It's on the Move

Mobile technology is on the move as students, faculty, and staff come to campus with their iPads, iPhones, Droid Xs, BlackBerry Torches, and more. This means greater opportunities for education, communication, and good will. It also means additional challenges that technology administrators have to sort through.

Greater Opportunities
Students have mobile technology and are using it to stay connected to campus life. For example, when applying to Creighton University in Omaha, NE, they’re overwhelmingly choosing the text-message option for learning that they’ve been accepted. Knowing that students have and use mobile technology leads college and university technology specialists to ask how it can be used to a greater advantage for everyone. Creighton has a lot to boast about.

“We get a lot of excellent feedback from our students,” says Brian Young, Creighton’s vice president for Technology and CIO. “One of the apps we’re working on right now is tracking where the campus shuttles are at all times, so that no one has to stand in the rain or snow. The older buses do not have GPS, so we have to figure out how to do it.”

From an education point of view, Creighton is using mobile devices for replacing large image-based books in its pharmacy program. “Understanding the color and size of a pill is electronic now,” Young says.

Similarly, Creighton is seeing a lot of interest from faculty and technologists as new devices become available. Currently, the University has an 80-person iPad pilot project that is giving faculty and clinicians hands-on experience with exploring how mobile devices are going to play a role in their lives in the classroom or clinic. “We put them in the hands of faculty to begin exploring what this could mean for them,” says Young. “It has been fascinating to see how the different departments, such as law and anatomy, have come together to learn from each other.”

Yes, mobile technology is designed for social networking. However, as shown above, experts are finding out that mobile devices are more than just personal productivity enhancers — they’re valuable education tools.

Additional Challenges

In this way, the opportunities for using mobile technology are only limited by imagination, and you can be sure that users and experts alike have just scratched the surface of its capability. That said, because the technology is new, it comes with challenges that have to be ironed out, another element that is just having its surface scratched.

One of the first challenges is that there are so many devices from which to choose. In the mobile market, there is competition with several manufacturers that are innovating around the clock, and the competition is so strong that you need to get a new smartphone every six weeks just to keep up.

Still, the greater question is “how to create an infrastructure that supports this mode of interaction and also supports what students have in terms of mobile technology,” says Tom Skill, Ph.D., associate provost and CIO of Information Technologies at University of Dayton (UD) in Ohio.

Kevin Schultz, UD’s Social Media coordinator, notes, “Our challenge is how to be compatible with every mobile device. The approach I take is ‘apps before devices.’ Not all phones have the same capabilities, and not all students have smartphones. However, I am sure that every student who has a cell phone has texting capabilities. So I push understanding the functional side rather than the devices themselves.”

As a result, the first step Schultz took toward promoting use of mobile technologies was securing a text message gateway and a short code. “That enabled us to have the capability to do a lot with text messages,” he confirms.

Before UD decided upon a provider, Schultz looked at 28 different companies, which took almost four months. He’s now working with a company that’s creating an HTML app that is more advanced than a mobile Website.

“When we started looking at text messaging and asset delivery,” Schultz continues, “every single company we interviewed said, ‘We will generate so much revenue for you because of this.’ I said, ‘I am trying to attract students, so I will absorb 100 percent of the cost.’ Five different providers said I would never succeed in finding a firm to work with. But we did, and I’m glad we searched for the right relationship.”

While administrators are working out how to provide content to mobile devices in ways that make the most sense, they’re also concerned about security, bearing in mind that personalized information is valuable. “It’s great if the apps serve communication needs,” Skill confirms, “but then greater is the demand that only the right people get the information, so security and authentication become huge issues for making the information viable.”

“Investing time and energy into mobile security is important,” Young echoes. “You don’t want a device lost that has thousands of personal contacts or bits of information on it. We’re exploring newer security technologies.”

Security is easier said than done, as there are two types of mobile technology. The first are devices that are supplied by a university to its employees. These are fairly easy to encrypt and secure, as they belong to the institution.

The second are devices that are personally owned. “How we help better secure those devices is something that I think we all still grapple with,” says Young. “Some say there’s not a need to further secure them. If they’re lost or left behind, the owners simply have to call their carriers and have them wiped clean. But the more content that’s out there, the more we have to think through how we can help secure it.”

The point, Young continues, is not so much that confidential information is missing; it’s more about peace of mind, similar to leaving your house and being confident that you’ve locked the door.

Mobile technology is a part of our education future. Young encourages administrators to embrace the newer technologies, remembering that it’s less about controlling the device than controlling the content. And Schultz encourages administrators to remember that they’re not providing anything new, they’re simply trying to make information easier to access in order to please people: “It’s more about sentiment.”