Mobile Obligation

It seems apparent by now that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will soon be people’s first choice for accessing the Internet and making use of an expanding array of communications services, interactive media, and software applications.  In response, an increasing number of higher education institutions have accepted a “mobile obligation” to augment a student’s curricular and co-curricular experience by literally meeting them where they are with the information and technology services most often used.  For example, according to results from the 2011 Campus Computing  Project 55.3% of public universities have activated mobile apps or will do so during the 2011-12 academic year (compared to 32.5% in 2010).  The question for the other 44.7% is… if not now when?

Some of the higher education institutions that have accepted their mobile obligation are developing and executing “mobile strategies”.  Some examples include:

Online Convenience

EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger’s foreword to the 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology surmised that “…convenience drives student technology use and perceptions”.  Allowing students to retrieve information, receive communications and securely complete transactions online from a smartphone or tablet all provide added convenience.  Examples of these things may include:

  • Communication:  e-mail and text messaging (including emergency notifications)
  • Public Information:  maps, news, events, athletics, transit, dining, directory, and course catalog
  • Personalized Information: account information, course schedules, advisor listings and grades
  • Secure Transactions: registering for courses and making online payments

Most mobile applications seem to be limited to repackaging what is already otherwise available from a laptop or desktop computer connected to the Internet.  However, there do not appear to be many mobile applications deployed by higher education institutions that provide personalized information or transaction processing that require authentication and secure transmission of protected information.  As more of these applications eventually get deployed maybe they end up providing what is currently available from web portal applications too.

Pedagogical Experimentation

Higher Education Institutions are exploring pedagogical applications of mobile computing as well by experimenting through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective adoption and support on a larger scale.  Some well publicized examples include:

  • The Seton Hill University Griffin Technology Advantage – “the creation of a teaching and learning environment that would go beyond the confines of the traditional classroom in time and space; widespread use of mobile technology for instantaneous access to information; deepening of critical and creative thinking through interactive teaching strategies; increased student engagement in learning; and decreased costs for students through the use of e-texts.”
  • The Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) – “a multi-year program of experimentation, development and implementation of new and emerging technologies to explore their use in support of the university’s mission.”
  • The Abilene Christian University ACU Connected Initiative – “studies how mobile technologies can be used to enhance learning”.

The 2011 Horizon Report also provides interesting examples of “relevance for teaching, research or creative inquiry” and “a sampling of applications of mobiles across disciplines”.

These pedagogical experiments and forays into the provision of more online conveniences (among others) illuminate the interwoven complexities introduced by using mobile computing to do things in new ways which in turn impact everything from technology and support infrastructure to faculty development programs.

So the multi-part question is what mobile computing platform(s) should the institution support use of, to what extent, for what purpose, and at what cost?  The answers to these questions will vary widely from one institution to another but the following considerations are common to all:

  1. What are the unique educational affordances and added conveniences that have specific application for potential use within the context of learning environments and provision of online services?
  2. What is the current level of interest among faculty to make use of the unique educational affordances that mobile technologies might offer within the context of courses they teach or the research they conduct?
  3. What are the prioritized preferences among students for co-curricular mobile applications they want the institution to provide?
  4. What is the current level of use of different mobile device types (equipped with internet access) among students, faculty, and staff along with the most prevalently used software and services accessed from these devices?
  5. What sort of methods will be employed for device management (where needed)?:
    • Determining what devices and software should be provisioned by the institution and how, who they will be provided to, and under what conditions
    • Procurement of hardware, software and 3G/4G network services
    • Tracking inventory and compliance with software licensing agreements
    • Managing machine images, patches, software upgrades and configuration settings
    • Ensuring information security and privacy management
  6. The impact on and required changes to the technological infrastructure (e.g. campus network, websites, course management systems, identity management, system interfaces etc.)
  7. The impact on and required changes to the support infrastructure (e.g. tech support, skills necessary to develop applications, integration with “back-end” information systems, etc.)
  8. The extent to which the institution is willing and able to license and/or develop new applications specifically for particular mobile platforms, versus expanding the institution’s mobile web presence
  9. All one-time and recurring costs for the above

In the end, an institution’s response to its mobile obligation should be in proportion to the demand for additional online conveniences, pedagogical experimentation and capacity to adapt technology infrastructure, support services and faculty development programs.

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Social Media Analytics

A conversation I had last week with the CEO of a social media start-up, along with an article from the February 4, 2011 issue of the Chronicle for Higher Education titled, “Can New Online Rankings Really Measure Colleges’ Brand Strength? Unlikely, Experts Say” by Kathryn Masterson has me thinking about social media analytics.  The article poses some interesting questions that colleges and universities are beginning to ask:

  • “Colleges and marketers are just starting to try to understand how to measure the success of their social-media efforts, says Mr. [Michael] Stoner.  Many are counting “touches” – the number of Twitter followers, the hits to a web site, the number of friends or comments on a Facebook page.  The more difficult question, he says, is what do these measurements mean?  Do tweets, blog posts, and Facebook “likes” translate into someone choosing your college, recommending it to a friend, attending an alumni event, or making a donation?”
  • “Are more people now seeing that the university is creating the next generation of leaders, that Stanford faculty are experts in their field, and that the university is making a difference in solving world problems?  Do alumni feel connected to the community?”

The few university and college integrated social media communications plans I’ve seen make little or no mention of using analytics, or even a shared dashboard technology platform, both of which could be used in an attempt to help answer portions of these questions. 

However, rankings of college and university online influence are beginning to be publicized.  This might change the scope of social media strategies going forward along with how information and technology are used by institutions that seek to improve rankings.  Klout’s Twitter analysis report on most influential colleges on Twitter and Global Language Monitor’s “TrendTopper MediaBuzz” college rankings were each mentioned in Kathryn Masterson’s Chronicle of Higher Education article.  Both attempt to provide relative indicators of brand equity and online influence based on rankings of higher education institutions using different criteria derived from social media sources.

There are other tools  available to measure online influence as well, some of which are nicely outlined at onefortyHootSuite is one example of a social media dashboard that has grown in popularity and is likely to be found in use at many campuses.  SAS Social Media Analytics is a somewhat different offering that appears to be more geared toward enterprise-wide applications and seems to go beyond monitoring of activity.  But there is little evidence that any of these offerings are being applied as an enterprise-wide platform within higher education institutions for the coordinated use of social media across (or often even within) academic programs, constituent relations, student services, public announcements, etc.  The sprawling use of social media continues without much overall strategy beyond enacting policies for appropriate use, awareness campaigns and “how to” type of training. 

Has any higher education institution made it a priority to implement an enterprise-wide platform to provide integrated views of aggregated information that identify who was reached through a given use of social media, the context within which groups or individuals were engaged through such use, and what sort of response the outreach may have triggered?