Mobile Picks Up Speed

2011 Campus Computing Survey shows boom in institutional mobile apps, more erosion of Blackboard's LMS dominance and jitters about the cloud.

October 20, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — The gateway to the college campus is no longer two pieces of wrought iron that swing on hinges; it is a software interface that fits in your pocket.

The proliferation of mobile apps is one of the more significant findings of the 2011 Campus Computing Survey, an annual study of technology officials at about 500 nonprofit colleges conducted by the Campus Computing Project.

Other key findings include the continuing rise of electronic texts and reading devices, the continuing decline of Blackboard’s share of the market for learning management platforms, and the continuing reluctance of administrators to cede certain data systems to the cloud. Kenneth C. Green, the director of the project, is slated to unveil this year’s survey today here at the Educause conference today. (Green also is a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, and conducts surveys for Inside Higher Ed.)

The rise of mobile has been a theme in higher-education technology for a while — not least at Educause, where several software companies last year told Inside Higher Ed they had shifted their development priorities to focus on mobile apps first, browser apps second.

But when Green released the 2010 survey data, the institutions that had already activated mobile apps for their learning management systems, or planned to do so within the academic year, were in the minority: 42 percent of private universities, 33 percent of public universities, 25 percent of private four-year colleges, 18 percent of public four-year colleges, and 12 percent of community colleges.

The proportion of institutions that either have gone live with mobile apps, or plan to do so by next summer, nearly doubled overall, climbing from 23 percent to 43 percent. Community colleges saw the sharpest rise, which the proportion of colleges with an institutional mobile presence more than tripling, to 41 percent.

This year, Green tweaked the question to encompass mobile apps for all "campus resources and services," not just learning-management systems (LMS). But the gains are not merely attributable to the broader wording of the question, he contended, because LMS vendors were more or less "the only mobile providers" at this time last year.

So what is causing the rise in mobile? To keep up with their constituents, for one, says Green. The technology officers he surveyed estimated that about 56 percent of their students have smart phones and 15 percent have tablet devices. The estimates for faculty are not far behind.

"The question I ask folks when we talk about mobility is, 'Why can I get off the plane in any major metropolitan area, take 45 seconds and download an app that will help me navigate that city,'" Green said in an interview. "I can’t do that for many campuses — at least, I couldn’t a year ago."

The app culture around mobile devices only stands to grow and those gadgets become more commonplace, he said.

The most popular provider of mobile applications was Blackboard, which captured 28 percent of that market — good news for the company, which took the mobile capability in its LMS and spun it off as a separate product in 2009. The company is increasingly counting on the strength of its spinoff products, including Blackboard Mobile, to buoy the company as it continues to lose market share (though not revenue, company officials are quick to point out) in the LMS market.

This year was no exception: Blackboard Learn continued to lose LMS share in 2011, clocking in at just above 50 percent — a 6.5 percentage-point drop from last year’s survey. Its shares of public universities and private four-year colleges were hit especially hard. Blackboard and Moodle are now neck-in-neck among private four-year colleges, with each controlling about 38 percent of the market.

Moodle and another open-source provider, Sakai, continued gaining ground on Blackboard overall — Moodle moving from a 16.4 percent share to 19.2 percent; and Sakai creeping from 4.6 percent to 7.1 percent, mostly by making inroads with public and private four-year colleges. Desire2Learn, a proprietary vendor, held steady with about 10 percent of the market.

Still Nervous about Clouds

In past surveys, Green had gauged the respondents’ enthusiasm for migrating different data-rich campus services to "the cloud" (a.k.a. someone else's servers) by inviting them to score how important they thought it was to do so, on a scale of 1 to 7.

The campus technologists responded tepidly last year, giving "Migrating administrative / ERP services to the Cloud" and "Migrating instructional computing resources to the Cloud" scores of 3.0 and 3.7, respectively.

The 2011 survey attempted to probe exactly what kinds data the respondents were moving to the cloud. It found that while a substantial proportion had already moved e-mail (47 percent) and calendars (34 percent) to hosted systems, many institutions have declined to embrace cloud computing for other, more sensitive data.

Only 4.4 percent of institutions have moved their back-office ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems to the cloud, and more than 80 percent have definitively elected not to; 11 percent are using the cloud for capital resource management, with 70 percent having decided not to; 2.4 percent are doing research and high-powered computing in the cloud, which 81 percent not even considering it; and 6.5 percent are storing and archiving data in the cloud — although 44 percent of institutions are at least reviewing that as an option.

Overall, the responses suggest that campus technology officers still do not trust cloud providers to keep sensitive data secure.

“There are challenges on both sides,” said Green. “One is that, unlike some of the things that are available on the corporate side, the ERP providers and others, as far as I’ve seen, have not brought their services out there [to the cloud].”

On the campus side, Green said, “There have been some very public examples of where the cloud has ‘rained,’ if you will, as far as issues around security or outages. Whatever the compelling financials might be … many campuses are still unwilling to give up that [control].”

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