DrexelOne Mobile Puts Services at Students' Fingertips


Peter J. Stokes, Ph.D.




You have undoubtedly seen the ad campaign. "Students' heads can hold only so much in one day," the headline reads. In the upper left-hand corner of the ad is an image of a student who appears to be asleep in a classroom, and in the lower right-hand corner there is a picture of a hand grasping a cell phone. "Precisely why Drexel places new information in their hands," the copy continues.



Launched in June 2002, the DrexelOne Mobile program allows students to access the University portal via PDA, Blackberry, web phone, or other devices to check grades, learn about last minute classroom changes, receive announcements from faculty, or access the University directory.



The program, still early in its adoption curve, is one of a handful of innovative wireless initiatives currently underway across U.S. higher education campuses that provides convenient access to time-sensitive information to students who are, in the words of Drexel Vice President of Information Resources & Technology John Bielec, "untethered and connected and on the go."



Drexel, of course, has always been an early adopter of technology solutions. In 2000, the University was among the first to install a campus-wide wireless network, called Dragonfly, and in 2002 the University launched its DrexelOne portal. Combined, these two tools made it possible for the school's 16,000 students and 3,000 employees to access course materials, conduct research, and pay bills online. DrexelOne Mobile was a logical next step in leveraging the campus infrastructure to deliver improved services to students.



"We look at the technology students are using in their everyday lives, and when they get to Drexel we try to engage them with those technologies," Bielec told Eduventures. "Drexel's mission is technology. With DrexelOne Mobile, we're supporting that mission by delivering a technology project that is becoming ubiquitous to student life to effectively conduct transactions - not so much from a learning process but a service delivery process."



Bielec has witnessed accelerated adoption among students with respect to other campus initiatives, and he expects that the moderate use DrexelOne Mobile receives today - anywhere from 10 to 80 log-ins per day - will increase significantly over the coming school year. Take mobile computing on campus, for instance. According to Bielec, as recently as September of 2000, 85 to 90 percent of computing on campus was taking place on a desktop. Three years later, some 7,000 students have purchased laptops that are registered with the Dragonfly network. Bielec estimates that virtually every one of the school's approximately 1,300 freshman this school year came equipped with a notebook computer, complete with a wireless card.



Part of what makes DrexelOne Mobile different, however, is that students access services via networks of their own choosing - not Dragonfly. "Most of the use of One Mobile is not through the campus network, but through wireless network providers like Cingular and Verizon," said Bielec. Thus, a key for driving utilization, Drexel believes, is creating wireless plans that are appropriate for students. "We're working with carriers to offer students minimal wireless access with phones," Bielec continued. "Right now we're working with Nextel, and we're talking with others, too."



And when DrexelOne Mobile launches its email service later this year, Bielec expects a big jump in utilization: "Once we put up email so you can read and manage your email from One Mobile, that will be the driver."



So what does a service like this cost Drexel? Bielec chuckles at the question. "There was no funding involved, effectively," Bielec explained. "We used .NET to take the things that we had that already existed in our normal portal and ported them to a mobile portal. It took our staff about 10 days to get the guts of One Mobile up and running."



With little in the way of cost inhibitors, Bielec's team is free to let its imagination take One Mobile as far as it can go - within certain constraints. "We feel there are four key rules for a good mobile application," Bielec told Eduventures. "One, you have to require minimal user input; two, the output requirements have to be minimal as well; three, the information should be time-critical for the user; and four, the information should be supplemental to a website and should not be independent of a site."



For these reasons, Bielec does not imagine there will be many purely educational applications for One Mobile: "Teaching on a phone is not one of the things you want to do. You could use a mobile device to gather data in the field, but we focus on back office, core infrastructure. You have to keep in mind screen size, keyboard size, and bandwidth - so the level of interaction has to be kept low."



The key innovation here, according to Bielec, is One Mobile's platform agnosticism. "We aren't telling students what kind of device or service provider to get," Bielec reported. "If you can get online, we'll make our stuff work with you."



So what would it take for other institutions to develop One Mobile projects of their own? "We've had a lot of interest from other institutions," Bielec responded. "Could someone do this? Sure. We did. What we've done is unique. But it won't stay unique. In 18 months, you'll see a big adoption rate. We're just ahead of the curve."



For more information, visit http://www.drexel.edu.