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The 2012 State of the Mobile Web in Higher Ed

Mobile solutions now at the majority of institutions
University Business, April 2012

What difference can a year make? When it comes to the mobile web in higher education, it seems that it’s all it took to switch gears and respond to the needs of an increasing mobile user population on campuses—and elsewhere.

In the 2012 State of the Mobile Web survey I conducted from January 9 to February 13, 2012, 59 percent of surveyed institutions reported having a “mobile solution” (mobile website, accessible website, native mobile device applications, etc.) in place. Exactly 12 months earlier, according to the first edition of this survey, only 37 percent of colleges and universities provided a web solution adapted to the specific needs of their mobile users.

This second edition of my online survey about the state of the Mobile Web was completed by 281 professionals working in web (41 percent) and marketing/communication (40 percent) offices at 267 different institutions. This year, again, the goal was to draw an accurate picture of existing and planned institutional efforts targeted to mobile users. To facilitate yearly comparisons and identify trends, most of the survey questions were kept unchanged.

When they exist, mobile web solutions are also getting a bit more attention from staff on a weekly basis.

The survey, open to professionals working for colleges or universities, was publicized, online only, through several channels (email listservs, email newsletters, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other professional networking websites). As a consequence, it doesn’t rely on a scientifically determined dataset. However, the resulting sample seems fairly representative of the Carnegie Classifications. It’s fair to assume that trend watchers and technology-minded people were more likely to take the survey. But, professionals were invited to take this survey whether or not they had a mobile web solution in place on their campus, so the results would not over-represent early adopters. Also important to note: This year’s survey was not restricted to the 2011 survey respondents, but open to all.

Here are the highlights.

The Mobile Web has become a fact of life for most colleges and universities.

According to the 2012 survey, higher education has reached the tipping point when it comes to mobile web solutions. While only 39 percent of respondents don’t have any mobile solution yet, three quarters of these institutions plan to implement such a solution in the future, within a year for 59 percent. Higher ed institutions with existing solutions have embraced the Mobile Web very recently, as 72 percent of the dedicated sites or applications have been launched over the last 12 months.

There is a small but increasing number of mobile web budgets.

The traditional expectation of adopting new online channels without any new budget is still the rule for the majority of “mobile-ready” institutions. However, the share of this no-budget category decreased from 75 percent of the existing mobile web solutions in 2011 to 65 percent in 2012. These yearly budgets are still very small, as more than half (57 percent) ranges from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 and only a third (34 percent) from $10,000 to $30,000. Yet, the global yearly trend is on the increase.

When they exist, mobile web solutions are also getting a bit more attention from staff on a weekly basis: Only 12 percent (vs. 20 percent in 2011) now report no time allocated to these solutions, while 55 percent (vs. 50 percent in 2011) indicate weekly allocated staff time ranging from one to five hours.

Mobile First and responsive web design (RWD) are on the horizon.

While the majority of surveyed institutions have wisely opted out from the “native app” game, the 2012 results still show a split between the advocates of dedicated mobile solutions supporting a family of mobile devices (56 percent) and the proponents of the “mobilization” of existing websites through a strategy of progressive enhancement via HTML, CSS, Web Standards and other techniques (50 percent).

Despite it being a fairly new practice, 15 percent of surveyed institutions have adopted a “Mobile First” approach used in conjunction with RWD techniques to adapt web content to all connected devices, from smartphones to large screen desktops. Most existing mobile solutions have been thus designed to support iPhones (96 percent), Android-based devices (91 percent), and BlackBerrys (70 percent).

Mobile solutions developed externally are still in the minority, but on the rise.

Most existing solutions were still developed by faculty or staff members according to the 2012 survey. However, there was a slight decrease in this proportion from 75 percent in 2011 to 73 percent in 2012. Over the past 12 months, open source projects have increased up to 14 percent of the total. Solutions provided by vendors or agencies serving the higher education market have gained 3 points in a year to reach 20 percent of the current market.

This gain was made possible by a decrease in solutions developed by students or vendors not specialized in higher education. Both reverse trends confirm that the mobile web solution market in higher education has started a slow move toward a phase of growth.

Mobile solutions are being designed to serve on-campus audiences first.

As it was the case with institutional websites in the past, internal audiences are targeted by a large majority of solutions in place. It’s difficult to ignore the needs of the people you meet every day. Moreover, the solutions provided by Blackboard, the main player in the course management system market, were also designed for (and even, in the case of Blackboard Mobile Central) by current students.

You’d better make sure your recruitment strategy is mobile-proof, if not mobile-powered.

So, it’s not surprising that 88 percent of the surveyed institutions chose to target current students with their existing mobile solution, while, respectively, 73 percent and 70 percent identified faculty and staff members as such. Logically, supporting campus life—by providing a calendar of events, bus schedules, or maps among others—remains the most common goal, with 83 percent of existing solutions trying to tackle this challenge.

The student recruiting revolution may be mobile.

If the plans reported by the 2012 survey respondents come to fruition, it might. While internal audiences have been top of mind for mobile web solution designers in higher education, things could change drastically in the future with 90 percent (vs. 86 percent in 2011) of the planned solutions expected to target prospective students. Supported by the findings of the recent Noel-Levitz Trend Report (see above) on the mobile browsing behavior and expectations of college-bound high school students, the push to use a mobile solution as part of a recruitment strategy might become irresistible.

When you know that 52 percent of prospective students have viewed a school’s website on a mobile device, you’d better make sure your recruitment strategy is mobile-proof, if not mobile-powered. And, institutional administrators understand this need: 75 percent of the planned mobile solution should have a clear student recruitment goal.

If the intentions reported in the 2012 survey are followed by actions, the upcoming year could see the development of more holistic strategies to reach all target audiences on mobile devices. However, a lot will need to be done. Even though 46 percent of the existing solutions were identified as recruitment tools by the 2012 survey respondents, only a quarter of this sample met the basic requirements identified by prospective students in the Noel-Levitz study.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community at