Mobile and Web Apps: Is Your College Keeping Up?

Mobile and Web Applications for Educational Institutions

The mobile market has matured enormously over the past few years, so much so that it is predicted that the number of people accessing the internet via their mobile device will overtake access via a PC within the next 18 months. The proliferation of mobile devices like Smartphones and tablets is readily apparent on today’s college campuses. Students (and staff) are more mobile than they have ever been and have an expectation of having access to college information in the palm of their hand – they use their handsets to keep in constant communication with their family and friends, and increasingly as smartphones become embedded in their student lives, they have begun to expect the same level of access for communication with their college.

Smartphones have increasingly become embedded into student lives.

A mobile or web application not only enhances communication with students outside of college, but encourages engagement, as the student can interact with the college via their personal device. Colleges can update applications and mobile sites with campus news and events, athletic news and scores in real time, a course catalogue to enable users to browse and make decisions on enrolment and official college streaming media, all from one centralised administration point, giving the college the chance to bring together all of their key services into one portal that students always have with them – their phone.

Furthermore, mobile devices have become critical to the businesses and industries for which colleges are preparing students. With 47% of all 14-18 year olds currently using smartphones, the digitalising of key aspects of college communication for the mobile platform is becoming not only desirable, but essential.

There are now around 48 colleges in the UK that have their own mobile application and so it seems the conversation among college professionals has shifted from, whether to go mobile to when and how to do so? The main considerations, now that colleges have begun to embrace mobile into their digital communication strategy, will be whether to offer to current or prospective students and on which operating platform to build the application?

Mobile and Web Applications for Educational Institutions

The mobile market has matured enormously over the past few years, so much so that it is predicted that the number of people accessing the internet via their mobile device will overtake access via a PC within the next 18 months. The proliferation of mobile devices like Smartphones and tablets is readily apparent on today’s college campuses. Students (and staff) are more mobile than they have ever been and have an expectation of having access to college information in the palm of their hand – they use their handsets to keep in constant communication with their family and friends, and increasingly as smartphones become embedded in their student lives, they have begun to expect the same level of access for communication with their college.

A mobile or web application not only enhances communication with students outside of college, but encourages engagement, as the student can interact with the college via their personal device. Colleges can update applications and mobile sites with campus news and events, athletic news and scores in real time, a course catalogue to enable users to browse and make decisions on enrolment and official college streaming media, all from one centralised administration point, giving the college the chance to bring together all of their key services into one portal that students always have with them – their phone.

Furthermore, mobile devices have become critical to the businesses and industries for which colleges are preparing students. With 47% of all 14-18 year olds currently using smartphones, the digitalising of key aspects of college communication for the mobile platform is becoming not only desirable, but essential.

There are now around 48 colleges in the UK that have their own mobile application and so it seems the conversation among college professionals has shifted from, whether to go mobile to when and how to do so? The main considerations, now that colleges have begun to embrace mobile into their digital communication strategy, will be whether to offer to current or prospective students and on which operating platform to build the application?

Current Vs Prospective

The first, main consideration for colleges is whether to offer the app to current or prospective students – or both. The main issue when offering content and functionality for both types of users is that half of that content will be irrelevant and consequently make the app less functional for the user.

Content for prospective students will centre around things like course finders and info pages, general info and college attribute pages, news and events (open day) feeds and image and video galleries – offering college Marketing Departments new and innovative ways to promote the college and engage prospective students.

Content and functions that would interest, be useful, and thus engage current students, are things such as a timetable viewer, local transit info and feeds, access to student email, assignment and exam times info, staff directory, VLE (Virtual Learning Environment such as Moodle) access, PC number counts and so on.

The best solution that we have found in current college apps for this concern is to offer two separate sections and ‘landing pages’. This means that when the user first opens that app (be it a native or mobile web app) they are presented with two options – the ‘I already study here’ option or the ‘I want to study here’ option. The user is then taken to the relevant section for their choice and only will see the functions and content that is relevant to them.

The best solution is to offer two separate sections and ‘landing pages’, one for prospective students and one for current students.

“Universities are shifting away from creating sole recruitment apps, and are looking more at developing applications that can benefit both existing and prospective students. These serve a dual purpose. As well as improving the student experience they also enable prospective students to see what really happens at the university and feel a part of student life before they enrol.” – Nicholas Oliver, quoted in the Guardian.

Although this will mean longer development time, and consequently more development budget, the college mobile communications project will offer greater longevity and strengthen the digital strategy as a whole – getting the best out of both college app worlds.

Native Vs HTML5

The other main consideration is on which device to offer the app? A college’s first instinct may be to go down the iPhone route as it would seem that Apple hold the majority market, however recent market figures show that Android is in fact the fastest growing operating system –  increasing its share from 30% in 2010 to 68% in 2012!

A native application as basically the tech name for a mobile application that has been built for a specific operating system, or ‘OS’.  To guarantee full usability across the entire student body, and also for prospective students, a college would need to pay for a developer to build the app across all three OS’s – iOS, Android and Blackberry.

However there are less expensive and time consuming options available such as building mobile web application.

A mobile web application is an application that is built using HTML5. This means that the app is accessed through the internet browser – in the same way that you access a website. The only downfall is that web apps lose some of the functionality of a native app – for example the college will not be able to send ‘push notifications’ – a great way to inform and remind users of important messages. Another consideration is that the app will not be available in the app stores, limiting its promotion and thus marketing capabilities for the college.

However the HTML web app is a great first option for colleges who want to offer a mobile solution but do not have the budget or time to offer a specific native option. If the college decides to go on and improve the mobile strategy, the HTML5 web app can then be ‘wrapped’ into the relevant native OS for Apple, Blackberry or Android devices, developing and strengthening its capabilities.

Once such college that has followed this process, is Lewisham College, who have a mobile web application that can be downloaded here – http://app.lewisham.ac.uk/ Users can access information about the college including news, social media and events feeds, course guides, transport links and for current students, their timetable.

“Lewisham College is always really innovative, and this is just another way to make sure that technology gives the students the best experience possible. We know that students do a lot on their mobile phones and this is a way for us to provide an essential customer service,” said Simone Davies, Head of Marketing and Communications.

Conclusion

Applications, whether mobile web or native, offer a high ROI, as once built the running costs are minimal and if a CMS (content management system) is built, it increases the longevity of the product as changes can be made by college personnel.

As discussed, students have begun to expect this high level of communication with their college and for college professionals, now is the time to realise that paying attention to your college brand and communication strategy from a mobile perspective, is not just a nice thing to do, it is critical.

-by Megan Boyle – Education-technology consultant -

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