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Once More with Insight: USD Students Get a Personal Assistant Mobile App

A Q&A with Chris Wessells

After too many years watching students struggle with the transition to college, mobile application developers at the University of San Diego are excited to watch this year's freshmen get organized and get ahead with a highly customized USD personal assistant mobile application. CT asked USD Vice Provost and CIO Christopher W. Wessells about the USD Insight app.

Mary Grush: What inspired the university to develop the USD Insight app? How does this app contribute to institutional and IT strategies?

Chris Wessells: The University of San Diego is all about a student-centric, excellent student experience, whether it be in academics or extra curricular activities. The attention that our division of student affairs and academic affairs pay to making sure that our students have a wonderful experience at this institution is really something special. Our students have a sense of well-being, and our graduation rate is high. 

We are always looking for something new and innovative to enhance the student experience. As the CIO, I feel that giving students applications that are personal and effective, in the palm of their hand, is a key strategy for the university and for the central IT organization that I run.

Grush: You developed the Insight app internally — why was that your approach?

Wessells: An important factor there is that I have a strong team of mobile application and portal developers who've been out on the forefront of experimentation with different kinds of Web and native mobile app development. Additionally, my Senior Director of ERP Technologies Avi Badwal has been giving superb guidance and oversight to all our mobile application development projects. I give Avi and the team seed money for innovative development work, because I firmly believe that a university IT organization needs to fund some projects that may be a bit risky. Taking risks is important. Sometimes these projects work out — sometimes they don't. But our team of developers in portal and mobile technologies are talented people, and in order to keep them motivated and interested in staying at the University of San Diego, we need to keep them working on projects that stimulate them intellectually.

Grush: Is mobile an important focus for IT at USD?

Wessells: We've had a Mobile First initiative at the university for about two and a half years now, and the application side of that is important, along with related elements like responsive Web site design and state of the art Wi-Fi. We have one of the most densely deployed wireless networks at any university. We've recognized that our students need access to applications, and that they should not be encumbered by the infrastructure in any way. And we concentrate on developing personalized applications that students genuinely will embrace and use in ways that make their experiences better.

Grush: You've seen the Insight app in full production use for nearly a year since its full release. How is student adoption and how has the app been received by students?

Wessells: Our total graduate and undergraduate student population is 8,251 enrolled — and we are seeing around 2,800 students using Insight, based on downloads from the app store. And since it launched nearly a year ago, we've counted more than 100,000 completed tasks — anything from using the time tracker, entering a personal task and completing it, checking an assignment, responding to a push notification, or entering an emotion on the emotion tracker… 

Grush: Is the new or freshman student a particular target?

Wessells: It was targeted especially to freshmen, and the largest adoption has been from freshmen and sophomores, who at this time make up the vast majority of users. It's the transition from the home and high school environment to a university campus that concerns us most — in particular, that 18-year-old who suddenly is responsible for managing their time and tasks in a university environment. We want to help them do that in a way that they can be successful.

Grush: Using the Insight app, the student engages with a personal assistant that's highly customized for the University of San Diego. That must be very appealing, compared to using one of the more generic assistant or personal management apps available. Where does the Insight app get its data?

Wessells: In planning the design of our Insight app, we concluded that generic personal assistants aren't very effective for students, because they are not tied in with our Student Information System or our Constituent Relationship Management System. To do something more powerful, we connect Insight with those two systems. Our underlying SIS is Banner Student (Ellucian XE), and our CRM is Salesforce and TargetX. We are able to leverage all of that custom, personal data, such as class rosters, class details, instructors, location of classes, and render it in the app. The CRM is used mostly for tracking events — recitals, sports events, and so on. All of the data for push notifications relevant to events resides inside Salesforce, while fundamental course information, course schedules, and other academic information is part of the Ellucian XE, Banner SIS.

Grush: How did you address security and privacy?

Wessells: Users authenticate through LDAP, so we can securely push all the required data to the phone.  

Grush: Does the Insight app overlap with previously existing portal pages? If so, have you seen any drop-off in portal use?

Wessells: The bulk of the overlap we've seen with our portal has actually occurred with a different, customized mobile app that we developed — MySDMobile is the core mobile app for the university, and it does overlap significantly with our portal technology. We use Luminis 5 from Ellucian for our portal, and MySDMobile is the Ellucian mobile platform that we customized for the University of San Diego. So, MySDMobile does overlap with our portal, and as a result of that, we have seen a drop in portal usage. We see similar overlaps with Insight, but to a lesser degree. We've had MySDMobile for many years, so of course we could expect that it would have more impact at this point. We also still have substantial traffic on the portal.

