Rethinking Mobile in Higher Ed: An Argument for an Admissions-First Approach

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Last week Noel-Levitz released an E-Expectations Trend Report on the Mobile Browsing Behaviors and Expectations of College-Bound High School Students. Produced with research partners OmniUpdate, CollegeWeek Live and NRCUA, the study surveyed nearly 2,300 college-bound students and found a whopping 52% have viewed a school’s website on a mobile device before.

The study also found, surprisingly, at least to me, that just 4% of the 94% of students who use a mobile device reported looking at college websites on an iPad or Android tablet.

What were the students looking for? The following six items topped the list of wants by those surveyed.

  1. Academic program listing
  2. Cost/scholarship calculators
  3. A calendar of important dates and deadlines
  4. Specific details about academic programs
  5. An application process summary
  6. Online application forms

When you look at this list, as well as that stat of a staggering 52% of college-bound high school students looking at our websites via mobile device, it’s hard to ignore that there is real demand from prospective students for valuable mobile-friendly admissions information. Yet when they come to our mobile sites what do they actually find?

For the last few years higher education has been largely designing mobile sites with one audience in mind – the campus community. A quick look through the Higher Ed Mobile Directory shows the vast majority of institution’s mobile sites touting bus schedules, campus directories, news, athletics updates and class information for current students. Nowhere to be found are the above mentioned requests that college-bound students are asking for right now.

What does this all mean?

Higher ed has missed the mark with mobile. 

Just like the college and university website, our mobile offerings need to be approached as recruitment tools and provide prospective students with the information they are looking for, when they’re looking for it, on the device they are using to look. This isn’t to say we must abandon our current campus community at all, but we must find a way – just like with our traditional websites – to strike the balance and not sacrifice recruiting efforts for the sake of pushing features that are only valuable to folks living within a few square miles of campus.

While there are some examples today of institutions with admissions-focused mobile websites, and even a few examples of institutions taking applications via a mobile device, a quick comb through the Mobile in Higher Ed Directory failed to bring up a single example that appeared, IMHO, to accurately and fully strike this balance between recruitment tool and campus community tool.

So what actually happens when we fail to deliver the information prospective students want in a mobile-friendly format? For now, not much. Just 2% of survey respondents said mobile site experience negatively affected their opinion of a school. But when past surveys have shown 20-25% of prospective students have dropped a school from their list due to a bad experience on their website, we have to ask, is it only a matter of time before a bad mobile website experience will get you dropped from a prospective student’s list? 

For now, perhaps, our current campus-focused offerings are enough to impress prospects. For those looking for more concrete admissions information, they’re likely content hopping on a home or school  computer to delve deeper into the college search process. But to think these expectations won’t change with time as technology evolves and continues to saturate the market is naive, at best.

The fact is that the data is in. Prospective students want an admission-focused mobile experience. As an industry, we have failed to deliver this. They’re understanding, for now, but the future is much less certain.

So what will it be?

Are we going  to sit on our hands and wait for more data, or should we rethink, readjust and potentially pivot our entire approach to mobile in higher education? 

 

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  • http://www.twgplus.com/ Talmadge Boyd

    Totally agree, Seth. It’s a rising tide. Check out Pew’s research from last month. Tablet ownership among adults doubled from10%  to 19% from 12/11 to 1/12.  I have a feeling that some of the students are going to get a hold of those in the house.  http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/E-readers-and-tablets.aspx

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing this! Karine mentioned something similar above and I think you’re both right, while the 4% may be surprising now, we are likely to see that number change very, very quickly.

  • http://twitter.com/karinejoly karinejoly

    According to the 2011 State of the Mobile Web, the survey I conducted last year, more than 70% of the institutions with a mobile web solution (website, app, etc.) target prospective students. I’m currently processing and analyzing the 2012 survey results, but it looks like the trend is similar. I think that a lot of the focus is on the current students because they are a very visible target audience (and current customers – and it is always important to keep your current customers happy), but also because Blackboard and the major IT solutions providers are NOT in the admissions business, as a result their solutions don’t focus mainly on prospective students.

    It’s also important to remember that this is still VERY early in the game, but you’re right that should definitely come a goal now. As far as tablets are concerned, I would not discard them either as they are becoming a staple for web browsing. Do you know if they survey was done before the holidays? I bet the results will be very different next year as so many tablets have been sold for the holidays.

