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Admin on the Fly

Students, faculty, and staff have plenty of daily tasks to manage-- and now they can handle them anywhere, any time.

STUDENTS AT TOMPKINS CORTLAND COMMUNITY COLLEGEĀ (commonly known as TC3) in upstate New York can use mobile phones to check their grades and course schedules, sign up for text alerts about class cancellations, and view a campus weather cam. They can even view their debit card account balances-- all courtesy of the TC3Mobile portal. The students at the Dryden, NY, campus may not realize it, but the introduction of the TC3 Mobile portal can largely be attributed to the fact that their director of campus technology is an avid snowmobiler.

Admin on the Fly

TOMPKINS CORTLAND Community College is moving to a complete mobile platform integrated with the school's ERP system, says Director of IT Marty Christofferson.

It was in the spring of 2006 that Director of IT Marty Christofferson started using a live Doppler radar feature on his Cingular 8525 phone (now AT&T) to check weather reports about snow levels and road conditions. "I realized I had a computer in my hand," he recalls. "So I started thinking about how to adapt it for the school's purposes, because 99 percent of students have cell phones." Not long after, Christofferson led a development effort to port several of the features in the myTC3 web portal (powered by SunGard PowerCampus Self-Service) to mobile devices. "We thought about what students would want to do on the go, and what would fit on a 2.5-inch screen," he says. Then, to keep the mobile portal fast and efficient, the developers cut out all graphics. "It's very stripped down in appearance, almost like going backward." (For more on TC3's mobile portal design, see "Getting More Out of Mobile," CT October 2008)

But going forward, Christofferson believes mobile administrative applications are going to be important. "There are so many things you could do with a smart phone, it's mind-boggling," he declares. "We built these apps as an experiment, just to see if we could do it, but now we're moving to a complete mobile platform integrated with the ERP system."

Through a partnership with AT&T and Rave Wireless, this year TC3 also is working on offerings to include Rave's emergency notification and mobile group applications alongside TC3's custom-built ones.

Portal Applications 'To Go'

Christofferson is not alone in seeing opportunity in the profusion of smart phones on campus. Colleges and universities across the country are making great strides in developing innovative ways to use mobile devices in the classroom (as clickers and for instant surveys) and for student collaboration. Many schools also are taking a closer look at their web portals to see which administrative features make sense to optimize for mobile access.

MIT Mobile Web started with 7,000 screen views, and in three months jumped to 55,000. Version 2.0 will offer users access to the course management system and let them manage their debit card account from their BlackBerry, iPhone, or Windows Mobile devices.

University of Maryland VP and CIO Jeffrey Huskamp believes the degree of mobile access will soon distinguish one university from another. Maryland's College Park campus is in the midst of a pilot project involving 133 students using iPhones to access a mobile version of the MyUM portal. Though the focus is on academic uses, Huskamp reports that the project team realized that the administrative applications are important as well. "These students see the mobile device as a conduit for information," he says. "It is an integral part of how they communicate, and we've got to keep up with them."

UM students are now using iPhones to look up their class schedules, grade reports, even the best campus path to get from one class to another. Public information available through the mobile portal includes university news, dining hall menus, weather reports, and theater schedules.

Still, despite some impressive examples of mobile portals, Nick Jones, a Gartner VP focused on mobile and wireless business, believes that students can wait until they get home to access most portal applications on their laptops. "The key is to find those things which require mobility and immediacy, and then provide those services to students," he explains. For instance, new students might greatly appreciate location-based services to help them figure out how to get to their next class. Some universities are even working on applications to allow students to reserve racquetball and squash courts at the gym, via their mobile devices.

Getting Personal

Jones may not be wrong; a number of schools that started projects to provide basic campus information to mobile users are now shifting into a higher gear with more sophisticated apps. The huge surge in the use of mobile devices among the tech-savvy students and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, means that users there expect to be able to use the devices for much more than phone calls. The first version of the MIT Mobile Web project, launched in the summer of 2008, offered public information such as people, places, events, and shuttle bus schedules. Not surprisingly, the system offers up-to date information about the campus, optimized for several types of mobile devices.

