When Dr. Fan Wu, assistant professor of computer science at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., presented his work on mobile applications at a university conference in spring 2013, he never thought he would be approached by the police.
Officer Sherman Buford wasn't after Wu for anything illegal, however — far from it. It was Buford's idea for an app for the Tuskegee University Police Department that prompted him to track down the professor.
Campus parking enforcement at Tuskegee traditionally has been done through paper ticketing, with officers filling out half a page of information. Thanks to the work of Wu and his undergraduate assistant, Adontavius Turner, ticketing will soon be as simple as entering a vehicle's tag number on a mobile phone.
"All other information will show up automatically on the application," Wu says, as a result of a direct link to the university police department's vehicle database. Buford says the app will save officers approximately two-thirds of the labor currently associated with enforcing parking on campus.The app's development is being funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant, "Collaborative Research: Capacity Building through Curriculum and Faculty Development on Mobile Security, NSF Scholarship for Service Program (SFS)."
"It is a good opportunity to use our funding to benefit the university," says Wu. "It's a very straightforward result." He expects to field test the app this spring, then deploy it. And, "if the university experience is good, then it will be introduced to the city police department." And such projects have benefits beyond increasing efficiency: "Involving a student in a real project gives them the experience of seeing the benefits to the university as they develop and test the system. This application will be applied in the real world."
Projects with direct, visible impacts have an element of excitement that students may not find in less tangible research. Turner hopes to see the app deployed by the time he graduates in the spring. Its success will strengthen Wu's future funding proposals. He may pursue licensing in the future, he adds, but he's currently focusing his efforts on development and testing.
Colleges and universities are natural testing grounds for finding efficiencies through mobile applications, in part because of the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices. Clemson University and The Ohio State University are two more institutions now harnessing the explosion of mobile computing power.
Clemson piloted its New Student Orientation Guide app when welcoming incoming freshmen last summer and fall, says Tina LeMay, director of the university's Student Affairs Publications. The solution she and her team tested was built using Adobe Digital Publishing Suite and limited to one family of tablet devices. While the app won this year's award for Outstanding Non-Print Media or Emerging Technologies from the Association for Orientation, Transition and Retention in Higher Education (also known as NODA), LeMay already has plans to improve the orientation guide for the next class of freshmen.
"We're looking at implementing a different solution, one that is responsive — that will respond to whatever tablet or mobile device is trying to access it and size itself accordingly," LeMay says. "We'll be able to reach a wider range of devices without having to redesign for every screen size."
One major advantage of presenting orientation information in an app format is reduction in the size and number of printed orientation guides, LeMay says: "Right now, we're printing 11,000 books per year, spending around $10,000 for a 64-page book."
Moving forward, the intention is that family members accompanying new students for orientation will receive a reduced-size book, and every student will receive a smaller package consisting of a printed schedule and maps.
But LeMay says yet another advantage is that more information can be presented through links to websites, allowing those on orientation tours to maximize downtime by accessing the information they want through the app.
At The Ohio State University, Web and Mobile Apps Director Stephen Fischer and his team have built an enterprise application that enables students to access everything from schedules and walking directions to grades. Throughout the semester, users can track buses, find out how much cash they have remaining in their meal plan and keep up with campus news, among other features.
— OhioState (@OhioState) December 2, 2013
"Context is the big advantage that mobile has," Fischer says. The OSU Mobile app ties several features to geolocation, helping students to get the information they need while they're at the place for which they need that information.
Fischer is always looking for ways to apply mobile technology to enhance the educational experience. Later this semester, his team will pilot mobile-based student evaluations of instruction, he says, noting that the university saw its evaluation response rates drop when it moved from in-class Scantron evaluations to web-based evaluations made outside of class.
By incorporating the evaluations into OSU Mobile, students can take out their device in the last five minutes of class to complete an assessment, and Fischer hopes to see response rates approach 100 percent once again.
"It makes things much more streamlined," he says. "We'll add push notifications, so potentially a good percentage of students before the last class will have already filled them out." Ultimately, Fischer concludes that while mobile isn't a replacement for everything the university does outside of instruction, a good deal of efficiency can be gained by targeted development.
"Technology experts can come together with educators to find the spots where efficiencies can really be gained," he says, by marrying a deep understanding of what's technologically possible with the flow of the university calendar and trends in education and administration.
Rose Rocchio, chairwoman of the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Mobile Strategy and Application Development work group and UCLA's director of education and collaboration technology at the Office of Information Technology, says the top trend driving the direction of university application development is "bring your own everything" — BYOE.
"Larger public campuses can't purchase the same device for everyone," she says. As students bring a variety of devices to campus, she sees web-based apps gaining popularity over native apps that work only on the devices for which they were designed. Hand in hand with mobile web design is responsive design. With more than 500 screens of various sizes on the market, responsive design "ensures that you have a communication message that can get to every screen in readable fashion," Rocchio says.
Efficiency also lies in such concepts, not only because there's just one code base to maintain, but also because users like to stick with the devices they chose to purchase for themselves.
"It greatly enhances your ability to leverage your research dollar if the person comes with a device that they have, that they know and that, quite honestly, they have a relationship with," she says.
While Wu's work at Tuskegee, as a series of native apps with specific purpose, may be a great candidate for licensing in the future, other university-developed applications are either ineligible — like Clemson's, which uses existing software — or poor candidates.
Fischer says that while he's open to licensing, the OSU Mobile framework is tied to several of the university's back-end systems that simply may not translate easily to another university. "We've really focused on user experience and talking to students to organize things in a way that makes sense, but that might make the app a bit unique to Ohio State."
Rocchio is working with IMS Global to harness university application and mobile development in a collegial fashion. "We're putting together a protocol called CASA, the Community App Sharing Architecture, which will be a standard for universities to share these kinds of apps across higher ed," she says, and hopes to have something to show off by spring.
"It's the same concept of the app store," she says, "but it brings that kind of metadata-enabled filtering to focus on mobile-ready sites across the spectrum of higher ed."
Rocchio's advice to universities is to start with the basics. According to an EDUCAUSE survey of 1,900 students, the three things students care most about are wireless access, emergency alerts and access to coursework. "Keep in mind what the students want," she says, then work from there.
Efficiency can mean ensuring that existing technologies can run well on mobile platforms. But a great deal of educational software evolved prior to the mobile boom, when students congregated in computer labs with a significant database back end.
Citrix Systems' XenDesktop is a solution for such compatibility woes. When installed, it detects the device in use and translates the requested resource, helping to optimize applications for a small form factor touch screen.
Indiana University uses XenDesktop in part to deliver its Mobile Student Computing Lab to more than 44,000 students, says Duane Schau, director of client services.
"We chose Citrix because we have a superior client agent that allows us to use Windows apps on any device," Schau says, noting that IU's more than 110,000 students statistically each bring two or three devices to campus. "They have printing, storage and 180 applications available to them on any device, anytime."
IU adapted XenDesktop with cloud storage applications, an example of product flexibility that allows for mashups between mobile apps and behind-the-scenes software as well as customized mobile front ends.
For universities that have invested heavily in desktop-bound tech, desktop virtualization software like XenDesktop can help to maximize use of the resources they already have.