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Investigating Mobile Solutions for Higher Education Institutions

Investigating Mobile Solutions for Higher Education Institutions
While many solutions exist to help institutions find pathways to the mobile market, the majority of these solutions are unattractive due to cost, lack of flexibility and their requirement for internal expertise.

Most institutions have received the following incoming message, played it over and over and can repeat it by heart:

  • Mobile technology is here to stay;
  • Institutional stakeholders are mobile and expect the institutions they love to adapt to their reality;
  • Institutions must come to terms and establish a strong mobile presence;
  • If they don’t, they risk making themselves appear irrelevant in the mobile age.

The challenge

But there’s a big problem, one that many readers may identify with: Most departments are cash-strapped and lack the wherewithal (i.e. the expertise, the bandwidth, or both) to adapt. Some colleges and universities struggle simply to provide a good campus wireless service. Almost everyone frets about supporting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). And, on top of that, you’re supposed to provide your constituents with mobile apps and websites? Yes.

Will any amount of fretting and the gnashing of teeth slow down the relentless Wheel of Technology? Not even if you invoke the protection of the sacred gods of Data Integrity, Data Standards and Data Security!

The Big Wheel does not hear your protests of needing more time, money, resources, standards and so on … it just keeps turning!

Where to go from here?

Up until recently, you’ve had four fairly discreet mobile options:

1. Third-party development

The Process: You hire a firm to build a custom app. This costs tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars to do properly and takes months.

The Problems: It’s very risky and you’d better be very confident in your vendor. Support and maintenance loom as serious costs, sooner or later.

2. In-house development (type 1)

The Process: Eager to be up on the latest development tools, local staff convince you to let them build one locally from scratch. I’ve observed this done successfully at one midwestern institution and it can result in a perfectly tailored solution — at least initially. But success in adopting this strategy will be the exception, not the rule, and is an option only if you have the luxury to divert staff from normal duties.

The Problems: While in-house has the appearance of being free, there is a cost of what’s not getting done, of backfill and of long-term support. Make no mistake; this is not a one-time expenditure, but a long-term commitment. While “cool” initially, if an app doesn’t change, users don’t keep using it, and you’ll wonder why you spent so much for so little usage.

3. In-house development (type 2)

The Process: You’re still taking matters into your own hands, but you use tools such as ViziApps, Widgetbox, or PhoneGap to develop your own app. While it’s definitely less time intensive than building from scratch (type 1), don’t be seduced by the hype: it’s a lot of work.

The Problems: You can do quite a bit with these tools, but you’re the one doing the hard work and you could quickly bump up against hard limits. At that point, unfortunately, you’ll need a computer science degree to figure out how to use the tool, and you’ll need to have the phone number of a skilled geek at hand.

4. Provided systems

The Process: Enter Blackboard Mobile, the predominant player. It’s a pretty good option. Blackboard just announced a new dashboard, Mosaic, that allows you to assume control over your own app, whereas in the past you had to go through them.

The Problems: The limitation is likely higher ongoing license costs and a fair amount of work on your end, because it depends on data feeds for photos, videos, maps and the like — feeds that have to be adapted to the formats Blackboard accepts. While these are the most popular formats, if you don’t have the wherewithal to put your information into them, there’s work locally to make the connections work. However, it still requires someone internally with a fair amount of skill to make those connections, and many institutions just don’t have this to ante up.

The Common Challenges

In all of these approaches, high costs and the need for localized expertise become serious roadblocks to developing high-end mobile mechanisms.

Enter a new set of options

Now we find a new set of lower-cost options entering the field, all based in the cloud with dashboards you can use to configure your app. Many of these options do address the issues with price, but still require institutions to maintain high levels of expertise in-house, and many also have limitations in terms of their overall function.

Propeller lets you create native apps on Android and iOS, but it’s very basic and really isn’t going to handle web sites you’ve already got.

Skyline Apps works on Android, Blackberry and iOS, but its functions are limited. You can create some easy things such as news and contact information, build a simple website that you present on a mobile app and do all of it with no real vendor branding. However, keep in mind that a great deal of expertise is required to develop a mobile app.

Appy Pie does a better job on the branding side, allowing you to choose your own logo, background, splash screen and rearrange pages. It has some nice social, contact and multimedia features. But you’re going to have to fit a lot into the construct they’ve provided for you.

More flexible options include ShoutEm, AppsBuilder Bizness Apps and Conduit Mobile, affordably priced, supporting various degrees of open-ended branding and allowing push notifications (except Conduit).

Two things leave me a bit nervous when it comes to these options and higher education:

  • All seem more oriented to commerce
  • I worry about the true level of local expertise required. You may find yourself quickly landing on the pricey real estate called ‘Professional Services.’

Ultimately, what higher education institutions need for their mobile sites is a solution crafted specifically with their needs in mind. MetaLaunch was developed under this umbrella. It is a mobile curation tool that is highly flexible, low cost and allows for a low level of expertise in the mobile technology realm. Administrators are not required to learn mobile programming languages, which they would be with other solutions. Additionally, non-IT staff can make instantaneous changes to the content on the mobile app.

While most provided systems have detailed contracts that force institutions into a lengthy and arduous legal approval process, with the new breed of options, you simply sign terms of service — something that generally does not require scrutiny by your legal beagles. A system that allows institutions to pay month-to-month without a lengthy contract is best-suited for a fast-paced, rapidly-changing environment like this.

Like the rest of the new breed of app enablers did for the small business, the significant campus pain points with going mobile have been addressed: high costs, inflexibility and a technical barrier to entry.