Campuses strive for 'authentic' mobile approaches
The University of Oklahoma is among colleges rethinking their content for mobile apps
When University of Oklahoma freshmen arrived on campus this year, many of them already had the OU app installed on their smartphones. The first thing the app displays is a map of campus with a search field for buildings — a lifeline for students who don’t yet know how to get around.
Eddie Huebsch, assistant vice president of information technology at the University of Oklahoma, said the OU app first launched this summer, getting several thousand downloads by the start of the fall semester. Students can access the university’s learning management system (D2L) and its interactive learning environment, Janux, throught the platform, which also provides quick access to content available on the OU desktop site.
Walking around campus in August, Huebsch saw students using the map more than anything else.
“At different points in their career, it’s going to be relevant to them in different ways,” Huebsch said.
The first round of development for the OU app focused on services for current students. Already, enrollment, registration, the bursar’s office, and financial aid tasks are accessible through the OU app. And while it’s a reflection of information available on the university’s full site, the content is not strictly duplicative.
That’s a key piece in what has been called “authentically mobile” app development. Colleges across the country have paid attention to the rise in student mobile phone use, especially as smartphones gave students computing power and fast internet access at all times. The first instinct was often to simply copy certain content and put it into a mobile-friendly viewing environment. If we’re being honest, some institutions didn’t even go that far.
The University of Oklahoma has fostered a “mobile-first” culture that forces content developers to rethink how things are done when moving content to a mobile environment. The institution's housing contract, for example, was edited before going online for mobile. Questions were condensed and new functionality was added so students could tap to agree, making best use of smartphone technology.
“It’s more than just putting a form online,” Huebsch said. “It’s how do you redesign your business processes and simplify them so they work on a mobile platform?”
The university sunset three apps before making the latest one live, pushing forward with a unified system that Huebsch expects to continually improve and expand upon. That’s not to say OU may never need another app, but this one will be a flexible foundation for most business processes and services. Faculty are already asking for increased functionality for staff-related tasks.
The Fluid User Interface makes PeopleSoft content responsive to mobile users, meaning staff will eventually be able to access Human Resources content through the app. As more companies make their own websites mobile-first, OU will be able to follow suit, integrating them into the platform.
One change that has made the mobile-first mentality work at the University of Oklahoma has been a partnership with an outside vendor for development. Whereas all of the coding and updating work was previously done in-house, now OU has turned over much of the headaches to Dub Labs. Instead of needing coding expertise, Huebsch said his team has been able to implement good ideas from designers and people in the business units who can easily work in the outside platform.
Before, an OU developer had to update and maintain the university’s apps. Now, that work is done externally, freeing up OU staffers to innovate and further explore what it means to be authentically mobile.
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