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Websites Gone Mobile

More institutions exploring--and succeeding with--mobile web
University Business, Feb 2010

It's 2010. Do you know where your mobile web visitors are? If your college or university hasn't managed yet to provide an online presence for this growing section of its target audience, it should probably have been named a New Year's resolution. The days where desktop computers—or even their little brothers the laptops and netbooks—were the only important devices in web town are over. The year of the mobile web has finally dawned upon us, and there is no turning back.

As reported by The Nielsen Company in "Global Mobile—Strategies for Growth" a white paper published in October 2009, the number of U.S. smart phone subscribers during the 2008-2009 Q2 period jumped 72 percent to 26.1 million users. Gartner predicts smart phone sales will account for 46 percent of all mobile phone sales worldwide by 2013. Since smart phone users also account for half of all active mobile internet users, Nielsen's Jon Stewart, research director for technology and search, and Chris Quick, mobile media analyst, foresee an upcoming explosion in mobile web usage.

eMarketer's August 2009 report "Mobile Users and Usage: It's Personal" predicted a jump in U.S. mobile users accessing the internet from 73.7 million in 2009 to 134.3 million (43.5 percent of mobile phone subscribers) in 2013.

Whether they are students, alums, or friends, many more constituents will soon carry smart phones (or Wi-Fi-enabled small devices like the iPod Touch) in their pockets. And they will expect your institution to meet their needs on this platform in the same manner it already does when they sit behind their computer.

Ohio State officials wanted to offer the best view of its news, way-finding, and promotional content on smart phones.

Need another sign of this perfect mobile web storm? An increasing number of colleges and universities have started to take into account this upcoming shift in web consumption by integrating the mobile web in their overall strategy and launching new mobile websites.

A lot has already been written about iStanford or Duke's implementation of Blackboard Mobile, the application suite designed by recent BlackBoard acquisition TerriblyClever. However, it isn't the only solution being implemented by institutions anymore. The mobile web landscape in higher education has started to diversify over the past six months.

In the latest technology survey Columbus State University (Ga.) does every year with its students, more than 70 percent indicated preferring to use a cell or smart phone to communicate with the university regarding their student information. “We wanted to have a way to reduce the long lines that result prior to each term within our enrollment management area,” recalls Bob Diveley, executive director of operations and infrastructure for CSU Information and Technology Services.

The university launched Mobile Apps at the end of September 2009, providing instant access to academic, financial aid, and event information. Working in partnership with Google, CSU employed a group of current computer science students to develop—under the lead of a senior programmer on staff—a comprehensive mobile application using Google's Android Open Source Mobile Apps operating system. A month after the launch, a daily average of 7,000 people were using the application. "Our ultimate goal is to duplicate all of the services that we now provide to students through our university portal," says Diveley.

The Ohio State University launched its mobile website targeted to smart phone users in August 2009. The institution has had a mobile presence optimized for small screens like the Razor for six years, but officials wanted to offer the best view of its resources, news, way-finding, and promotional content on smart phones. "With iPhones, Android phones, and others that embrace WebKit-based browsers, we are able to provide a more sophisticated view of Ohio State to our constituents with our new mobile website," explains Ted Hattemer, director of new media.

A computer science student developed the website by following specifications designed by OSU Senior Web Designer Jim Burgoon. Much of the development was done using a customization of the IUI framework, HTML, and Cascading Style Sheets. The resulting mobile website offers a traditional combination of resources (news, events, athletics schedules, building and people directory, etc.) useful for people on the go. But it also makes an interesting use of geolocation capabilities for the latest-generation devices, with "What's close?" This website feature provides mobile phone users directions to the closest bookstore, campus dining hall, Wi-Fi hot spot, etc. An average of 1,500 site visits per day has been recorded so far without any promotion other than the automatic redirects of mobile visitors from the main website and a feature story on the university homepage.

At West Virginia University, the push for mobile was also made last summer when Dave Olsen, professional technologist, began work on adapting MIT Mobile, an open-source mobile website developed at (and for) MIT earlier in 2009, to the needs of his institution. Started as a side project, WVU Mobile was up and running in just 19 days. This tour-de-force was possible thanks to Google Services such as Google Maps and Calendars. Last October, Olsen presented a Higher Ed Experts webinar about this project where he showed how a university mobile website serving cell and smart phones could be implemented by a single web developer in under an hour—at no cost (except for the staff time) to the institution.

'We adopted something that we thought would fit for our community and mimicked our home page.' -Paul Redfren, Gettysburg College

Other institutions, including Penn State and North Carolina State, have launched or plan to launch their version of the MIT Mobile package. However, WVU has chosen to share with the larger community the additional features Olsen developed via a project labeled "Mobile Web Open Source Project." He has already updated the look and feel of the mobile website to make it more app-like for the iPhone. "We'll soon be making the interface more dynamic for more advanced smart phones like the Palm Pre and Android handsets,” he" says. The mobile website averaged 1,900 page views per day in November 2009 with the Events Calendar being the most popular section.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the University of Oxford created its own mobile website from scratch. Launched in October 2009, Mobile Oxford (MOX) was designed and developed in two months by two full-time staff members with the Django framework based on Python. In its initial release, MOX didn’t target specific phones and was built to be compatible with all devices under regular web standards—with the exception of some HTML 5, as well as Google Gears and Blackberry Javascript, to allow the use of offline storage and geolocation.

MOX incorporates information and access to services from across the institution to guide students, staff, faculty, and the general public in the university and also the city. It includes a contact search, a library search, maps including bus schedules, a podcast library pulling directly from iTunes U, news, exam result releases, webcams, and weather. "In the first week, we averaged between 300 and 400 page views per hour during the working day and peaked at about 1,500 per hour," shares Tim Fernando, project manager for Erewhon & Mobile Oxford.

While Gettysburg College (Pa.) has focused the bulk of its effort on an iPhone app for prospective students developed by a local vendor and launched in October 2009, the college has also developed a simple mobile version of its website. Stripped of graphics and developed in-house by the web communications team, it includes a homepage composed of quick links to second-level pages designed with mobile devices in mind. The site provides essential information through short paragraphs of text and useful links.

"We adopted something that we thought would fit for our community and mimicked our home page in some way," says Paul Redfren, director of web communications and electronic media.

Moving forward, the usage data collected from Google analytics will inform any further developments of the mobile website. Gettysburg College doesn’t have a high percentage of web traffic via mobile devices yet, but Redfren is convinced that it will only increase in the years ahead—and that starting down a mobile path now will give his institution an advantage later.

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