Mobile University state of the art

I was just discussing with colleagues the respective merits of mobile apps, mobile optimised websites (sometimes disguised as apps) and frameworks for building them.  It's interesting to take a look around and see what people have done in this space.

A number of institutions have partnered with oMbiel to offer services based on their campusM product.  Chris Sexton from Sheffield has a good description of what's offered by campusM.  campusM runs as a dedicated iPhone app or a Java midlet for other devices.  I expect an Android app to appear soon too.

In parallel, several institutions have developed their own open source mobile projects, notably Mobile Campus Assistant (from the ILRT at Bristol), Mobile Oxford (from the Erewhon project at OUCS), and MIT's Mobile Web.  A sample screen from Mobile Campus Assistant is shown to the left.

These systems are much more than mobile optimised versions of the institution's website.  They provide key information targeted at the needs of the peripatetic IT user - including staff, students and visitors.  Examples of services offered include:

  • Interactive campus maps with points of interest / gazeteer (and "Friend Locator" in campusM's case)
  • Institutional news and events feeds
  • Institutional email and telephone directory search
  • Personal calendar preview
  • PC availability in open access labs
  • Emergency contact information
  • IT service stats
  • Bus timetables and running information
  • Quick links into the institutional VLE for course materials etc, and to download podcasts
  • Quick access to Library services, e.g. books on loan and renewals
  • Careers information, e.g. employer presentations
  • Online payments, e.g. for printer credits
  • Access to institutional webcams
  • Access to exam and coursework results
A recent Eduserv 2010 Symposium looked at the state of the art in the "Mobile University", handily summarised by Andy Powell.   Mobile support will also be one of the key topics at this year's Institutional Web Manager's Workshop.

So where does this leave us at Loughborough?  Much of the information that our peers are providing is readily available here, although it's not presently provided in a unified way via a portal.  We are starting up a portal project, which I will be blogging about separately, and clearly there is potential to kill two birds with one stone by producing a site that degrades gracefully for mobile users via judicious use of CSS.

However, people feel a degree of ownership of their apps, and I suspect that we will offer a  mobile view of our portal site packaged as an app simply because this is an expectation that our users will have.  This is where a cross-platform framework like PhoneGap or Rhomobile may be helpful, by giving us a one size fits all method of developing a mobile optimised site that renders well on all the popular device types and can be delivered as an app.  It's probably worth noting that there are other simpler (but not cross platform) ways of turning a website into an app.

This is a theme I'll be returning to as our portal work starts to gather momentum, so check back later for some practical examples of the software discussed in this post.

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