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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMS

13 Oct 2009

written by Michael Fienen

Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMS

Last week I was contacted by @lisakribs about a new piece of software her company is developing called MobileEducator, designed for colleges and universities to enable low cost entry into the mobile arena.  The software looked fairly neat, and I thought it might be something that plenty of our readers might see value in, so I agreed to sit down with them and take a tour of it.  So, first thing’s first – disclaimer. I have in no way been paid by MobileEducator for an endorsement, I have not accepted any compensation in exchange for this review, and it was a clear stipulation that what you will receive is my honest opinion of the product they are creating.  My intent is to give a fair review of their software, as one higher ed web professional to another.

So, that said, some fast background on them.  From their site, MobileEducator was created by a group of admissions marketers, expert software engineers, developers, and designers. They believe schools, universities, and colleges should have access to expert mobile development resources and that apps should be ever-changing and dynamic, not static.  The software is really brand new (You can find a school, Simon, a customer service expert, Shep Hyken, and a Joan Jett app currently using the system in the App Store), and some of my screenshots and comments will be in reference to a currently released version, a version that will likely have already been updated by the time this review is published.  They saw what groups such as the students at Stanford (iStanford via MobilEdu), or a student team at OU (OU2Go) had done, and decided to see if they could develop a framework that would allow anyone to get into mobile apps without the expensive cost of development and cumbersome integration processes that schools face now.  Granted, that heavy-handed process has resulted in some really awesome apps for universities, but few schools have the resources and skills available to tackle something of that scale.  So, let’s look at what makes this process tick.

When looking at prospective students, there are some numbers worth mentioning.  According to MobileEducator, 28% of iPhone users and 69% of iPod Touch users are between the ages of 13 and 24.  That amounts to approximately 20 million users.  Online ad campaigns currently convert at about .3%, while mobile targeted campaigns run at 13%.  My opinion is that the reason mobile platform targeted campaigns work better is that for them to work, the user has to already have agreed to use your application or tool that provides the channel for the message.  This also means that you have a smaller pool of more relevant eyes to see your message, so those numbers aren’t exactly apples to apples necessarily.  But, the goal is clear: tap into a more relevant market with tools that can add value and enhance the experience of students on your campus, and in turn give you the ability to leverage that network for other goals.

The Framework

photo 150x150 Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMSFirst off, every school gets its own app.  It’s not one global app that students pick a school from.  Your app is custom compiled and submitted to Apple, and uses the modules and information that you’ve chosen to use.  The system is built out by you (or with assistance from them) to include all your own graphics, colors, and any selection of modules that are offered with content you provide.  That might be RSS feeds, images, video, links, etc.  This process is made simple via the MobilityCMS platform, a web based content management system (CMS).  You never have to write a line of code, or know a thing about iPhone application development.  This is all part of the lower barrier to entry idea.  However, the side effect would be that two different schools using MobileEducator will ultimately have two very similar applications, even though they might use different combinations of modules (look up the examples mentioned at the start of this article and you can see how the different clients, not even edu related, all clearly are driven by the same engine).  This is simply the price of simplicity though; if you want more complex, you’ll have to pay for it.  In the example I viewed, the user was the Simon Graduate School of Business, and they had implemented features such as a news feed, images, lectures (a YouTube feed), as well as some additional tools like an event listing, tie in to a mailing list, and a page of links (“Everything Else”) in my video.

MobilityCMS SocialMedia 150x150 Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMSThe MobilityCMS platform also affords the user a simple upgrade path as features are added.  MobileEducator can add new modules over time, and give you additional tools to drive the application without making the overall framework and management any more complex.  This is certainly good for you, and smart for them.  You could pay more money for a more complex app from some other company, but then you’re also stuck paying again and again when you want the app updated.  Here, the updates are just going to come with it through the CMS.  Over time, this CMS could enable all kinds of spinoff tools that add value to your package.  Even as it is, the currently available modules allow for some creative options, such as imported Twitter feeds, student blogs, lecture captures, etc.

