In March 2012, students at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) were greeted by banners throughout campus announcing a new mobile app. Within a month, 8,000 students had downloaded it; however, it wasn't long before the downloads stopped.
"We received a lot of mixed feedback from our students," Bryan Wilson, executive director of infrastructure services, says of the bare-bones app that the university got for free from a longtime vendor, "so they stopped using it."
Still, the initial pace of downloads illustrated just how important mobile capabilities are to students who instinctually use their smartphones and tablets for everything from paying bills to making dinner reservations. When they weren't able to use the old app to conduct day-to-day business with the college, they weren't interested.
As prominent learning management, student information and administration systems are redeveloped or partnered to offer mobile components, the majority of colleges and universities today are able to offer at least some basic mobile-based tools.
"The question is, 'What does it mean to be mobile?' If it's just pulling up a website on a mobile device, that's different than really intending to deliver to mobile," says Marti Harris, research director at Gartner. "It has to do with increased capabilities, not just mirroring what you would get on a notebook."
An audio-based tool telling students where available parking spaces are, for instance, is far more useful on a smartphone than it is on a desktop website with a map.
Armed with new insight on what it truly means to shift to a mobile-first mentality, UTSA started again from scratch. The IT team developed a new app that offered most of the services available on UTSA's Automated Student Access Program (ASAP) self-service portal, including accessing course schedules to checking account balances. Wilson's team launched the new app in May 2014.
"With zero advertising, it had 3,000 downloads, in addition to students who received the update to the existing app" at the start of the academic year, Wilson says. But this time, it wasn't the banners that drew users. Rather, recommendations from the students who had already tried it drew in more downloads. "It's all word of mouth."
Getting Better All the Time
UTSA's new strategy is to make everything available on the mobile site first, then ASAP second, with plans to eventually retire the portal altogether. "The goal is to add one feature each month to the mobile app," says Wilson, who already has a list of about 18 to 20 features to add.
Students can now check account balances, course schedules, campus news and look up important telephone numbers. The app includes YouTube, college bookstore and social media links. Students also can use it to find available computers in campus labs.
"They were really excited to get that," Wilson says.
The course module is another popular feature, linking course schedules with the Banner student information system.
"Students really like that they have one place to go to see what courses they're registered for, look at their assignments, look at the discussions and find out information about their classes," says Jayashree Iyengar, UTSA's assistant director for application development and support.
Based on student suggestions, the IT team recently added a feature listing all campus dining options, along with menus, locations and hours. Two other popular requests are for registration and available parking spaces, Iyengar says. "That will be tricky," Wilson admits.
Adding features is easy, he says. The challenge lies in making sure all of the necessary resources are there to support them. To provide a map of available parking spaces, for example, UTSA would need to install sensors in the lots.
Wilson's team also is working with the university's mobile app vendor to customize and validate a registration tool. "Obviously, we can't have a student registering for a class that they need to graduate and then learning something was wrong and they weren't actually registered," he says. "It's such a critical application. There's no room for error."
A Work in Progress
When David Hickey started as vice president for technology and CIO at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in 2012, he walked around campus introducing himself to people, one of whom was a student's father. Even though his daughter was enrolled in an online course, the father explained, she had to make a visit to the campus because she couldn't access required applications offsite.
To better serve students and staff, and remain competitive, Cincinnati State began virtualizing applications, allowing students and staff to access them remotely. In fall 2012, the IT
team rolled out a vendor-supplied app, supplemented with applications developed in-house.
"It was a huge hit," Hickey says, adding that about 8,000 of Cincinnati State's 10,700 students are using the new system.
Within the next few months, Hickey plans to virtualize desktops and roll out personalized environments for tablets so that when students sign on to the network, they can access a screen with all the apps required for their courses.
"That way, the screen's not all cluttered," Hickey says. "It's exactly what they need."
He anticipates mobile use will continue to grow, as wearable devices such as Google Glass become more mainstream. "Really, the possibilities are endless," Hickey says.
That's an important consideration for schools trying to map out their mobile strategies, Gartner's Harris says. She advises them to consider how mobile might expand on their own campuses as well as in the marketplace, particularly as the Internet of Things grows. For instance, with data from a blood-sugar monitor and a calendar, a mobile app of the future might determine that a student is heading to campus to take a test and advise him to have a snack first.
Embedded in that scenario are concerns about data privacy. Students may want their devices to interact but may not want institutions to have access to all of the data they contain. When and if students connect devices with such data to their campus networks, implications for privacy and security regulations remain unknown.
A mobile app at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., has come a long way in the three years since it was unveiled. What started as a tool to connect students with campus maps, course schedules and room assignments has grown to include features that allow them to pay bills through the financial aid office and register for classes.
Asking simply, "What do students need in a mobile moment?" has guided the evolution of Oakland's app, CIO Theresa Rowe says. To answer that question, her team regularly hires students to work on mobile implementations. The exercise not only gives students work experience, but also provides IT with valuable student perspectives.
"We used to go to key administrative offices and ask them what they want to tell students. Now, students design materials for themselves," she says.
One faculty suggestion recently led IT to develop a stand-alone app to guide students through the graduation process, from applying for a diploma and ordering caps and gowns to obtaining tickets for the ceremony.
"It's a big event in our students' lives, and we want to reflect that in the environment they live in," Rowe says.