Monday, September 16, 2013

Tweets from the Future

The University of Minnesota Morris is situated in a small town, a little over 5,000 people and about an hour from the nearest Walmart or Target store. We have a single-screen movie theater, a few bars, fewer restaurants, and a coffee shop with limited hours. Like many rural communities that harbor a university, there isn't much of "downtown" Morris to attract students. I jokingly advise incoming freshmen that they won't "party in the neon glow of downtown until the wee hours of the morning," because most shops and restaurants tend to close up by 9:00 p.m. So with a dearth of entertainment options in Morris city proper, the University of Minnesota Morris needs to find innovative ways to alert students to activities happening on campus.

The campus has much to offer our students. We regularly feature live bands, art exhibits, musicals, plays, and visits by celebrities and politicians. Our challenge was to effectively communicate these upcoming events in a compelling way to our 1,900 mostly-residential students. While we have a campus events mailing list, our students rarely find this information to be timely enough. Students do not plan their social calendar very far in advance. Often, students decide on the spur of the moment: "It's after dinner, what can I do?"

In a listening session conducted in 2012 on campus, a major concern from our students was how to access campus events and activities from their mobile devices. With a single voice, our students demanded that we develop interfaces that support iPhones and Android phones. They want access to campus events and activities via their mobile devices.

The answer is a modernized mobile events portal. The platform has to be mobile in order to succeed. Even as recently as two years ago, most students preferred laptops for their personal computing device. Slowly, a few students began to bring iPads, smartphones, and other mobile devices into the classroom. Today's internet devices are trending smaller. The widespread adoption of these devices means today’s students are increasingly untethered. This creates a problem for IT, both in terms of support and strategy. We used to say that mobile is coming, but clearly, mobile is here.

In November 2011, Nielsen reported that a wide majority of mobile phone subscribers owned a smartphone capable of displaying web pages, including half of those aged 18-25. This increasing trend to mobile has practical effects on higher education. According to a 2012 Noel-Levitz report, over half of surveyed students use a mobile device to interact with their campus. At Morris, we estimate about two-thirds of our students have smartphones (a figure that is inline with a projection from Nielsen) and expect to view campus information via their mobile devices.

Many universities have a mobile website that focuses on events. One common reference is the University of Wisconsin’s which advertises arts, athletics, film, music and public lectures. Other institutions (including the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, at 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 effectively see "tweets from the future" about upcoming events and activities: weather, events, arts, sports, and news.

By narrowing the intended audience to smartphones, we dramatically reduced our development time. In total, it took us only a few months to assemble the "Morris Mobile Events" web app. And of that, most of the time was spend evaluating and tweaking the design. One web developer created the prototype in about a week, and finalized the project in about two weeks. The web app is designed first for a smartphone display, but it "scales up" to tablets and desktop browsers.

A key element in our fast turnaround was how the web app accesses the event data. We use these RSS feeds to populate the Morris Mobile Events web app. Campus units don't update anything in Morris Mobile Events itself. Rather, the web app simply fetches data from existing systems and display that information conveniently to students. For example, if an organization adds an item to the campus events calendar, that event will automatically show up in Morris Mobile Events.

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.

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.

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