    That’s why responsive web design – while not the perfect solution – is probably going to be an important piece of this puzzle. 

    • Anonymous

      Definitely agree with your comments on responsive web design. 

      One thing I find interesting is while your study did absolutely find that 70% of institutions with a mobile web solution say they target prospectives, I just don’t buy it. I realize I have no data to back this up – so I’m openly venturing into biased territory – but after the 30 minutes I spent browsing the Mobile in Higher Ed Directory I found maybe 5% – at best – of offerings that appeared to target prospectives. 

      I think there’s a big gap between designing for what we think are our prospective student’s needs and actually giving them what they want, which is the admissions information they asked for in the NL study. 

      I’m also not sure it’s still as early in the game as some might think. Mobile adoption is growing like a beast and I would anticipate expectations moving a lot quicker than any of us can realistically design for, at least in a traditional higher ed setting. 

      I’m sure it’s not a popular opinion, but my gut is telling me it’s time to wake up and take mobile away from IT, where many institutions have it residing, and put it under admissions. 

      • http://twitter.com/karinejoly karinejoly

        Fair enough. SOME institutions might think they target prospective students but might not do it as they should.

        It might take me a bit of time (I’m not a SUPER browser like you, Seth), but the survey respondents provided the addresses of their mobile solutions, so I’ll check what the folks mean by targeting propsective students. And, we’ll be able to let the data speak.

        I think mobile should be handled by the folks who take care of web pages and social media. It’s a marketing/communication channels, not a utility. IT can help maintain it, but what goes on mobile should be what makes sense for communication, marketing, customer service, etc.

        • Anonymous

          That’s really exciting you have the addresses for survey respondents. Would LOVE to see the connection between survey respondent goals and deployment. 

          Very cool!

          And THANK YOU for putting in the leg work to put such a study together. We all need this kind of data to inform smarter conversations and decisions to push us all forward. 

      • http://joesabado.com Joe Sabado

         Hi Seth – prospective students are certainly a big population to target but mobile efforts should not entirely be under admissions. Mobile web is in every part of the campus, including in/out of the classroom. I can cite Studio by Purdue, laundry check-in at Northern Iowa University, checking availability of workstations at computer labs at Temple University.  What I would advocate for is to expand the focus of mobile efforts to target prospective students. Here are just a sample of what folks are using mobile for: http://joesabado.com/2011/10/mobile-general-resources/

        • Anonymous

          Very strong point, Joe. I think you’re pulling me back a bit from the extreme side I’m on. 

          • http://joesabado.com Joe Sabado

             I’m glad you’re bringing this perspective:) A use case to consider is prospective students checking the status of their application status via smartphone. I know they get very anxious around this time of the year.Imagine a couple of years from now (actually this exists now) when one-on-one advising can happen via smartphones. I did a skype interview using my iphone.

    • http://twitter.com/eolsencreative Eric Olsen

      Interested to hear why you feel responsive web design “isn’t” the perfect solution, Karine. Because it’s feeling more and more like a silver bullet to me…

  • http://twitter.com/dmolsen Dave Olsen

    A caveat regarding the directory of mobile websites, it is purposefully focused on centralized mobile portals that tend to be focused on current students, faculty and staff. That’s because most schools set-up that kind of thing at m.institution.edu and it’s the easiest to find with my automated scripts.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the info Dave! I wasn’t aware of that, so that’s great to know, and could be part of the reason my browsing turned up such limited results. 

      Thanks for the work with the directory. It’s an invaluable resource. 

  • http://twitter.com/brentgrinna Brent Grinna

    Excellent post. 

