Why aren’t universities creating engaging mobile platforms for students?

Flickr_classroom_Robert S. Donovan

For the last three years, I have been the CEO of the education technology company, Rafter. Combined with my experience as an executive in the mobile space at Intellisync, this has provided me with some unique insights into the mobile generation gap and what colleges specifically can do to embrace mobile on campus.

Professors once saw the mobile phone as the enemy to productive learning, with students tuning out of lectures to text and call each other. But this massive invasion of smartphones and tablets also provides opportunities for new educational possibilities.

Students now have access to adaptive learning technologies, more robust in-classroom engagement, mobile checkout processes, mobile price comparisons in on-campus stores, and even peer-to-peer resource sharing. These services are collectively used by millions of students, who find them engaging and valuable resources.

Equally important are the types of educational content that students can access, the ability to leverage this content from a wide range of producers (not just traditional publishers), and the institution’s ability to support, deliver and manage that content. Surprisingly, most campuses aren’t doing this well at all.

Current mobile solutions: Are universities doing it wrong?

Universities often have some sort of mobile platform, but too many are doing it all wrong (if they’re doing anything at all). They tend to work from the front end to the back end, taking a piecemeal approach that dumps all of the existing campus information systems (school sports trackers, events boards, educational content, bookstore resources, etc.) into their own separate mobile experiences, sometimes even developing for entirely different operating systems. The result is a disaggregated online experience that’s far from engaging for students. With so many other outside resources available, if students don’t like what the university has to offer, they simply won’t use it.

It’s certainly not an easy task for a university to create a holistic, engaging online experience, and there are plenty of roadblocks. Professors are a notoriously stubborn group and getting them to adopt mobile platforms isn’t simple. Plenty of training, education and practice are necessary. It’s also not cheap. And then there’s the daunting challenge of trying to keep 18- to 21-year-olds engaged for more than a few minutes.

Ultimately, schools must understand that to build a successful online infrastructure, they need to develop an easy-to-use and captivating student experience. Students want, and will best benefit from, a single and complete experience for all the information they need, not a disaggregated clump of independently developed experiences.

Creating a platform to engage and hook students

When universities consider developing a mobile platform, they need to answer four key questions: 1) What apps do students want? 2) What kind of devices need to be supported? 3) What needs to happen to get professors on the platform? and 4) What’s the plan for deployment?

There are some schools that are doing this well. Hult International Business School, which has physical campuses in San Francisco, Boston, London, Dubai and a handful of other locations around the world, has a fantastic online/mobile infrastructure. It was recently recognized by Apple as a “Standout School” for its use of technology, and it’s clear why. Not only has the school given iPads to over 1,600 students and made use of on-demand tutorials and digital textbooks, it’s gone a step or two further to create its own online apps, portals and infrastructure for students and faculty.

Schools are missing a fantastic opportunity here. By meeting students online, they can hang onto those students who would otherwise gravitate towards third-party apps. Universities are in the best position to deliver this new mobile experience — after all, the student is already on the physical campus and enrolled in the school. But if they don’t get it right, they’re in danger of losing students and professors.

Mehdi Maghsoodnia is CEO of Rafter, which provides software tools for cloud-based distribution of course materials. Rafter is also the parent company of textbook rental service Bookrenter.com.

Maghsoodnia will be discussing the development of a unified platform for personalized learning at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference Friday, September 21.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Robert S. Donovan.

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