The roots of mobile as a productivity platform extend deep into the World-Wide Web, so in thinking about mobile and education one has to take a good look at the Web and its contemporary influence on mobile design and strategy.

At a fundamental level, a Web presence is much like a sign on a roadway; if it catches your attention you may be convinced to pull over and investigate. If not, you may take note of the business and pass by because you don’t need that particular service at that particular time. A mobile-enabled website extends this experience by presenting content in a form appropriate for on-the-go consumers. In this sense, a mobile website is analogous to a second sign that is added to the first sign on the roadway. The second sign attempts to attract a different clientele to the place of business, but in the end it is still a sign and like the main one, can be ignored.

An alternative to a generic mobile-only or one-size-fits-all website is a responsive one. A responsive site reacts to the type of device that is accessing it and adapts the display of information to the context of individual use. Think of a responsive website as multiple lanes on a single road — traffic lanes, a bus lane, a cycling lane, etc. All are using the same route, but the route itself is designed to accommodate different modes of transportation in its design and execution. Regardless of approach, however, the mobile Web is still saddled with the curse of the browser — poking around content is not the same as fostering meaningful interaction.

We’ve reached a point where the volume of mobile devices have eclipsed the number of desktop computers on the planet, so the desktop-first and Web browsing paradigm now seems as appropriate to today’s world as a mass-produced industrial age education. Yes, both still exist, but people recognize that there can be something better. So to carry the roadway metaphor a bit further, think of the browser-based Web as the US Federal highway system of the 1930s, which connected the country but was not robust enough to sustain post-war economic expansion across the nation. Mobile today is driving the development of the equivalent of the US Interstate System, which unlocked commerce, connected communities, created new industries, and promoted citizen exploration of the country as never before, while at the same time building upon the Federal highway system and the communities along many of its routes.

The interstate system layered additional transportation options, capability and flexibility onto the highway network — and something similar has happened regarding mobile today. It does not replace the Web, but instead provides something new on top of the established infrastructure and standards. Mobile is now a utility and lifestyle platform of necessity and convenience. Today, retailers are rapidly developing stand-alone mobile applications (apps) as a means to connect with consumers on a day-to-day basis. A downloaded mobile app travels wherever she and her mobile device go, and places the retail brand at the forefront of the consumer’s experience. If well developed, the app enables the provider to develop a personal connection with the consumer as it is precisely available at the moment of desire or need. Or to put it another way, there is no chance of ignoring the sign on the roadway when the business itself is incorporated into the dashboard – like an in-car GPS navigation system.

Education has a significant advantage over retailers as learning experiences are built around individual relationships, group collaborations, and deep connections across affinity groups. Students, parents, staff, instructors, alumni, donors, and fans all have myriad reasons for staying in contact with a college, university, school, or educational program. Whether taking a class or keeping abreast of the latest sports scores, the community that circles a particular educational institution creates natural opportunities for mobile services. Retailers, on the other hand, often struggle with building these relationships as the reason for connecting consumers may only go as far as the next product release.

Retail demonstrates that mobile is more than a collection of technologies; it is a contemporary paradigm for connecting, communicating, and getting things done on mass-customized and yet personal relationship level that extends to the devices themselves. According to Robert Mitchell of Computerworld, a theme that permeated the 2010 Gartner Symposium was that “the need to accommodate the consumer’s choice of end point mobile computing devices, each with its own application infrastructure and network, is increasingly being taken as a given.” Several years later this theme, coupled with maturity in cloud computing, underpins mobile-first application development, digital distribution and social marketing today.

For today’s education leaders it is important to recognize that the consumer growth of mobile has established norms for interaction that cannot be ignored, but rather leveraged like the Federal highway system to provide a foundation to build an organization’s mobile-first strategy. If properly conceived of as part of a holistic vision that looks at different communities and maps expectations and desires against services and capabilities, a strategic approach to mobile and mobile apps can help provide levels of interactivity and service delivery that align and best match with what students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni and fans expect of a mobile-aware and engaged educational institution. Although some may argue that a mobile-enabled website is good enough, charting a successful course should take into account the consumers’ platform of choice and the choices they are making to consume information and interact with services.

(Part 3 of 3, view Part 1)

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