  • Chris Hopkinson

    This is great info! We’re working with a number of schools and admissions companies now on mobility, so schools are starting to take action. We often summarize the overall benefits of mobile by touting the 3 Rs;  1. Recruitment 2. Retainment 3. Reconnecting (alumni) and focus much of our solution on these 3 areas. 
    We don’t have to concern ourselves with only one specific product/feature to Karine’s point below about Blackboard and others not being in the admissions biz. Our goal is to let those experts continue to build great products and let us tie them all together in a user friendly way on mobile. We’re doing this now with Datatel, Oracle, Moodlerooms, Angel, WebCT, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Experience.com, Linkedin, Monster with more coming. Cheers,Chris Hopkinson@dublabs:twitter   
    chris.hopkinson@dublabs.com

  • http://twitter.com/dmolsen Dave Olsen

    Finally got a chance for a real follow-up :) 

    I don’t think higher ed is missing the mark with mobile just because they haven’t focused on admissions yet. Institutions should not and will not have *one* mobile-optimized website. A m.institution.edu website is not the be all and end all for a mobile strategy. In the same way that groups within an institution pursue their own “desktop web” initiatives these same groups are going to have to pursue their own mobile solutions. Things can be done in parallel so I’m not sure there’s any “pivoting” that needs to happen.  IT can pursue that central mobile portal via products like Kurogo or Blackboard Mobile at the exact same time admissions looks at a mobile solution. The caveat to that is that I work at an institution that could pull that off so YMMV.That said, IT is going to have an easier time implementing something brand new (e.g. Kurogo) or something that’s a plug-in to an existing product (e.g. Blackboard Mobile) and maybe that influences the mobile directory listing or the mobile solutions you find. I know we’re not in a position to do anything mobile-friendly for our admissions site because of the product we’re using and it’ll be some time before we can. It’s definitely not because we haven’t thought of it or wouldn’t want to.What really needs to happen is that large stakeholders need to be educated about mobile and what it means for their organization. IT is obviously closer to the tech so it’s easier for them to pick up. It’s on them to go out and evangelize the change that’s happening.Two things will be happening in the near future that will ease your fears some… 1) home pages will go to responsive designs and 2) because of that their will no longer be auto-redirects from a home page to a m.institution.edu website. You’ll see that from us shortly. Therefore that central portal, and its on-campus focus, won’t be so prominent. That still leaves some work on the admissions side but at least it’s a clearer path for prospects.I also want to note that recruitment isn’t everything. Retention can help pay the bills too ;)I really don’t get #6 on the list. We’ve heard the same thing from prospects though. It makes no sense to me that someone would want to fill out the form on a phone. I can only assume that those folks saying it would be a good idea haven’t actually filled out the upteen pages of real application. #5 should be #1 in my opinion.

    • http://twitter.com/dmolsen Dave Olsen

      this had been nicely formatted when i submitted it. i apologize for the huge block of text.

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  • http://twitter.com/MongooseDave David Marshall

    I have had the unique opportunity to work with a handful of early adopters for an Admissions First mobile strategy.  My clients are surely early adopters.. you are right, Karine, we are in the very early stage here.  And I also agree with you Dave – that it should not be admissions or the campus community.. should be both.  Both sites should allow an easy path for the audience to quickly and easily complete their top tasks.

    According to Google Analytics, my clients have seen the following content to be most popular:
    1) Academic Programs
    2) About
    3) Financial Aid
    4) Could I Get in?
    5) Map and Directions
    6) Photo Gallery

    Not one of my clients have had an “apply online”.  Despite evidence to the contrary, I agree with Dave..  I just do not see someone completing the online application on their phone.  A page describing the admissions process is an excellent idea.. perhaps ask for their email and email them a link to the online app on the desktop site?

    The first admissions focused mobile site is: m.kettering.edu.  My company did not design it but it really did a great job and inspired me to provide the solution to other institutions.

    For screen shots of other schools who have put mobile first for admissions can be found here:
    http://blog.mongooseresearch.com/award-winning-mobile-sites.html 

    The results have been very good:
    1) Mobile bounce rate was drastically reduced
    2) Task completion is way up
    3) 85% of visits are new – which is a great way to make a first impression
    4) Combined with texting even conversion and yield are way up

    We now know that 52% of students have viewed .edu sites on their mobile phone.  While schools are still in the early stage – the prospective students are here now.  Those that adapt first will reap the rewards – then it will just be expected.

    As an aside, I am very excited to  be presenting on this very topic at eduSummit 2012.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the post and great feedback on your experiences. I’m looking forward to hearing your talk at the Summit!

  • http://twitter.com/tammylyoung Tammy Langan-Young

    Great discussion! I have worked in higher ed for over 20 years and mobile like everything else, will get to us, it just takes longer. Last semester I had an adjunct talk to me about a student who was trying to do her online class work via her smartphone. We have to catch up to our students.

