Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Build vs. buy: Why Morris chose to build

Earlier this year, I spoke at the UBTech 2014 conference about a new way to share campus event information with students. Our concept of "Tweets from the future" considers student engagement differently that answers the question "It's after dinner, what can I do?"

Many universities have a mobile website that focuses on events. One common reference is the University of Wisconsin’s m.wisc.edu which advertises arts, athletics, film, music and public lectures. Other institutions (including the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, at m.umn.edu) have mimicked this mobile site design, presenting calendars of events in "categories," often alongside unrelated links for maps, alumni information, and social networking.

Via this design, students can view upcoming activities by clicking into each category. As they do so, students must build a mental map of which events are happening now, soon to occur, or scheduled in the future—for each category they visit. While breaking up events by topic may make sense for a narrow range of students who only want to see sports events, or only wish to attend art presentations, the Morris students we surveyed found these "categories" too unwieldy to effectively inform them of available upcoming activities. Students did not want to mentally "juggle" the calendar to figure out what was happening around campus; they wanted the calendar to present timely information about things to do.

At Morris, we approached the problem from a new direction. We focused exclusively on current on-campus students, and looked for only the information that would interest them. Instead of separating events into "categories," we utilized a coherent "timeline" view starting now and looking forward into the immediate future. Students visiting the m.morris.umn.edu "Morris Mobile Events" webapp effectively see "Tweets from the future" about upcoming events and activities: weather, events, arts, sports, and news.

University Business Magazine was very interested in our mobile events app, and later I spoke with Avi Asher-Shapiro about our solution. In Build vs. buy: Why Morris chose to build, reviews our webapp, including why we chose to build our own system rather than buy something that might already be on the market. We have a small budget at Morris. When we were considering our options, we knew we needed to be very careful about how we spent both our time and money, so we opted to build our own solution.

And it wasn't a very complex task. From the article:
In the end, the university’s existing IT infrastructure made building the app in-house the most efficient option. “We took all these different feeds we’d already designed for campus events, lectures, and programs, and routed them into one place,” explains Hall. He knew he could develop the app without straining his staff. “There wasn’t that much to it,” Hall says. “One developer put together the app and wrote the code working half time in just two weeks.”

Mobile is where our students are at, and I am glad we could bring the Morris Mobile Events web app to them on their tablets and phones. I hope everyone enjoys being able to see what's happening on campus. Over time, we plan to expand "Morris Mobile Events" with new feeds. While today we can only display event data from the campus events calendar and sports calendar, in future we hope to add menus and specials from the Dining Hall or Turtle Mountain Cafe, or movies at the local theater.

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