MIT Mobile Web started with 7,000 screen views in June 2008, but by September that number had jumped to 55,000. Version 2.0, expected to roll out this summer, will offer users access to the Stellar course management system and let them manage their TechCash debit card account from their BlackBerry, iPhone, or Windows Mobile devices.

ACU Mobile lets students see their meal plan balances, debit card accounts, even their chapel absences-- a popular app, since ACU students are required to attend chapel a number of days per month.

"We aren't creating new applications, but we're tying into existing ones that people already use and find valuable," says Andrew Yu, MIT's mobile devices platform project manager. Yu also notes that MIT Mobile Web is an open source project, so technologists at other campuses will be able to share the code and implement features rather than building their own from scratch.

Of course, mobile applications also can be designed to benefit faculty members who have no end of administrative tasks to tackle each day. Professors at Tompkins Cortland can now pull up class lists on their cell phones and easily e-mail or text message their students. Christofferson recalls being delayed at New York's LaGuardia airport on his way back to campus, when he realized he would be 45 minutes late to teach a class. He logged on to the TC3 Mobile portal, pulled up his class list, and sent an e-mail to his students, telling them which chapter to work on and what time he would be there. When he arrived, the students were all in their seats working. "I was pretty excited that it worked so well," he says. "I didn't need a laptop and I didn't have to look up a list of e-mail addresses or phone numbers. All I needed was my login."

Pulling Data From the ERP System

Recently, Abilene Christian University (TX) garnered media attention for its classroom use of Apple iPhones and iPods (that coverage included the CT February 2009 article "Good Things Come in Small Packages"). And in February, ACU hosted the ConnectEd Summit on the deployment of mobile learning programs.

But ACU CIO Kevin Roberts says that although the primary focus of ACU's efforts has been on the academic impact of mobile access, campus administrators wanted to make administrative tasks easier for students as well, so they developed a web-based application that optimizes portal information for the iPhone.

Today, pulling information from the SunGard Banner ERP system, ACU Mobile lets students see their meal plan balances, declining balances in their campus debit card accounts, even their chapel absences. (ACU students are required to attend chapel a certain number of days per month, so the ability to quickly see how many absences they have is a popular application, Roberts points out.) IT staffers are currently working with the Aramark dining service to make available its on-campus menus for the day.

Roberts' take on the mobile apps is similar to that of Gartner's Jones. "You have to decide what students want to do on the fly," he says. "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should." For instance, he says, do students really want to register for classes from their phones? After thinking carefully about what features of a mobile environment would be the highest priority from the students' point of view, ACU's IT staff decided not to build that feature into ACU Mobile-- at least, for now. "Students have a fully functional web browser on the iPhone, so they can register on the fly if they want to," he says, "but we haven't optimized that functionality."

Surprisingly, the financial account balance feature is one of the least-used thus far. "Students just don't have a burning desire to know what they owe the university, but they do sometimes want to see when there have been changes [such as parental deposits] to their account balances," Roberts laughs. He adds that ACU has not set up a way for students to make changes to financial accounts because it is concerned about the security of the transactions. "Completing financial transactions is the next big wave," Roberts says. "But there is a wide world of complexity behind securing that financial transaction, and verifying that the person using the cell phone is its rightful user."

One major new ACU Mobile link into the Banner system involves calendars and Google apps. As soon as a student registers for English 111, for example, a Google calendar is created for the class, and as the professor posts assignments and schedule changes, they automatically feed into the Google calendar that the students access from their iPhones. "Getting those data from Banner was one of the major tasks as we put this together," Roberts reports, adding that he believes ERP vendors already have started to shape their system designs with mobile access in mind.

Which Platform to Write For?

WHICH MOBILE platforms to develop for? That's the raging debate on the University of Maryland campus, says CIO Jeffrey Huskamp. Like many schools, Maryland is struggling to decide whether to design applications for each mobile platform(Symbian, iPhone, Android, RIM) in order to exploit the capabilities of each device, or to develop for a browser.