The App

Okay, first, go ahead and run through the YouTube video below.  I apologize for the blurriness, my Flip camera isn’t so great for close quarters.  I’ll have some screenshots as well to help.

I already mentioned the particular modules that Simon was using in this application.  The main page that loads is primarily just a big static image for now, though future updates may allow more WYSIWYG type editing of that area to make it more useful.  Note that they reused some tools, like the YouTube feed, once for a section called “Lectures,” then later for “Simon Trailers.”  Same tool, just reused with a different filter.  The “Everything Else” panel is just a list of links.  You could put Facebook, Twitter, or links to your internal systems there.  They chose to list several PDFs that they wanted users to have access to which you can see me navigating in the video.  The application lets you highlight the top four sections that you want users to have access to, and the “More” option leads to everything else you have.

moreScreenshot 150x150 Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMSNaturally, the app is released for free, and depending on the content you include in it, could be targeted at any number of multiple or different audiences.  By utilizing RSS feeds and the Mobility CMS, you can provide custom, changing content to users via the app.  This also allows you to leverage the appeal that is afforded when users view your university as being more high tech than competitors when you can tap some of these niche market areas that normally cost a lot to get in to.

The Good

MobilityCMS ManageFeeds 150x150 Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMSSo, here’s the dish.  I like the application for it’s simple creation interface.  It achieves its goal of lowering the barrier to getting clients into the mobile space in spades, which will make it a prime target for small colleges, or schools which overall lack the resources or developers capable of tackling an iPhone app on their own.  There’s also a lot of flexibility provided by the available modules, as shown with the Simon example of using multiple YouTube areas to show different things.  This really provides quite a few options and opportunities for creative areas within the application.  You could even extend it with web based components by using the link module combined with the internal Safari browser (so clicking links won’t take you out of the application).  It’s also fast.  You’re not waiting long when loading the app and moving between modules.  Content is right there, and you don’t feel like there’s a lot going on in the background that you have to wait on.  MobilityCMS provides some simple application stats, such as download tracking and mailing list subscriptions, and you could easily build destination URLs to include Google Analytics tags to track incoming users to certain pages of your site from the links module.  Lastly, the cost is very affordable, with most people being able to get into the platform for around $5000, with a monthly service charge of around $125 at the time of this writing.  Keep in mind, the setup fee is one time, so after that you’re only on the hook for the $125 a month as long as you want to keep the app active.  I would love to see some people try this coupled with some fundraising campaigns or storefront options to see some hard ROI type numbers on it.

The Less Good

Its simplicity is also a failing in this case, as power must be sacrificed to make the system flexible and easy.  So, for example, don’t plan on doing any fancy systems integration with the app (though an XML/XSLT module in the future could easily work to bridge that gap).  The application interface lacks some flavor, and as mentioned, two different colleges will inevitably have very similar applications (luckily, you’re not likely to have students making a choice of whether or not to come to your school based on iPhone app comparisons).  Besides changing the top four tools on the app home page, there just isn’t much else you can do besides push everything else into the “More” area where it gets listed out.  Presentationally that’s just not much fun.  It makes the app come across very flat, in a navigation/usability sense.  You can make it very broad, but not deep.  At the very least it would have been nice to see an image rotator for the home page image, something to provide some variety instead of the exact same static image constantly.  Current module selections are a little limited, but that’s not so bad, as it means you don’t have to keep track of a ton of stuff to keep the app data fresh.  If you stop paying for the service, your app can remain available, but the content in it will go stale.  While I stick this in the “less good” header, it is understandable.  The image module is fairly basic, and doesn’t support anything like separate albums or categories (though you could use several instances of the module, but that’d get a little messy if you wanted to make a lot available).

