You are here

Internet Technology

The State of the Mobile Web in Higher Ed

Mobile solutions and strategies--and the budgets behind them
University Business, April 2011

Is 2011 going to be the “Year of the Mobile Web” for higher education? A few studies have already hinted it. According to a white paper published by The Nielsen Company in December 2010, “Mobile Youth Around the World,” 48 percent of the 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. now browse the web on their mobile devices--even though only 33 percent own smartphones. The Pew Internet and American Life Project concurred in its own report, “Mobile Access 2010,” released in July 2010. Conducted by phone in May 2010, the survey found that 65 percent of responding 18- to 29-year-olds accessed the web on their phone and, in most cases, on a daily basis.

Need more proof that these mobile web users walk, talk, and text on your campus? The 2010 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology can provide confirmation. While 62 percent of the 30,616 students surveyed in 2010 for this study own a mobile device, 33 percent used it to access the internet a year ago.

With this critical mass of mobile web users being reached, more decision-makers and practitioners in universities and colleges are warming up to the mobile web. They have begun recognizing the need to better serve students and other constituents through their mobile devices.

Mobile web solutions are not just smaller versions of current online offerings, but tools to enhance life on the go.

Blog posts, white papers, articles, and vendor-sponsored webinars on the topic have multiplied over the past year, confirming that the market has matured enough to grow beyond the few early adopters in higher education. As they did three years ago for social media, vendors offering mobile web solutions or device-specific applications have also started to show up on the higher education web conference circuit.

In late January 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education even published an article trying to paint a picture of the state of the mobile web in higher education. Written by Josh Keller, the piece, “As the Web Goes Mobile, Colleges Fail to Keep Up,” could well have provided the extra push to make more college and university administrators jump on the mobile web bandwagon.

My own online survey about the mobile web in higher education was completed by 230 professionals working mainly in the marketing, communication, and web offices of 199 different institutions. Its goal was to draw a more accurate picture of existing and planned institutional efforts targeted to mobile users. The survey was open to professionals working in universities or colleges from January 31 to February 14, 2011. It was publicized online through several channels (e-mail listservs, e-mail 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 to the Carnegie Classifications breakdown with a slight skew toward larger institutions. It’s also fair to assume that trend watchers and technology-minded people were more likely to take the survey. But, it’s important to note that 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.

The findings indicate that the time is right for the mobile web in higher education.

Only 38 percent of the surveyed institutions provide a solution (mobile website, accessible website, native mobile device applications, etc.) targeting and serving owners of mobile devices. But, the large majority (91 percent) of the remaining solution-less institutions has already planned to roll out a mobile solution. In 69 percent of the cases, the mobile web solution is expected to be implemented within a year. Interestingly, 68 percent of the early adopters launched their solution over the past 12 months, thus confirming the recent and growing interest for mobile solutions.

The survey indicates other, more specific, mobile web trends and solutions as well:

Whether surveyed institutions already have a mobile solution or not, the main identified target is the current students’ population in 89 percent of the cases. Faculty and staff come second for 76 percent of existing solutions, while prospective students are also targeted for 86 percent of planned solutions. In both cases, alumni and students’ parents are also identified by the majority of the institutions. Yet, despite all the talk about mobile donations, less than a third of surveyed institutions plan to launch or have rolled out a mobile solution for prospective or current donors.

Supporting campus life--by providing a calendar of events, bus schedules, or maps, among other options--is the most commonly identified goal for 81 percent of existing and planned mobile web solutions. This shows a high understanding of how mobile web solutions are used and should be designed--not just as smaller versions of current online offerings, but as tools to enhance life on the go.

More than half of the surveyed institutions also identified branding and marketing as a goal for their mobile web solutions, conferring it the second place of the most commonly identified goals for existing solutions. Supporting recruitment efforts is currently an objective for only 40 percent of the current mobile web applications in higher education. However, the recruitment battle might be fought on the mobile platform very soon. For two-thirds of the institutions working on solutions, the support of recruitment through campus tours, virtual visits, and other means has been defined as critical for their mobile initiative.

What about mobile course delivery and other ways to support academic life on the smaller screens? The “2011 Horizon Report” released by The New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE in February 2010 predicts that the adoption of the mobile platform should happen within a year. However, supporting academic life was only listed as a goal for mobile web initiatives by 41 percent of the institutions working on their implementations. That proportion decreased to 26 percent among the solutions already available in surveyed institutions.

The large majority (78 percent) of surveyed institutions haven’t adopted a mobile strategy based on native applications targeting only the owners of specific devices like iPhones or Android-based phones. Because it can be tough and short-sighted to support native applications, as the technology is evolving very quickly, most institutions have chosen to follow a more holistic path. Close to 58 percent rely on dedicated mobile solutions designed and developed for mobile users who support a family of mobile devices. In 46 percent of cases, a strategy of progressive enhancement via HTML, CSS, and web standards has been retained to adapt the institutional website to mobile web browsers. When asked about the type of devices supported by existing solutions, respondents indicated that 100 percent support iPhones, 87 percent Android-based phones, and 78 percent Blackberrys.

With reported total costs of ownership for the first year ranging from $0 to $100,000, the mobile web in higher education looks like the early (wild) web. The vast majority (75 percent) of surveyed institutions operate with no yearly budget beyond staff salaries. Only 15 percent of mobile web budgets exceed $5,000 per year. In 63 percent of the cases, staff members spend less than 20 hours per week developing, implementing, supporting and maintaining the mobile solution of the institution. Still, the weekly staff time allocated to mobile web initiatives ranges from 1 to 5 hours in 50 percent of the cases.

Vendors who specialize in higher education account for just 17 percent of the mobile solutions in use at surveyed institutions, a rather low proportion when compared to the 9 percent powered by open-source projects like MIT Mobile or Mobile OSP.

Between the highly-priced fully integrated solutions and the free, yet powerful, open-source platforms, the mobile web in higher education seems to be at a crossroad. Where will it go? That’s the million-dollar question the market players and the institutions will have to answer in the years to come. But, don’t shift all efforts from traditional websites to mobile web solutions yet. Mobile traffic hitting institutional websites has increased over the past year. However, it was still marginal at 2.77 percent of total visits, on average, in December 2010, according to the monthly Benchmarking Higher Ed Analytics Survey.