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Mobile Computing | Feature

Customizable Campus Apps at the Speed of Now

Schools want apps that can be developed and revamped quickly--and engage students fully with their institutions. A new Blackboard platform aims to help.

While most colleges understand the importance of mobile devices to students, efforts to meet their needs have often been underwhelming or slow to take off. Too many initiatives have bogged down in myriad committee meetings and stakeholder reviews, or been stalled by debate about native versus mobile-optimized web apps. In a digital world that is constantly reinventing itself, such ponderous maneuverings increase the risk that an app will be out of date before it's even launched.

"We live in a world that is no longer fixed, and we have a constituency that wants things when they want it, where they want it," said Robert Seniors, associate director for instructional technology at Florida A&M University (FAMU). "Student expectations are the driving factor, as is the desire to provide the highest level of service."

Although FAMU had already developed a well-received app, these same factors are what drove the school to adopt Mosaic, Blackboard's replacement for its Mobile Central platform, for the second phase of its app development. With Mosaic, FAMU is able to create, deploy, and update device-specific apps in a fraction of the time previously spent on such tasks.

"What formerly took us three to four weeks to do, we can now do in one to two days," explained Seniors. "It's phenomenal what we've been able to do. We have the ability to make over-the-air updates by logging into a portal and pushing content right away over the air." Mosaic can put information out immediately, or it can sweep for new information every hour. With FAMU's previous app, the sweep was every 24 hours.

The new platform, which was released in June, allows schools to choose from 14 functions (including transportation schedules, mapping, news, athletics, emergency contacts, LMS integration, and library catalogs), add custom data, and create a branded interface. Both iOS and Android operating systems are supported.

Mosaic's ability to customize a campus app quickly and easily is also what appealed to Northern Arizona University. "People are demanding mobile applications, and they want to interact with the university whenever they want, and with whatever devices they want," said Chris Greenough, NAU's enterprise web team lead. Almost one-third of the school's 26,600 students have already downloaded NAU Mobile, as the school's new app is known, even though the school hasn't even advertised the product. "I think that speaks for itself," added Greenough.

The ease with which features can be added or changed has given NAU staffers the freedom to try new things. "We can customize modules on the fly with Mosaic," explained Greenough. "We're planning to use this functionality to add seasonal information for events such as Homecoming and Family Weekend. We're also looking to integrate our events calendar with our maps module. This will allow a 'What's going on around me?' feature. Our campus activities department has also developed an application called 'True Blue Rewards' that we're going to move to mobile devices: It tracks student activity in sponsored events on campus."

Because NAU no longer needs to plan for a long development cycle, the school is actually making changes to its overall tech strategy. "We're moving everything we do to the mobile side," noted Greenough. "Everything will be mobile first: phone, tablets, web browser."

Mosaic Goals
What's happening at schools like NAU and FAMU is music to the ears of Blackboard, which wants its development platform to go beyond simply making a collection of tools available to clients. "We really intend to allow schools to engage their constituency where they live," said Ryan Irwin, head of product for Blackboard Mobile. "It's not just about students. It goes well beyond--to alumni, prospective students, and even the community that contributes to the university. It's the difference between using an app when they need utility and being engaged with the institution."

Just how engaged campus constituents are with an app can be tracked through a built-in analytics dashboard, allowing administrators to evaluate usage and determine what changes, if any, are needed. Greenough uses the analytics feature to report to NAU stakeholders monthly on module usage. On average, he said, "we have almost 1,000 active users per day. This lets us know that students really do want to use our service from a mobile device."

Relevance to Students
While most campus apps offer a suite of tools such as maps, bus routes, and athletics schedules, many development teams shy away from tighter integration with data feeds that may come with security or privacy considerations. Because NAU feels so strongly about the need to engage students via their mobile devices, though, it is planning to launch an app component for critical messaging, including missing degree requirements, major milestones, enrollment alerts, academic-standing notifications, and important deadlines. "We will soon take these messages and use push message technology to send them to our students' devices, allowing them to receive these notifications on the go," said Greenough.

And given Blackboard's background, it's not surprising that integration with its LMS is an option, one that NAU has already incorporated and FAMU is pursuing now. "What's coming for Florida A&M is going to blow their minds," said Seniors of the school's plans to give students access to the LMS from their mobile devices. Faculty will be able to provide a syllabus, assignments, study materials, and even give exams online. In addition, the school has the option to incorporate journals, discussion groups, wikis, and blogs.

"It will take the engagement level to places you can't achieve in the face-to-face world," Seniors concluded. "We've found that hybrid courses do the best from the basis of graduation and student outcome. The second most successful group is online. The third most successful is traditional. And it's all because of engagement. More engagement through mobile is our goal. Engagement is everything. It strengthens recruitment, retention, and student outcome."

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