Universities Going Mobile or are they?

By Kenneth Pierce, Vice Provost IT & CIO, University Of Texas At San Antonio

Kenneth Pierce, Vice Provost IT & CIO, University Of Texas At San Antonio

If I told you that mobile apps were the top development priority for most businesses, you’d probably say that you already knew that. If I told you that for most universities, mobile development was not the top priority, you’d probably say “really”?

“Digitalization is an emerging business model that includes the extension and support of electronic channels, content and transactions”

In reviewing many of the mobile apps offered by universities, there seems to be an underlying theme: Events, Directories, generic maps, a link to the athletics mobile app, and maybe a couple of pieces of functionality easiest to pull off using the Student Information System (SIS). All in all, it is very underwhelming. Additionally, if you look at university websites, I think you will find the majority do not render or function well on a mobile device. It appears universities are really only in the beginnings of digitalization and are offering up what I consider to be the token mobile app that says “we have a mobile app”. Characteristics of these apps tend to be low student usage, remedial functionality, and a lack of strategic implementation. As an example, I was surprised to see how many university mobile apps lack the capability of utilizing a mobile device’s native push notification mechanism. Anyone who truly uses their mobile device effectively counts on having their apps push information to them through notifications.

According to Gartner, Digitalization is an emerging business model that includes the extension and support of electronic channels, content and transactions. In other words, Digitalization is not simply taking existing business processes or strategies and making them more electronic; but rather the rethinking of the process and business strategy by taking advantage of current day technologies.

Given the seemingly ancient business processes of higher education, there is probably not a more suitable industry for undergoing a dramatic digitalization process. Much can be done (with mobile) to reduce the overhead costs and bureaucracy that exist within a university, and there is no better time than now. Core university business processes need to be digitalized with the mobile device at the center of the ecosystem and improve the student lifecycle experience. Here are a few examples.

The digitalization should start with the application process. What does a university really need to get you on boarded? I would imagine that an applicant’s mobile phone has quite a bit of information about them already, and that can be a start. A mobile app to select your high school from a list, enter your social security number, and then watch the information pour in from a variety of sources to fulfill the information requirement of admissions. This makes perfect sense for most universities as basic entrance criteria is based on GPA and test scores. With all of the information available to us today, this should be getting easier (but it is not). Maybe the paper or online application can now be retired and replaced with a simplistic mobile interface that also provides application status through mobile notifications.

With the right capabilities as part of the campus mobile application, students’ time at the university can be enhanced with more personal interaction that should improve the experience and most likely increase student retention.

If we build off of the application process, consider a student attending university as an undergraduate and wants to go to graduate school at the same university. For this situation, most universities still require a full application which includes requiring them to provide an official transcript for their undergraduate work—really? If the graduate school can’t trust the information in the student system for the undergraduate program, logic would say the university has a bigger problem. Universities should look more to pre-qualify their own undergraduates for graduate school based on academic performance, notify them through the mobile app and with one click accept them into a master’s program: no application, no manual intervention, and no fee. Any additional steps toward actual enrollment can also be handled subsequently through a mobile app. Realistically, nothing other than a program’s capacity should be disqualifying one of these students from a master’s program.

Moving on to the next example, consider the graduation process. Should students really have to apply for graduation? With the capability of today’s systems, students should be notified through their mobile device they are ready for graduation (of course, pending successful completion of their remaining courses), and with one click they accept the terms and information and it is done. The back end systems integrate to check for all necessary clearances, including degree audit confirmation. No manual processes, no emails, and potentially no fees. Universities underestimate the people resources (and therefore costs) associated with this process alone.

Although I have only scratched the surface of the processes prime for digitalization, I will stop there. The point is there are significant opportunities for mobile devices to play a key role in a university’s core processes. But, for the results to be realized, those processes have to be re-imagined with today’s capabilities in mind, but universities will also need to structure and potentially invest in the back-end plumbing that can deliver the new mobile experience. However, it is doubtful the investment would exceed the potential cost savings and new revenue the evolution would generate. Implementing new processes such as these with a mobile first mentality can contribute to keeping the cost of education from further escalating while provide a higher level of customer service we have all come to expect from any moderately-sized entity. However, universities may need to push the envelope with accrediting agencies and state oversight committees to begin the transformation.

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