The Future

mEducator video 150x150 Review: MobileEducator iPhone Application and CMSCurrently, MobileEducator is aiming for three to four major updates a year.  I already mentioned that they have a WYSIWYG module nearly ready for the application, which will bring a lot of new possibilities to users.  This includes being able to make the app home page functionally useful too, perhaps with links to student portals, eLearning software, giving, etc.  There’s also a planned Google Maps module that would be combined with the GPS in the phone to provide simple mapping and potential user discovery options (imagine being able to do a flash mob at a football game by identifying where other app users are in the stadium).  Currently the system is only available for the iPhone, but there are also plans to expand into tho Android market as well as providing a simple mobile web based version, with the one CMS feeding the data to build all the different apps.  I’m told that as they add this ability, there will be no increased charge for the extra platform.  If they eventually add Blackberry into the mix, that would make them about the only system I know of that’s designed to give a non-technical way to build applications to basically canvas the smartphone market (and even without a Blackberry specific version, the web version would allow you on to basically everything else out there).  I would like to see some increased flexibility added to the system, as well as the ability to layer functionality similar to the way a lot of sports applications work right now in how you can drill into the app, with the navigation changing as you go.  Speaking of sports, there would be huge value to enable sport score reporting, possibly via a web services API or similar.  I’m not saying that’s coming, that’d just be a wishlist item from my court.  There’d also be some benefits to adding in push notifications for when content updates, and maybe something like iCal type support for events to quickly add them right into the iPhone calendar.

Conclusions

It’s not perfect, but it is a pretty good start for sure.  Most of the things I mention in the “Less Good” section can be overcome, and there’s huge potential if they start covering some of the things I mention would be good on a future roadmap.  As it sits, I like it for someone set on getting onto iPhones that can’t do it themselves, which is a whole lot of us.  Their direction is certainly pointed correctly too, with the goals to use their CMS framework to get into additional markets outside the iPhone.  That’s a huge value that shows they realize the iPhone isn’t the only mobile sphere people exist in.  In the end, I look at something like this and ask myself: “Is this something I would use myself, as a user or a client.”  I would pretty confidently answer both yes in this case, because I’m pretty sure the value is definitely there to justify the investment.

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license


About the author

Michael Fienen

For six years, Michael served as the Director of Web Marketing at Pittsburg State University. Currently, he is the Senior Interactive Developer at Aquent and is also CTO for the interactive map provider nuCloud. When it comes to web communication, he focuses very heavily on interpersonal communication components of websites, as well as content considerations that must be taken into account when building usable sites.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, consultant, internationally featured speaker on web issues, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.

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This post was written by - who has written 99 posts on .eduGuru


  • http://www.bodyplastika.com/ Plastic Surgery application

    Thanks for all the info. That looks like a fun application.

  • http://missouri.edu Gilzow

    I know that they (Mobile Educator) mentioned to you (Michael) that they are making plans to move into Android and other smart phone OS’s, but nothing on their website, that I can find, states that. Everything mentioned is geared toward the iPhone. And I’ve had one too many companies sell me on a product with a lot of future promises, only never to deliver.

    As they are now, from the standpoint of a University, if you limit yourself to one platform (iphone), then you disenfranchise all of your students who are not on that platform.

    Let’s look at some additional numbers. AT&T has about 1/3 of the mobile market (most estimates I can find put them at about 27%). So by only offering an iphone app, you’ve alienated 2/3rds of your mobile market. Now according to this report from June 09 (http://is.gd/4jHka which pulls its numbers from a Nielsen report http://is.gd/4jHQ9 – I promise you wont get XSSed!) there are currently 6.4 million iphone subscribers, of which, only 18% are between the ages of 13-24, 10% less than what Mobile Educator claims. The report also states that in the same time frame there were 16.1 million ipod touches in the US. This would make the total number of iphones+touches in the US at 22.5 million devices, about 1/2 the number that Mobile Educator claims. This completely invalidates their claim that “Over 20 million kids, ages 13-24, own the iPhone or iPod Touch.”

    Forgetting about specific numbers, unless your campus adopts one specific platform, if you build something for one, then everyone is going to want the same thing for their platform. So the blackberry users will want a blackberry app, and the Android users will want an Android app, and the Windows Mobile users will want a Windows Mobile app, Palm, Symbian, etc.

