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Getting More out of Mobile

Sure, cellular and handheld devices are quintessential communication tools, but savvy institutions are getting extra bang for their mobile tech bucks.

Getting More out of MobileAS COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES embrace mobile technologies to enhance communications on campus, an added benefit has emerged: increased access to administrative information.

Take Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3), where IT Director Marty Christofferson needed to find a way to make communication between faculty, staff, and students more instantaneous. TC3 is located in a rural, mountainous region of upstate New York, just east of the Finger Lakes; the majority of its students are commuters, some traveling up to 30 miles to attend classes. An e-mail notifying a student of an emergency cancellation or change in schedule would likely be sent while that individual was already en route to school.

Like many higher ed institutions, TC3 turned to mobile technology to better reach those commuter students and the campus community. Already a user of SunGard Higher Education's web applications, the school partnered with the company to create myMobile, an initiative that allows faculty and staff to send e-mails over the school's existing SMTP server, which are then received by standard cell phones as text messages. Student contact data are drawn from TC3's SunGard PowerCampus system according to criteria such as class selection, resident/ non-resident, etc., so that messages can be targeted, for instance, to students registered for a particular class. After a successful beta test with 100 student volunteers, over half of TC3's 3,000 full-time students have opted in to the program.

The clincher: When creating myMobile, Christofferson also worked with SunGard to adapt the school's existing web services for a mobile interface, enabling instant access to vital information over a cell phone or PDA. Students can check their grades, class schedules, and campus news, all with real-time updates. The mobile portal also allows faculty to view class lists, e-mail students, and check their schedules right on their phones.

"Our mobile web applications are derivatives of actual PowerCampus Self-Service web pages," says Christofferson, explaining that his team modified existing pages on the TC3 website to optimize them for mobile access, and created a few new ones specifically for handheld devices. The mobile portal has been stripped of any filler or graphics, making information easy to view on a mobile phone's 21/2-inch screen, as well as ensuring that info is quick to load over a wireless connection-- especially important in a rural area without 3G capabilities. Christofferson stresses the need to keep mobile technology simple: "We tried to think of things that people would want to do while they are on the go, and busy people do not want to waste time scrolling and trying to read a lot of text."

Donor Info to Go

Instantaneous communication and information was also Jill Jones' goal when she signed on for Agilon's Mobile Access for Development Officers. As executive director of development information and donor services at Illinois State University, Jones wanted to make sure that her traveling development officers had the most up-to-date donor information when they stepped into a meeting with a potential benefactor. The Agilon solution is a smart phone interface designed specifically for university development officers, with content focused on four key information areas: constituent, prospect, giving, and membership/event. Officers can update prospect proposals on potential donors, examine demographic details of donors and alumni, review a donor's giving history, and more-- with all data linked to Illinois State's Agilon One development database, and updated in real time.

Using smart phones rather than laptops while on the road is beneficial in the moments preceding a meeting, but it also gives associates back at the university an instant update on the traveling officer's project status. "A development officer can come out of a meeting, immediately log in to the system, and file a contact report or designate next steps," enthuses Jones, pointing out that the system saves staffers from having to log on to their laptops back at the hotel after a long day's work.

Jones recently trained the last of her development officers to use their BlackBerrys as more than just cell phones; training on Agilon's software, already in use among the more tech-savvy of her staff, is the next step. Adopting the new technology in stages has allowed Jones to troubleshoot without disrupting the whole department. For example, when the early adopters on her staff were having difficulty logging on to the Agilon mobile interface, what was presumed to be a complicated firewall problem turned out to be a simple fix: using Internet Explorer as the default browser on the phone, rather than the BlackBerry browser. She now has set Internet Explorer as the default browser on all the BlackBerrys in her department, ensuring that the logon process will be snag-free for her tech-wary associates.

Development officers at Illinois State can use their smart phones to update prospect proposals on potential donors, examine demographic details of donors and alumni, review a donor's giving history, and more, all in real time.

As her staff members become more comfortable with their handheld devices, Jones anticipates that the mobile access technology will become second nature for her school's traveling officers, streamlining department communications over the next year. "It's so efficient and so easy. Besides the cost of the devices, I just don't know why there would be a barrier to moving in this direction."

Controlling Costs

As more faculty and staff rely on their phones to generate and consume information, colleges and universities are looking for creative solutions to control cellular plan costs. In that vein, David Bucciero, director of technical services at Dartmouth College (NH), teamed with Agito Networks to install a campuswide mobile network that allows dual-mode phones to switch seamlessly between cellular signals, campus WiFi signals, and 3G/4G technology, depending on the location of the user. Via "fixed-to-mobile convergence," Agito's RoamAnywhere Mobility Router (in conjunction with a little piece of Agito software downloaded directly to the phone) monitors the location of an active cellular device and adjusts its signal accordingly, without any disruption to the call. A single Agito router can handle up to 1,000 simultaneous cell phone users, and the included operations software enables an administrator to track usage, call patterns, and savings.

Like TC3, Dartmouth is located in a rural area; traditional cellular signals reach less than 50 percent of the indoor and outdoor locations on campus. Agito's fixed-to-mobile solution appealed to Bucciero because Dartmouth's buildings were already 100 percent wireless; installing Agito's router would require no additional networking. Now, when faculty and staff use their phones for both calls and data inside a campus building, they are automatically connected over the building's wireless signal-- reducing the number of minutes used on their cellular plans, without relying on the user to remember to manually switch from a cellular signal to the wireless network. The system has only been in place at Dartmouth for a short period of time, but the cost benefit has been indisputable. With traditional cell coverage, Bucciero's faculty cell phone costs had ballooned to $20,000 per year. Since teaming with Agito, Bucciero states, "We're averaging about 100 cellular minutes per month, per user. We have 20-plus users walking around with wireless and cellular coverage-- and it's working for us."

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