliver. Certainly, this is an important component of an overall mobile strategy, but I don't think colleges and universities should see it as the alpha and omega. Listening to the conversations at CT Forum, it sounded to me as if a mobile strategy should have two main pillars: infrastructure on one hand, and services on the other. And how a school approaches each may be vastly different.

On the services side, Tim Flood, a consultant who used to work at Stanford, urged participants to dive right in without overthinking it. "Learn quickly and fail fast," he said. "The last thing you want to do is form a committee." He asserts that traditional higher ed governance is unable to cope with the speed of tech change. And I think he's right.

But I also think it would be a terrible mistake to apply a similar approach to the issue of wireless infrastructure. If students expect a seamless wireless experience, the last thing schools should do is cobble together a patchwork strategy. In fact, it's a slippery slope from there. An unreliable network leads students to take matters into their own hands, creating their own hot spots and degrading the network's performance even further.

Remember, the coolest campus app in the world is useless if the network can't deliver it to devices reliably. To that end, in our August issue, Campus Technology will take an in-depth look at just what it takes to build a robust mobile infrastructure. Please share your experiences with us.

About the Author

Andrew Barbour is the former executive editor of Campus Technology.

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