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Mobile Strategy or Moving Target

In developing a mobile strategy, schools must navigate a technology field that is evolving at tremendous speed. CT looks at the key questions facing colleges and universities.

At times, it feels as if mobile computing is evolving at the speed of thought. A never-ending stream of new products is being snapped up by consumers who can't seem to get enough. "In the past two years, smartphones have become essential to every aspect of the higher education experience," declares Aaron Wasserman, director of Blackboard Mobile.

Research backs him up. According to Bob Diveley, executive director of operations and infrastructure for Columbus State University (GA), more than 70 percent of CSU students prefer to use their cell phones as their primary way to access and receive university information.

With students increasingly reliant on mobile technology, how can your institution determine the best strategy for meeting their needs? And, in such a rapidly evolving environment, how do you stay on track in terms of development, resource allocation, and priorities? CT looks at some of the key decisions facing colleges and universities nationwide.

1) Mobile Website, App, or Both?
"Mobile apps have advantages," says Maharsh Desai, programmer analyst for the Auxiliary Enterprises department at Western Michigan University. "They're much faster than a mobile website and provide a much better user experience. However, I would recommend developing a mobile website." Desai's reasons include:

  • Platform independence: "They can be accessed from any smartphone browser, whereas mobile apps should be developed separately for different platforms."
  • Ease of use: "A mobile website is easily available and convenient. Students don't have to go through the hassle of downloading the app on their phones."
  • Cost efficiency: "Developing a mobile website is much more cost efficient than developing multiple mobile apps for different platforms."
  • Ease of maintenance: "The mobile website can be easily updated and maintained."

Geoffrey Shoultz, a senior programmer in University Information and Technology Services at CSU, recommends that schools develop both a mobile website and a native app. But he suggests you start off with a mobile website. "If you're just getting started in the app world, you may leave out some potential features from your app," he explains. "Creating an app for each platform will also take additional time and resources. With a mobile website, all platforms are supported, which can give you more time to release the native apps."

And when you do develop those apps, ideally they should fulfill functions that the mobile-optimized website does not. "The development of the app should not simply seek to duplicate what already exists in terms of web resources," notes Maya Georgieva, assistant director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Rather, it should make services/data easier to access and interact with. Mobile websites allow students to access information and key services on their devices, while apps focus on performing unique tasks more efficiently." (NYU Stern won a 2011 Campus Technology Innovators award for its development of an iPad app for digital course materials.)

2) In-House, Outsource, or Customize?
The first choice of many IT managers is to develop a mobile solution in-house, if possible. "If the mobile website/application is based on the university's existing system, it makes much more sense to develop it in-house," notes WMU's Desai. "Overall, in-house development will always give you an edge."

That was the route chosen by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in developing its campus app, known as Mobile UW. The app was the work of a team of developers drawn from various campus departments. UW used the same approach to develop sub-apps, including a directory, map, campus safety, news, events, athletics, and buses. "For now, we are moving forward using in-house talent, including a project manager," says Hideko Mills, manager of IT research infrastructure.

At the same time, Mills recognizes that in-house development is something of a luxury, particularly in these grim economic times. "We recognize that other higher education institutions may not have in-house resources to pursue our strategy," she says.

It was lack of resources--rather than will--that prompted CSU to look for a customizable third-party solution, rather than build an app from scratch. "We spent time looking into what we could do with Google Apps, because we had just made the switch over [to Google Apps Education Edition]," says Shoultz, citing CSU's lack of in-house experience in building websites and apps.

In 2009, CSU launched an Android-based app that allows students to access their financial information, required documents, and various schedules. Despite the success of the customized Google app, Shoultz does not gainsay the value of in-house development. "If you have the time and ability," he advises, "I say go for it."

It's a big "if," however. "If they're looking at how to do this from scratch, it can be pretty daunting," say John Lewis, chief software architect of the consulting group Unicon. Lewis is on the board of directors of Jasig, a consortium of higher education institutions and businesses that backs open source initiatives.

Most recently, the group has thrown its support behind the development of uMobile, a free, open source platform that allows universities to use a single code base to create native apps for Android and iOS devices, plus browser-based content for smartphones. Version 1.0 of the platform was released in September.

3) Cross-Platform Development
Don't be tempted to pursue a strategy that is dependent on a single mobile platform. "Considering the fierce competition and current market share for different mobile platforms, cross-platform development is a necessity," advises WMU's Desai.

Shoultz agrees, "but I think there are only two--maybe three--platforms to focus on." He feels that iPhone and Android are necessary platforms, with BlackBerry "a maybe." For its part, UW chose to support iOS and Android, and is currently one of several universities working with Jasig on the uMobile platform.

Each school obviously faces its own development and resource challenges; ultimately, though, any mobile strategy must be inclusive to be successful. "While pilot projects can start by utilizing a single device or platform," says NYU Stern's Georgieva, "it is important to follow up on these efforts by expanding access to the entire student body."

4) Cost Calculations
Cost is another critical factor in deciding how and where to develop a mobile product. Before UW made its decision to build its apps in-house, Mills and her team researched vendor options. According to Mills, they were "far too costly and not sustainable with recurring license fees."

But going to a third-party developer can make a lot of sense, especially if the company already provides your school with enterprise solutions that can be integrated into the mobile product. Also, time considerations sometimes make it the wisest course of action. "If it's a very time-sensitive project and is readily available in the market, it makes more sense to purchase it and customize it, rather than develop it from the ground up," says WMU's Desai.

When analyzing the costs of in-house development, it's important to factor in not only the initial development costs but maintenance and upgrades, too. "Most of the cost occurs in development and feature enhancement of the platforms," notes Mills. "Once in production, our maintenance costs are relatively low. We pay for the hosting and maintenance of two virtual servers, and help desk service."

By building CSU's app on the Google Apps platform, Shoultz not only kept costs down, but he's actually using it as a springboard to generate revenues. "Our original app was developed by me and one student assistant," says Shoultz. "Now we have two full-time people and are looking for part-time help to develop more mobile apps. We also develop apps for other companies and universities, which, in turn, helps to fund our staff."

5) Security
Security is a very real issue, and security experts expect 2011-2012 to be the first year when mobile devices come under heavy attack from data thieves.

"Individuals have a different sense of security and often open themselves to potential security risks," says NYU's Georgieva. "Apps can open doors to a variety of personal user information. Not all smartphones or users password-protect their phone devices, and some devices allow passwords to be stored, which could easily allow other individuals to access personal information."

In rolling out a mobile strategy, many institutions have taken a baby-steps approach. At UW-Madison, for example, version 1.0 of Mobile UW used only data sources that were currently in production and accessible to the public.

"We expect subsequent versions to address authentication issues surrounding accessing private information, such as student courses and grades," explains Mills. "The Mobile UW project team worked with the Office of Campus Information Security for a security risk analysis review prior to placing the platforms into production."

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