Grush: Do you see attrition from the portal in a way that might foreshadow a future retirement of the portal?

Wessells: At some point in the future I would see that happening. But at this point in time, at USD, I don't see it happening soon. There are certain functions for which people still prefer using the portal. Law school registration is a good example. Registration for certain law classes is very competitive, and we've noticed, in those cases, that the students feel there is an advantage to registering via computer over the network rather than by smart phone.

But, more generally, in answer to the question, "Will portals eventually go away?" I absolutely believe that's the case. As native mobile applications appear that offer all the rich features that a portal does, and as there are assurances that these applications are fully secure, and if the performance of the mobile applications can be considered as good or better than the portal, then we will see the eventual decommissioning of portal technology.

Still, most universities are actually in their infancy when it comes to sophisticated mobile applications development. The road ahead may be a long one.

Grush: What is the perception of the Insight app by faculty and service departments around campus?

Wessells: Faculty really aren't using it directly, as the app is designed for the student. We will need to survey the faculty who have students that are using the app.

But, there are business units and service organizations such as the Center for Student Success in Student Affairs — their job is to see that students have a wonderful experience at USD and are successful. They help us promote the application, and to an extent, give us input on the application design. So, they have certainly embraced the Insight app.

Other areas showing interest in Insight are the Student Affairs and Academic Affairs leaders. They are aware of our efforts to be on the forefront of mobile applications for our students. Another area with a high level of interest in the app is Career Services. They could be thought of as being at the back end of the USD experience. Their job is making sure that our students ultimately have opportunities to find employment or go on to graduate school. They have welcomed the Insight app.

Grush: Does the Insight app generate data that can be fed to other campus analytics?

Wessells: The Insight app generates a considerable amount of data on our students; however, we have to develop a process to allow us to use that data for analytics. Our business intelligence platform is Cognos BI, from IBM, and it can be used to generate analytics. The students have to choose to allow us to take information for analytics on that level. But, we've built some personalized end-of-semester analytics into the application itself.

We launched version 2.0 of the Insight app this past January. In that version, the student will be able to see end-of-semester analytics on their experiences — what they've really enjoyed, for example, charting out the emotions around their courses and activities over the course of their semester.

Grush: It seems obvious that there are plenty of possibilities for new features and changes moving forward with this application. How will you manage change?

Wessells: Of course, we're already working on some additional changes. We'll also be doing a series of focus groups, and another round of Beta testing. Naturally, we will always go to the students to ask them what they think could be improved.

Grush: Is the university marketing or making available a more generic version of this app, to other interested colleges and universities?

Wessells: We have been collecting information about whether other institutions may be interested. But we have not provided a generic version or spinoff yet. There are several issues with that. USD is working on a formal way to deal with technology transfer in general. I'm working with the provost's office to try to get some kind of structure in place to handle all the technology transfer issues, possibly in Academic Affairs, or in the General Counsel's office. As a small but innovative liberal arts university, we have some truly great developments here, but we don't have staff positions charged with handling intellectual property, royalty, and myriad other issues surrounding technology transfer from our university. But I think it's important, and we will need to address all of this.

Grush: Do you see a general trend in higher education for more personalized services for students? Where might we be headed, in offering students better and more personalized services and tools?

Wessells: I definitely think there is a trend at universities, generally, to personalize services, and mobile is, right now, a big part of that. Coming up on the horizon, we'll see many additional technologies, such as wearables, and the Internet of things tied to the notion of personalization or personalized learning and services. Without a doubt, there are going to be more applications around learning and the day-to-day business of the university that will have to be tailored to the individual. For most institutions, this will likely mean a whole lot of development work ahead for them.

But beyond that, there's more to think about than application development, per se. Personalization is not just an individual using technology. It's about making sure there are people there, in the right places and at the right times, to address the needs of the individual student, and having a holistic view around the student. This may have special meaning for freshmen. For students to have the tools to be able to allow qualified people to have visibility into their lives and help them, so they may succeed, is something I see as a really important trend. And, it's a way to help students experience the unique quality of an education at your institution.

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