Clearing Up the State of Mobile in Higher Ed
Originally Published: January 26, 2011
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up”, paints a very murky picture of mobile in higher ed. To an outside observer, the flurry of activity in mobile may seem like a disorganized stampede, but I don’t think this is what is really happening. Let me try to explain.
Types of web content
University web content fall into three major areas: Academic, administrative, and marketing.
Academic web content
Academic web content is instructional, consisting mostly of course material. Learning management systems, whether homegrown or licensed from a vendor, are the major way that universities handle course content and interaction online.
Administrative web content
Administrative web content is the public-facing side of the institution, from its public relations team down to its zoology department. Included within the administrative side are central services like e-mail and the college’s homepage. These websites may just be static HTML, but usually they are embedded with a content management system.
Marketing web content
Marketing web content is the fluffy side of administrative web content, but it’s different enough to warrant being its own section. A great example of marketing content is a university’s brand campaign.
By the way, when I say fluff, I don’t intend for that to be a criticism—fluff is essential, and well-produced marketing content can make a website look awesome.
Early forays into mobile
Universities are moving into mobile on the three fronts of web content, each front requiring its own strategy.
For academic content, learning management system vendors are now offering mobile plugins which allow students to access course content from their phone. This is not particularly special: It’s just another way of interfacing with existing data. To date, the mobile interface tends to only be accessible through a native phone application which users must install through an app marketplace. We have not seen browser-based LMS optimization for mobile.
Administrative content has been much more varied. Universities are either building native apps, creating browser-based mobile websites, or doing both.
Marketing content, as little as we see out there on mobile, has generally been tied to administrative content. This is not unexpected, as we usually see marketing glitter on university homepages alongside administrative content.
Native app development in higher ed is usually accomplished by purchasing a turn-key solution from a vendor. For a big chunk of change, the vendor will take some stock code they have developed, plug in your colors and RSS feeds, and give you the source code to submit to app marketplaces for students to download. Though these vendors could be taking advantage of native device functionality like GPS to build very useful tools, they have not done much of this.
Modern mobile phones have web browsers built in. Because these browsers have varying capabilities and resolutions, the challenge for web developers is to give everyone a presentation which is reasonably optimized for their device. MIT accomplished this by writing up their own detection-and-routing framework and releasing it, as a code dump, for other universities to play around with. When you access MIT’s mobile website, the server analyzes your browser’s user agent and picks out a presentation it thinks will work best for you.
Dave Olsen, a developer at West Virginia University, took MIT’s code dump and made it easier for other developers to work with, adding documentation as well as a presentation theme which uses jQTouch to deliver touchscreen-optimized flair to high-end devices like iPhone. Olsen’s framework, called Mobile Web OSP, has been adopted by quite a few universities. It’s what we are running at Michigan State.
Before moving on, I would like to note that mobile browsers are perfectly capable of rendering websites that haven’t had any mobile optimization built in. The reason we use a framework to build a mobile website is because users are beginning to expect that a website’s design will be optimized for the type of device they are using. Additionally, functionality which factors in the context of location can be a very useful tool for mobile users. For example, Ohio State’s mobile website has a “What’s near you” feature which uses GPS data to determine the nearest restaurants, wi-fi hotspots, parking ramps, etc.
For administrative content, universities have only gone as far creating mobile homepages. We have not seen much activity in mobile homepages for colleges and departments.
How Blackboard makes this confusing
Blackboard is known in higher ed as a learning management system vendor, but they have recently been diversifying their portfolio of web solutions for universities. That they have two mobile products can be confusing. Blackboard Mobile Learn is for academic content, and works as a plugin for the Blackboard Learn LMS. Blackboard Mobile Central, on the other hand, is a cross-platform native app for administrative content.
We don’t know where mobile in higher ed is headed
The academic side of web content is somewhat predictable. Colleges large and small will hang on to their LMS and whatever it offers for mobile access. We will probably see the emergence of mobile-optimized LMS products as the entire market shifts toward niche offerings. (A discussion on the LMS market will be coming in the next month or so).
The administrative web content side is much more complex. Mobile web advocates and one-web purists are still having drawn-out arguments over what should be best practice, and each side has merit. It does seem clear, however, that the mobile-optimized web is gaining momentum in higher ed.
To date, most mobile university homepages are a collection of content which already exists on a university’s full website. The mobile site bring items together, like news and events, but does not add anything aside from emphasis. As new features join the mobile party, they are tossed into a pile of functionality. This is not a great strategy for long-term growth.
Moving forward, we need a clear vision for what mobile really means in higher ed. Should a university’s mobile homepage be a marketing tool, or should it be a service for internal audiences? Should we be trying to replicate everything the full website does, or just a few things? If there’s any part of mobile which is murky, it’s whatever this vision may be. We may not know what the future looks like until we arrive there. That’s why mobile in higher ed looks like a disorganized stampede when it is really more of an organized stampede.
Note: I have been working on a mobile vision for my own institution which I hope will be embraced. If you are doing something similar at your institution, I would love to hear about it.
One more bone to pick
This write-up was inspired by a Chronicle of Higher Education article, which I noted at the outset is titled “As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up”. I disagree with the author’s premise that colleges are failing to keep pace as it implies that keeping pace is what colleges are supposed to do. Universities have always lagged behind broader trends, so a lag into mobile is expected. In many ways, delayed adoption is a useful defense mechanism. We don’t have unlimited budgets, so we try to allocate resources as efficiently as possible.
With mobile, since phone browsers can render a full site, we don’t need to dive head-first into the deep end of presentation optimization. The full experience may not be perfect for mobile, but it does provide some experience.
When an innovation is ready to revolutionize the way we do business, higher ed is not just quick to change but will often be first out of the gate (See: History of the Internet).
Lastly, the real revolutionizing power of mobile will not be found in its compact web design, but in how the devices themselves impact human relationships and society.