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The Role of Mobile in Universities

The rise of mobile has been extremely fast, both in terms of technology and in the social change it has effected in students. As we look at the "future of mobile in universities" it is becoming apparent that this goes well beyond "nice-to-have features" for institutions. The idea of mobile as a "platform for engagement" in the context of higher education is becoming more commonplace. In this context the idea of a platform is about delivering a holistic experience for users that is effective and clearly differentiated from competitors. A platform is about getting students and staff to engage with the core mission of an institution and developing a bond of trust that enables collaboration and innovation on joint projects.

In trying to achieve something more with this report than merely a "state of the union on mobile" we want to put forward the idea of mobile as a "platform for engagement" as a call to action for IT managers, senior managers, communication managers, funders and anyone else to whom the ability of universities to compete in the modern Web world is of interest. In short, the core offering of an institution must be delivered in the context of a platform for engagement if they are not to be superseded by other universities and companies that will provide such a platform for their students and staff.

"A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product... The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood."

Google employee Steve Yegge outlines the necessity of engaging with a platform approach

The problem

Does mobile provide an opportunity for better student satisfaction, via increased interactive communication across a wider platform for engagement? If so, what efforts have been made to take advantage of this, and how can any such succesful efforts be amplifed across the sector?

The Mobile Futures report for JISC is focused on raising and examining the issues that successful universities should start to think about at all levels of the enterprise. To begin this conversation, we have started by considering some example case studies from other industries who are leading the way in what it means to provide a "platform for engagement".

One of the key pillars by which universities are now judged is the satisfaction level of students. As fee-based structures and globalised education become more prevalent, students are increasingly demanding an experience that mirrors the investment they are making to attend university.

As technology has blurred the boundary between traditional 'bricks and mortar' education and new online learning resources the reputation of an institution has become increasingly dependent on its digital profile. Students are demanding that a university demonstrates its ability to provide the digital tools to deliver a competitive standard of education. From the students' perspective, they are investing (both time and money) in a learning experience and it is important that they see a return on that investment.

The commercial sector has long understood the principle of customer engagement and has made significant inroads in harnessing mobile technology to provide a customer experience or "platform for engagement". As a result commercial companies are now far ahead of the curve in engaging with their users, with mobile forming a key part of their strategy to ensure that users feel satisfied throughout their experience with the brand.

The change in customer engagement models in the travel sector

A case study that could be compared to the situation in the Higher Education sector is the step change in operation seen in the travel sector over the last twenty years. Not that long ago, travel agencies with branches on high streets throughout the UK formed the principal way in which people would book their holidays. This approach worked well when people had limited access to the internet, however as access became more widely available issues began to arise within the sector. Firstly, the exponential rise of the internet and always-on connectivity meant that people were able to look for deals online rather than having to go into a travel agent's shop. Secondly, the rise of cheap airfares meant that people were able to travel much further and were able to consider deals offered by non-UK agents.

UK travel agents reliant upon a high street branch structure struggled to compete in an increasingly web-based industry. The introduction of online deals changed the way the game was played and many found they lacked the tools to compete effectively.

The comparison with HE is clear - universities too often rely on a bricks and mortar approach and their historical reputation in the hope that this will hold influence. Meanwhile, the rise of communication technology, online resources and ease of transport are all creating a globalised education sector where students will pick and choose based on a much wider range of variables. Universities must therefore work to ensure that they are providing resources that are clearly visible to staff and students when they are making these decisions.

However with the various difficulties facing the travel sector came a plethora of new opportunities. The smart businesses were able to adapt and create opportunities out of the changes taking place in the industry. As a result the modern travel sector is focused on providing a platform for engagement that has the concept of mobile at its core.

As people became more connected the first wave of online travel agencies simply provided online deals to compete with traditional branches but very quickly the power of customer feedback was harnessed. Websites that were able to process customer ratings, comments and recommendations quickly flourished. The key to this success was that organisations across the travel sector were able to engage with customers and demonstrate satisfaction levels in an open, accessible way. The successful companies became those that developed a platform that allowed their users to discuss travel in general.

Mobile is quickly becoming an integral part of the core platform for engagement within the travel sector, as the very nature of the industry means that companies are seeking to engage with people who are away from home or looking to travel. As a result, mobile apps that allow customers to rate hotels or meals abroad or virtually "check-in" are becoming key components of the industry offering. Integration with information services to give recommendations or reserve deals on the move are no longer optional but increasingly essential. In the modern day travel sector, many companies would struggle to sell their products and services to new and returning customers without this ability to interact with consumers and respond to feedback. In short, a "platform for engagement" that encompasses all services, apps, websites, devices, feedback and ratings is what is required for success to be achieved.

Similar issues within UK HEI

The relation with universities is again very close as the sector struggles to compete to demonstrate student satisfaction with their courses and campus (let alone researcher/lecturer satisfaction). The only way to achieve this in the modern world is to develop a platform where discussion takes place in the open and engagement is a constant process. While universities were once the hub of every community where open engagement could occur in an open physical forum, this is unfortunately no longer the case.

Just as businesses within the travel sector from travel agents to hotels have had to engage with both web and mobile technology in order to provide an optimum consumer experience, so Higher Education institutions that do not develop an engagement strategy that encompasses mobile technology will find that students, funding and staff will go elsewhere. Ventures such as Khan Academy's mobile learning app called KhanApp, the joint initiative between MIT and Harvard to provide a platform to offer courses online called EdX, or Stanford's Coursera demonstrate that things are already moving within the global Higher Education Sector. Learning in physical buildings is increasingly augmented with online engagement via mobile devices on the move. Universities are already changing and now have the opportunity to take the lead in this transformation and help shape the role of mobile.

You can follow future updates from us about mobile as we work on the Mobile Futures report at: