Mobile Computing | Feature

How a Governance Program Can Curb the Mobile "Wild West"

With mobile computing integral to every aspect of campus life, it's important for schools to create order out of the chaos with a multiyear strategy and governance plans.

By now, just about every college and university has embarked on a mobile program. But who "owns" the mobile app program? Who makes the decisions? What will the program look like three years from now? How will it be funded, and who will be included in the planning? Surprisingly few schools have developed a long-term plan that answers these and other key questions about the mobile program on campus.

In the initial excitement and rush to field a campus mobile app, it's easy to overlook some of the more mundane aspects of management and oversight. At some point, though, schools need to put some structure and governance in place. This involves strategy, planning, investment, and evaluating plans for future apps in the context of learning, ownership, rules, and guidelines.

"I call it mobile enablement," said Phil Chatterton, director of digital media technologies at the University of British Columbia, which has campuses in Vancouver and Okanagan.

With more than 47,000 full-time students on the Vancouver campus and close to 7,000 additional students at Okanagan, UBC recognized that a mobile governance plan was essential. To implement the program, UBC brought in Chatterton "to provide digital media technology leadership, and to create a collaborative community focused on the improvement of digital channels." In fall 2011, Chatterton launched a three-pronged approach, which included a mobile-optimized website, iOS and Android native apps, and a new student services site. The beta version of the mobile website was launched in September of this year—the first componentof UBC's three-year strategy.

"We look on this as a paradigm shift," said Chatterton, who was hired by UBC from Blackboard Collaborate."We wanted to take a look at modern digital channels, to see how we could make them work, and how they would impact our campuses."

To begin with, Chatterton and his team gathered a team of IT professionals from around campus to evaluate vendors. They opted for Modo Labs, which supports the development of the Kurogo platform. "Basically, it's a hybrid model, where an open-source platform meets a commercially supported product. We can build modules into the core framework, but we're really following the Kurogo platform."

Kurogo starts with a mobile website and builds native apps out from there. "About 85 percent of students can use the native apps on iOS and Android devices," explained Chatterton,"but we want to make the program accessible to all students who have browser-enabled smartphones." While everyone can access the mobile website, the native apps provide certain features that are not available on the web program.

Establishing Governance
To create mobile content and establish an ownership framework, Chatterton and his team brought in representatives from more than a dozen campus groups: the president's office, development, communications, risk management, bookstores and libraries, public affairs, student affairs, IT, academic units, hospitality, security and parking services, transportation, and campus and community planning.

"Each module and native app is owned by the stakeholder on campus," Chatterton continued. "Ultimately, I'm the business owner--I run the underlying program--although the stakeholder buy-in is key."

By establishing clearly defined roles and responsibilities, UBC wanted to head off any possibility that the mobile arena on campus could turn into a kind of technological Wild West. "If everybody on campus is doing their own thing, it can create a lot of confusion," noted Chatterton. "It's also such a big space that it can seem overwhelming without an underlying structure supporting development and collaboration."

To create order out of the chaos, Chatterton acknowledged that he had to organize a lot of meetings. "I spent a lot of time meeting with stakeholders, trying to sell our vision," he recalled. "I sat down with students and talked about their current experience and what they want from mobile. I looked at statistics and data. We launched surveys open to students, staff, and faculty."

While faculty were involved in the launch, the first year's rollout is largely aimed at students. Next year, the program will be more directly aimed at faculty. "We call our current program 'beta' because we want to assess the program over the next year or two, and determine how successful it has been," said Chatterton.

He recommends several key steps for schools to follow when implementing a mobile strategy:

  • Choose a mobile platform that harmonizes with your institutional values. You are much more likely to get executive-level support if you tie the mobile project and platform to your institutional mission. "When I presented the project to the executive, I mapped the project to our six core values as an institution: academic freedom, advancing sharing and knowledge, excellence, integrity, mutual respect, and equity and public interest."

  • Convene a group of stakeholders that can provide informed strategic oversight and resources to assist the project. Ideally,these should be budget owners at the director level or above who have a mobile-related business need and staffing resources to assist with the project. "Our Digital Channels Governance Committee--which consists of leaders in 15-plus groups on campus--provides strategic direction and funding oversight for core decisions on the project."

  • When selecting a mobile platform, convene a group of IT professionals and experts from multiple units to ensure a good fit with existing architecture and skills. Follow up often with these individuals to ensure that their communities are engaged with the process on the technical side. "We convened a group of 20 technology and mobile experts on campus to help us choose the platform, and we stay in touch with them to build it out."

  • Enable governance of modules/components based on the business owner or the content/information/service being delivered. Meet regularly with business owners to assess progress, assign additional resources, and develop solid future plans. "Of the 15 modules we launched, there are 13 different business owners who are providing feedback and resources, and leading their development."

  • Meet regularly at all levels to assess the project and tackle challenges in an inclusive way. Implementing a project of this size is a big job and requires a lot of collaboration. "I had two hours of standing meetings and an additional four to eight hours of meetings every week for almost a year dedicated to supporting aspects of this project. We also met with over 100 students one-to-one, deployed major surveys, and set up feedback mechanisms to assess our progress."
  • About the Author

    Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.

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