    The *BEST* thing you can do right now, IMO, is to build a standards compliant website, that renders well on small screens (Opera’s Small screen view is AWSM for this) so that you hit the largest audience possible, with the smallest amount of work and support.

    I hope that Mobile Educator proves me wrong and actually does build a framework that will support all the various phones. And when they do, I’ll be knocking on my boss’ door to give it a serious look. But until then, we’ll continue to focus more on technologies that ALL of our students can use, instead of just a subset.

    Oh, and dont even get me started on security when it comes to these mobile apps…. ;)

    • http://www.fienen.com/ Michael Fienen

      All excellent and completely valid points, especially about building mobile friendly sites. Speaking of AT&T, I just heard today actually that they appear to be releasing something very similar for the mobile market called UpperClass, which appears to canvas the mobile market pretty nicely. I’m efforting to see if I can bring some more information forward on that product.

  • http://www.appprofits.com iphone apps development

    Worth to read. Excellent post. Keep it up!

  • http://iphoneappfreelancer.com/ Ian Maskell

    Hey Michael,
    Very useful post this is.. just a few doubts here..Are you sure that G-Maps would work fine in 3G without full XML support? And at $125 per month, is it really a low cost platform?

  • http://mysoftskill.com ran

    woww.. great post… i like it..
    thanx for u .. r info.. keep it up

  • http://www.phonefreelancer.com iphone developer

    Great post! I hope to see more apps like this in the future. Especially since mobile phone applications are going to grow a ton in the very near future! Thanks for the info.

  • http://www.iphoneapples.com Fidelia Chocron

    Well every blog owner deserve a little admiration. Nice post, grazie.

  • http://iphoneheavenz.com Redsnow 0.8

    Great application you developed right here, such a great idea to bring education to a handheld devices. It’s definitely should called education in your hand.

    Thanks
    Regards
    Andriy

  • http://www.twitteling.com Dendy

    I like to use many applications on the iphone, thanks for sharing

  • http://admissions.uoregon.edu Aaron Ragan-Fore

    Great review article. Our institution is seeking a middle ground (in terms of both price and offerings) between an expensive app developer we’ve been speaking with, and a DIY solution like this one. We want some degree of design and content distinctness, but want to work with an app developer that specializes in higher ed institution apps. Any recommendations?

    • http://Www.gamma-point.com Tina

      Hi Aaron,

      I am not sure if you have already been working on an iPhone app for your school or not. But, I would like to introduce you to gamma-point.com, a Portland based mobile development company. We have developed a basic iPhone app for schools that we can customize and adapt for any higher educational institute. Please feel free to contact us for your iPhone app project. Thanks, Tina.

  • http://www.netreklam.org net reklam

    Great review article. Our institution is seeking a middle ground (in terms of both price and offerings) between an expensive app developer we’ve been speaking with, and a DIY solution like this one. We want some degree of design and content distinctness, but want to work with an app developer that specializes in higher ed institution apps. Any recommendations?

  • http://www.gadgetsfree4u.co.uk Baz

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m just getting used to adding apps so on the look out for some good one’s.

  • http://mobilemegamall.com/iphone iPhone Kid

    Nice post. It is certainly a good apps but don’t you think it is a little bit expensive. I think it should have a trial version on this app. Anyway, thanks for sharing the insight. Well done.

  • Nevo Hajaj

    Thare is another way to make your own app for iphone.. just click
    hare,
    wirte your name, and mail, and you will get an answer 24 hours later!

  • Nevo Hajaj

    Thare is another way, just click hare .

  • AppWriting

    As an educator, I can see how beneficial this application would be for both the universities and students. I’ve been out of college for quite some time and only wish I had the technology available back then like they have now.

  • http://www.socialcubix.com/ Facebook App Developers

    Pretty insightful post. Never thought that it was this simple after all. I had spent a good deal of my time looking for someone to explain Mobileeducator clearly and you’re the only one that ever did that.Keep it up.

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