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For those colleges and universities still watching and waiting for the mobile market to develop, now would be a good time to take action. The explosive growth of mobile technology adoption is undeniable, with mobile web access predicted to eclipse desktop access by 2014. In some major source countries for international recruitment, mobile technology can represent the only web access. According to the latest E- Expectations Report, nearly 70 percent of college-bound high school students access college websites by mobile devices, and 73 percent are interested in institutions with campus-specific mobile apps. These students have grown up with mobile technology and arrive on campus equipped to research, collaborate and share. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked: “do you have an app for that?”

A recent EDUCAUSE mobile-app survey among Purdue University students showed a strong preference for apps compared to mobile browsers. Since native apps have access to a device’s hardware (camera, GPS, etc.), they are faster, easier to use and more functional than the alternatives. Universities have used apps for diverse purposes, including:

  • Interactive campus maps
  • Searchable course catalogues
  • Videos for campus tours, student testimonials, or academic programming
  • Upcoming events, performances, lectures
  • Transportation and contact information

Apps can be used for extra resources or even as a foundation for online courses. Three online master’s degree programs at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota are providing students with iPads loaded with a learning platform app and productivity apps to deliver all coursework. The app will make it easy to access materials and textbooks anywhere, and instantly connect with classmates and faculty outside the virtual classroom. OCAD University offers students and faculty a free smartphone app for communicating with police in the event of an emergency. Carleton University includes a checklist to simplify admissions.


Digital Strategy Development

Mobile optimization is best undertaken within a wider institutional strategy of stakeholder engagement. Integrating mobile apps with other internal systems can be challenging but lead to greater long-term functionality and easier adaptation. Phil Chatterton, director of digital media technologies at the University of British Columbia, has helped build an “end-to-end mobile experience, from prospective to actual student to alumnus,” aiming to exceed a prospect’s high expectations from day one. Their recruiters “present from iPads and provide follow-up information via mobile applications, a mobile-friendly Viewbook, and responsively designed websites to connect with the admissions process.”

Their UBC Prospective Undergraduate Students app includes a five-step application process, allowing users to explore, plan, view photos and videos. A recruitment Viewbook launches additional Aurasma-activated content via a mobile app when readers hold their mobile devices over certain pages. As mobile users tend to be task driven, universities should focus on key features to make available on mobile devices, such as a list of programs, application instructions and deadlines, and campus maps. Using open source platforms, such as Kurogo, enables students to develop some of the modules themselves. Over 200 schools use Kurogo to integrate with other apps, synch with social media accounts, and connect and share code with other institutions.


Swift and Agile Solutions

It is important that universities don’t get caught up in sweeping content strategy and development at the expense of short-term solutions. An agile model is preferred to one big release because technology advances too quickly to wait. Developing mobile optimized templates for the existing website is likely the best place to start to reach the most people. Find a platform to get up and running quickly, then integrate feedback to add new features over time. Collaborate with top-level stakeholders to take action with a cohesive vision and universal access.

Although apps can easily cost several thousand dollars to create, tools like AppMakr have encouraged some administrators with no real programming knowledge to very cheaply build their own. The user experience should be the key priority with any new app, identifying the most relevant platform to focus on for the initial release. Remember that there is likely extensive development and marketing skills that you can tap into at your institution. Last year, Dalhousie University started an App Challenge contest for students to get involved in social media marketing innovation and the University of Toronto opened their own mobile app lab. U of T’s mobile website features a “Download Apps” page, offering to feature independently created projects.

u of t

Apps vs HTML5

While there are clear competitive benefits for higher education to be proactive regarding mobile, shifting consumer markets and budgetary limitations make implementation strategies more challenging. Adobe’s recent report revealed that only three years since the iPad’s introduction, tablets are now driving more web traffic than smartphones, with an impressive 70 percent more page views per visit. Changing mobile trends highlight the fact that developing separate apps for each platform can be expensive and time-consuming.

Responsive HTML5 coding works like an app but in your mobile browser, meaning that anyone on any phone or tablet can view your app. An HTML5 web app can be “wrapped” into a native app for iOS, Android and Blackberry so it is available in app stores, as well as through a browser. Although useful apps are an ideal part of student marketing for the mobile generation, a college’s main priority should be providing an easy way for its audiences to access services on the mobile web, in whichever way institutional and user goals are best met.

Has your school developed mobile apps? Which ones are most successful?