  • Stephanie Geyer

    Love this dialogue! I’m working on the 2012 E-expectations survey now (the BIG one) and this dialogue is very helpful to me in that effort.

  • Anonymous

    Mobile is a big topic and it’s easy to be led astray. Like always, an agreed upon definition of what mobile is should be the starting point. Are we talking about apps or a website optimized for small screens?

    I think both approaches might be worthwhile and I’ve written at http://www.heavywinter.com/2011/12/thoughts-on-higher-ed-in-the-mobile-space/. It all depends on your audience and what they wish to accomplish, a sentiment clearly articulated here by Seth via real world data. Well done!

  • http://twitter.com/KarlynMB Karlyn Borysenko

    You’re brilliant Seth. You  have schooled me with your intellect. 

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  • http://twitter.com/campusweboffice UCSD CampusWebOffice

    At UC San Diego, we launched our responsive campus website last month (www.ucsd.edu).  We recognize responsive design should be the way we do web development, period. So that’s what we’re doing going forward– focusing on the Admissions site next.

    If you have a campus CMS, you can get some bang for the buck by applying responsive design to those templates. It’s not a magic bullet as you’ll need to retrofit images, tables, embedded widgets and other things that may not have a great responsive solution.

    If 2011 was the year of the mobile site, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of responsive design.

    • Anonymous

      Very exciting! Thanks so much for filling us in on your efforts. Really great to see all you folks are making happen. Definitely going to be following your efforts from here on out!

      • http://twitter.com/campusweboffice UCSD CampusWebOffice

        Seth, sounds great.  Many of the resources and topics you feature help shape our direction so keep it up!

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  • Scott Barnett

    Seth, in the sixteen months I have been attempting to get mobile in place at my .edu, I have yet to be shown any stats that back up the admission-first approach.  I don’t deny that it should have influence on your mobile strategy, but no one in our admission dept or their online vendors could show me statistics that show a 13-17 year old out there, clamoring to get the school’s app.  Your statement “The study also found, surprisingly, at least
    to me, that just 4% of the 94% of students who use a mobile device
    reported looking at college websites on an iPad or Android tablet.” says it all.  There is no accurate research showing that college seeking teens are mobile dependent in their college search.  I don’t say this to be contrarian…I agree we need to get in the game, but first at the macro level — that is, achieving mobile goals across all our online properties, and then focus on micro approaches to specific goals and audiences. 

    While I totally agree that there is room to expand the space to make it “admission-friendly,” I think there needs to be some rationalization (besides “we gotta do it” or “because University X has it” ) to making mobile apps be totally admission centric.  yes, it is the engine that drives what we all do.  But the market is saturated with vendors trying to sell mobile to .edu using admission as the rationalization, without the stats to back it up.  I have also yet to see a mobile app developed by a college that is “admission-centric.”  You may be a savant on this topic…but

    I like to use my own “focus group” often…my sixteen year old.  He is in the midst of the college chase right now as a hs junior.  He is mobile-centric in all he does, but has not shown one bit of interest in any prospective school’s mobile offerings, despite their pleading to him on a daily basis.

    The space definitely needs attention, but I would suggest we get .edu into the mobile-ready game across the whole spectrum of online offerings, THEN focus on the micro approaches necessary to attract various audiences.  Unless of course you have a massive budget at your school…which would afford you the opportunity to create the macro mobile approach with multiple micro mobile approaches to meet your admission, advancement and student affairs needs.  None of us have this….i am being asked to create mobile from sawdust and pennies

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the detailed comment, Scott. In your comment you say “I have yet to be shown any stats that back up the admission-first approach.” Are you saying that you didn’t see the stats at the top of this post, which included 52% of college-bound teens have viewed a school’s website on a mobile device – or are you saying that that stat does not back up an admission-first approach? 

      If the stat that over half of college-bound students are viewing a school’s mobile site doesn’t sway you, nor the fact that surveyed students say they want admission information, what sort of stats are you exactly looking for? The study cited in this post is, to me, directly the kind of stats you point to not having seen before. 

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  • http://blogs.najah.edu/staff/prof-afnanadarwazeh Orioldennis113

    nice post,  thanks

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