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Mobile Relevance: Moving More Quickly on Implementation

A Q&A with Tim Flood about mobile implementations on campus

Mobile implementations bring relevance to the institution for students and other campus constituents. But many colleges and universities over think their mobile strategies, causing needless delays in deriving value from their mobile projects. Tim Flood (photo, right), a seasoned leader of mobile initiatives including Stanford University's iStanford project, points out some of the unique requirements of mobile implementations, and urges institutions to move more quickly on mobile.

Mary Grush: What is the key advantage institutions can get by offering mobile applications on campus?

Tim Flood: Being relevant. The big opportunity mobile affords any higher education institution is in applying this technology so that the institution is relevant to students, to their parents, to the faculty, increasingly to the staff, to the alumni… and so on. There really isn't one application area that's more important or offers greater opportunities than others, but there are so many good examples. You can take almost any aspect of teaching, learning, administration, or research and turn that into a productive mobile app--how to get around campus, what's going on around campus, what's the latest research finding published by campus researchers… There are literally hundreds of compelling examples of useful mobile apps. Mobile apps offer some of the most accessible, convenient, and engaging ways for people to interact with the kind of campus information that means something to them.

Grush: What are the common stumbling blocks that keep institutions from moving on mobile?

Flood: Most institutions are a little bit at sea with mobile technology. They really don't know how to get started. Mobile is already a vast, even chaotic area--variations in mobile platforms; new devices being released every few weeks; then there is the BYOD issue that CIOs face… There is so much happening that institutions struggle with just trying to identify where to get started. It's a sea of almost unlimited opportunity yet endless challenge. Who wouldn't be a little confused at first?

Grush: Then what happens?

Flood: I see institutions hesitating too much. They want to "think it through" first. Understandably, they want to plan carefully, but they tend to get frozen in their own impulse to have a campus dialog about mobile. Of course, nothing generally happens from the dialog. The worst thing is to send mobile through a committee process. To have mobile, you have to be mobile and that means in the way you decide and implement. Being mobile is about having quick results.

Grush: What would you suggest?

Flood: We need to get institutions beyond the persistent questioning and speculating and into an action that will get results, and get their first mobile app out the door.

Grush: Are these institutions maybe waiting for stability, and for standards?

Flood: Yes, and that just doesn't map to how technology is changing today. The mobile environment is just not going to make a stop so you can take your time getting on the bus. You have to accept continual development and change surrounding the industry and mobile applications, and adapt.

For example, when we were in the very early stages of creating iStanford, some people said we should really wait for the mobile devices to standardize. This was in 2008. Well, if we'd heeded that warning we'd still be waiting today!

Grush: So waiting for standards is one of the stumbling blocks…

Flood: Yes, it's a big one when you're considering mobile. And the other big problem that institutions still "thinking about" mobile tend to have--we just talked about this a little--is the otherwise admirable suggestion, "Let's think everything through first." Well, that just doesn't work well in an arena like mobile, where everything is changing underneath you.

These two mantras we've had for a long time in higher education--wait for standards and plan ahead on all aspects of your project--served us very well in other contexts, but not here, now, today, with mobile. The technology change we face today challenges us to re-examine how we think and act as we begin our mobile projects. Mobile technology is not an ERP system. You have to treat it differently.

Grush: How do you get institutions over those hurdles and get them started?

Flood: I think the single biggest gift that an institution could give itself in terms of mobile, would be simply to "dive in." Do something quickly. Do something of consequence without really trying to think it through to every last detail.

This is exactly how iStanford was born. We didn't sit down and develop an all-encompassing mobile strategy. But, we acted strategically. We thought on the level of, "What would be of value to anyone walking around campus?" Then we did something about it.

Grush: So it sounds like you are acting strategically--but being realistic about a certain level of change or unexpected events you may encounter. That sounds like very strategic planning!

Flood: Yes! But strategic in the mobile context is not necessarily strategic in our more familiar contexts. With mobile, once you actually do something--instead of just making detailed plans that may actually become ineffective quickly--you gain experience that will become a reference point for other mobile projects you might do in the future. A mobile strategy is better derived from experience.

Part of the beauty of mobile implementations, versus something like ERP implementations, is that the smaller scale of mobile lets you go ahead and just try an implementation, learn from it, and develop your intuition for future mobile projects. You can learn so much from creating and building smaller things. And you can often do these projects rather quickly and gain more experience quickly.

Grush: Would you suggest to schools embracing mobile to look to replicate work done at other schools, or break new ground?

Flood: You could certainly do a combination, as well as using commercially available apps. But don't miss the opportunity to create something quite new. Look for areas in which you can do a little research on something that hasn't been done before. You can also consider engaging some of your students, or some of your faculty.

Grush: What about the question of developing your mobile app to work on all devices?

Flood: Do you really need to? That's a valid question. But if we made a rule that we couldn't do anything unless it worked on all devices and platforms everywhere, we'd probably end up never doing anything of real value for anyone. So you really have to weigh your priorities and figure out what's reasonably possible and productive from your point of view.

And remember, the technology is always changing around you. Mobile-aware Web sites, for example, can run on any mobile device with a browser--so that's a change that's happening in the environment and might be of some use for you, if you are concerned about running on all devices. Of course, mobile-aware Web sites may not really offer quite the same experience you'd get from an app. So you have to decide what's right for your institution--just don't make it a protracted debate about apps versus mobile-aware Web sites. Or… why not do both?

Grush: What would your advice be to institutions about to take their first steps towards mobile?

Flood: Institutions should rapidly choose something new or useful for their campus and quickly do it, without a lot of pre-conceived notions.

Grush: How do you pick your partners on campus?

Flood: That can be a difficult choice. We have been fortunate in some crucial ways. Look for partners willing to take some risk, who can work quickly, and who have some sort of stake or interest in the app. Finding people willing to innovate can be a challenge.

Grush: It's often said that higher education is just very, very slow at picking up on mobile technology. Is it important for higher education institutions to be more aware of this, and try to catch up?

Flood: I think it's a bad sign that higher education is taking longer to pick up on and be involved in the mobile marketplace than other market segments. Students want to attend institutions that are engaging in using the tools of their age. This is the age of information and mobile technology. As a student, why would I want to attend a university that doesn't seem interested in mobile? What kind of opportunities will I get there? How will attending this place prepare me for the world I live in?

Higher education is an increasingly competitive environment. The business model is being transformed at a very fundamental level. So when we're considering an institution's willingness to explore mobile technology, I'd keep this broader perspective in mind: We're not just talking about implementing technology! We're ultimately talking about an institution's identity, its image, its perceived relevance--and perhaps its survival.

[Editor's note: Tim Flood will lead a workshop, "Moving Ahead with Mobile--Implementing a Quick-Start Mobile Program for Your Campus" at CT Forum, April 30-May 2 in Long Beach, CA.]

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