"The most useful thing is to tailor the applications to specific devices, but we are behind the curve on how to do that," he admits, adding that"It may help that we have students working on generating applications themselves, in a shareware type of environment." Most schools simply don't have the resources to optimize versions for several different devices, but neither do they want to dictate to students which device to use.

Clearly, says Gartner analyst Nick Jones, deciding which platforms to develop for is a huge problem because of the trade-offs that need to be made, in terms of the size of the audience vs. the sophistication of the application. "You can send SMS messages to every phone, but it's very basic and you can't do much with it. Or you can design native applications for the iPhone, but you may only be hitting 10 percent of your student population," he says."There is no perfect answer, but I would say developing native applications for specific platforms on campus is a bad idea."

"At Drexel we now have a mantra of supporting choice."

Kenneth Blackney, assistant to the VP for new technology and innovation in Drexel University's Department of Information Resources and Technology,agrees. "We don't want to focus on iPhone applications like some campuses, because we don't want to be dictating what hardware students should use." He says Drexel started dictating that students use Macintoshes in the 1980s and gradually got more and more resistance from users until the policy was changed in 1996. "Writing iPhone apps pegs them to a vendor and to a carrier,"he notes. "At Drexel we now have a mantra of supporting choice."

Indeed, as Montclair State University (NJ) prepares to choose a new ERP vendor, the institution expects application programming interfaces to mobile devices to be part of the solution, says Ed Chapel, VP for IT. The school's Campus Connect mobile phone program includes Rave Wireless applications, so MSU can broadcast text messages in the event of a weather emergency; it provides mobile access to e-mail accounts, as well as student and staff directories; members of university groups can participate in group text messaging and polls; and a Mobile Guardian security feature incorporates a GPS tracking system.

While it is refining its web interfaces to have a mobile-ready version that is cleaner and loads quickly, MSU is pressed for time and money for development, so adding yet another screen (to develop for) is a daunting challenge, Chapel says. "Rather than having to do that development work ourselves, we are looking to the open source community and vendors that play in the mobile space," he discloses.

Going Into Retirement?

Perhaps ironically, one of the pioneers of campus mobile portal information may let its system sunset over the next few years.

Philadelphia's Drexel University created Drexel One Mobile in June 2002 to give students mobile access to campus news and announcements, grade information, and schedules. Kenneth Blackney, assistant to the VP for new technology and innovation in Drexel's Department of Information Resources and Technology, notes that several features have proven popular with students, especially the ones that push text notifications of personal announcements from the SunGard Banner ERP system. But Blackney adds that because students are starting to use smart phones with browsers and decent keyboards, they now can go directly to the main web portal, right from their mobile device. "We don't see the need to create specialized applications anymore," he says. "Drexel One Mobile is seven years old, but I don't think it will live to see 10."

When the project started, the Drexel One Mobile team gave themselves several guidelines: The information had to have real immediacy and require minimal input, and the output had to be small and unformatted with minimal graphics. When it was launched in 2002, the number of users was initially quite small, in part because few students had data plans. "We saw quite 'bursty' user behavior," Blackney says. "[There were spikes] at the beginning of terms when they were registering, and at the end when they wanted to see grades."

But when push notification of personal announcements was added, the popularity and usage increased. "If a student is dropped from a class for nonpayment, or if a class of his is canceled, or his grades are posted, he's notified within five minutes," Blackney says. Students still have to log in to check their grades. "It's terribly popular, and we have a couple thousand users," he maintains.

But today's students don't see those stripped down, text-only applications as compelling, Blackney notes, explaining that all the guidelines Drexel set out initially (to deal with tiny screens and slow networks) are no longer relevant. Students at Drexel are using iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Windows Mobile devices to get something close to a full web experience, he explains, and Blackney believes he can now leave it to the portal vendor to handle the look and feel.

"We are quite ready to turn this off," he says of Drexel Mobile One. "In higher education we have a tendency to grant tenure to everything, including things like ancient web pages. The market will take care of this and we can work on other services valuable to the students."

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