Coming to Towson University? There’s an app for that—or there will be very soon, compliments of a new partnership between the university and Blackboard Mobile Central. The subdivision of the campus learning management system develops mobile-ready applications that give users quick access to campus resources such as maps, directories, and news. According to Director of Information Technology Support Centers Matt Wynd, this type of TU-branded app has been a long-requested product on campus.
Matt says that the university’s desire for a mobile presence extends almost as far back as the development of mobile devices themselves. Recognizing that there was a need for the campus community to access just-in-time information like a phone number or the location of guest parking, in November 2005 OTS began working to reformat common resources into a mobile-ready web format. They started with the campus directory but the project was time-consuming, and they were barely able to finish before the iPhone was released and the industry trend changed from mobile-ready
A look at the branded Blackboard Mobile app for Duke University. Towson’s app will have a similar structure.
websites to dedicated applications or “apps.” OTS began exploring the university’s options for developing such an app, but the market was still new, and many apps were only compatible with a single platform or device.
That single-platform approach changed when Blackboard came out with Mobile Central, a product that allows universities to place key resources and information into a branded app that’s accessible across multiple mobile platforms. Developed by students at Stanford and acquired by Blackboard in 2009, Blackboard Mobile is specifically geared toward higher education, with built-in hooks that allow customers to launch the app’s various components much faster than a typical development cycle. Though not fully compatible with all mobile devices, various components of the app are compatible with the iPhone, iPod Touch, Android, BlackBerry and the mobile web—making the app accessible to a wide audience on campus.
“They’re multi-platform, so even when trends evolve, they will still be able to address a much larger community,” Matt said. “Blackboard is the first company to fully develop this type of solution for the higher ed community.”
Realizing that the product might be an ideal solution for the campus’s long-identified mobile resource needs, this fall Matt and Senior Blackboard Administrator Patricia Halstead set up Blackboard Mobile demonstrations with nearly 30 stakeholders across campus. The product immediately generated buzz, with a majority of attendees indicating that they not only wanted to purchase the product, but wanted to do so as soon as possible. At around the same time, Matt got a call from a Student Government Association (SGA) representative who heard about the demonstrations and wanted to express the SGA’s support for such a product. Momentum was building, and the university purchased Blackboard Mobile this January.
“There was a general consensus that this was the right time and the right company to get a mobile presence developed in a timely fashion,” Matt said. “They gave us a great way to move forward quickly, cost-effectively, and without the resources necessary to create something in-house.”
OTS is now in the process of building a team of campus stakeholders to guide the development of the app. The team will meet regularly to give Patricia, who is leading the product implementation, direction on which of the app’s 14 components should be launched first. Some components, like the map, directory and an athletics section showing game schedules and scores, are fairly straightforward and expected to be launched late this spring or early this summer. Other components that display campus news, events, and even course listings are more labor intensive and may take a while longer. The stakeholder group will work with OTS to weigh campus needs against development time to create a useful app that’s accessible for free download this summer. From there, Matt says the product will evolve and grow with the campus.
“It isn’t a situation where we decide what components we want and then are done forever,” Matt says. “We’ll keep refining and improving things as they go on.”