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Mobile Development

Maintaining the University Brand in a Decentralized Mobile Environment

Schools are finding ways to encourage mobile development on campus while maintaining centralized control of their brands.

As institutions in higher education grapple with the best way to provide mobile services on campus, administrators face a significant challenge: how to ensure that any mobile offering is appropriately branded, while--in a decentralized academic environment--giving departments and colleges the freedom to offer services they consider important.

With few exceptions, most central IT shops don't have the resources to develop a host of mobile products to serve the needs of the different constituencies on campus. Indeed, if discussions at the recent CT Forum in Long Beach, CA, are any indication, many IT departments are struggling to launch their first mobile offering.

And the communications group is in a similar position: There is no way it can provide branding oversight for a host of unrelated apps and services—some launched on shoestring budgets by entrepreneurial faculty.

To solve the problem, some schools are utilizing open source frameworks that allow departments to build their own customized mobile products quickly and easily, while still allowing centralized control of the university's brand. Although open source development itself can be a strain on IT resources, vendors are popping up who can provide development assistance and handholding.

One such vendor is Modo Labs of Cambridge, MA, whose Kurogo open source platform is based on the MIT mobile framework. "There are creative things happening at universities that go above and beyond what the IT system can provide," noted Andrew Yu, CEO of Modo Labs. "While a lot of universities are content that they have 'something,' it's important for them to open doors up to data, have a common platform, and allow the university to involve their own communities."

To eliminate the need for redundant development, the Kurogo platform features standard mobile modules including Shuttle, Events, News, Maps, and Directory. Additional modules are available for more specialized needs such as tours and reunions. The Kurogo engine can also create custom modules, and a federated search can find items across all modules.

It's a flexible solution that appealed to the University of Vermont, which launched its mobile site last summer. According to Tatjana Salcedo, web strategist for the UVM web team, the toughest part of the deployment was the very beginning, when her group had to work with IT to get the framework installed.

The mobile site now gets about 15,000 visits a month, of which more than half come from outside the geographic area. How many of those visitors are prospective students is unknown, but that statistic nevertheless convinced Salcedo of the need for proper branding as UVM implements the multisite feature of the framework this summer.

"This will allow units to build their own mobile sites using Kurogo," explains Salcedo. "We will maintain control of the look and feel centrally, but units will be able to populate and add content to these sites using Kurogo's built-in modules and the web-based administrative interface."

Because Kurogo uses non-proprietary programming languages and open standards, units that wish to create custom modules will be able to either work with UVM programmers, develop them internally, or contract with Modo Labs to develop additional functionality.

"By offering the framework and design/theming services," added Salcedo, "we expect that many units who wish to develop dedicated mobile sites will choose to use this centralized system rather than pursuing individual decentralized solutions."

Campus Involvement
Branding control and flexibility were important to the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), too, which also selected the Kurogo platform for its mobile initiative. Speed to market was another factor. "We initiated our mobile technology plan with a strategy, a definition, and a vendor evaluation and selection," recalled Natalie Stopko, RIT's director of enterprise web applications development. "It was a swift-moving three months. The mobile web deployed in August, and the mobile apps were deployed in November."

The open source framework was especially appealing to RIT, which encourages mobile development by students as part of the overall educational experience. "We have courses in our tech departments to prepare students on how to build and work with technology," explained Bryan Meyer, senior manager for information and technology services. "We get students involved, creating solutions that focus on enhancing and growing the types of function we offer."

Not surprisingly, RIT has gone to great lengths to ensure that mobile development is seen more broadly than just as an IT initiative. The school has established mechanisms for feedback, as well as usability testing, an evaluation of analytics, and a monthly review to look for trends.

"Our intent is to foster a collaborative approach for RIT mobile with opportunities for groups or individuals, across students, faculty, staff and alumni, to develop mobile solutions on their own or with our RIT mobile strategy team," explained Meyer. "We're at the beginning stages."

Even with this big-tent approach, however, RIT has not lost sight of the importance of branding. In the coming months, the RIT team plans to publish brand guidelines for mobile development. Their goal is to move the RIT brand from desktop browsers to mobile devices, apps, and browsers with a consistent look across all UI assets.

Both UVM and RIT feel they are striking an appropriate balance between brand policing and development flexibility. "Creating a policy that ensures the integrity of our brand while allowing the flexibility for identity within the units is a continuing challenge for us," noted Salcedo. "However, by offering a centralized, robust, and cost-effective toolset to accomplish common tasks, we are able to better facilitate a unified brand." 

About the Author

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

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