Mobile transformed the world—now it can transform education

Mobile is opening a new gateway for educators to reach students

10 years ago, Steve Jobs introduced what would become one of the most important products of all time—the iPhone. As he delivered his now-famous keynote, Jobs didn’t yet know just how impactful Apple’s new gadget would be. With more than 2 billion smartphones in use across the world and PC shipments continuing to slow, it’s clear that personal computing as we know it has undergone a tremendous shift.

According to a recent study, about 95% of college students own a smartphone. Even with such high ownership, only around 50% of students use a mobile device (meaning a smartphone or tablet) daily for school-related work. Even though students report that they prefer laptops for assignment submissions and assessments, colleges have a mostly untapped opportunity to further encourage students to work from the devices they want to use the most. Here’s an excerpt from an Educause study on student usage of mobile devices:

Students might take plenty of pictures using their mobile phone cameras, but rarely do they use the device for meaningful learning experiences. So, even though students recognize mobile devices’ value for academic work, they still look to institutions and instructors for opportunities and encouragement to use them that way.

It’s clear that students want to use their mobile devices more for school-related tasks—so why isn’t it happening? For many institutions, it’s a design problem.

Although colleges have a web presence, most college websites and intranets were designed for the desktop, a fact that presents a significant barrier to usage as desktop interfaces do not translate well to the mobile space and make for frustrating mobile experiences. Good mobile design takes full advantage of the unique strengths that mobile has. Thanks to smartphones, most students have 1) instant access to the internet, 2) a good camera capable of scanning documents, 3) an instant messaging system, and 4) an accurate GPS—all from just about any location. The best apps, such as Google Maps, Snapchat, and Instagram, take full advantage of one or more of these unique advantages, which has led to their success on smartphones. Giving students access to online tools and resources is a good start. However, higher education institutions will see improved success once they start taking full advantage of mobile.

Let’s take school-to-student communication as an example. Right now, most colleges send out vital communications to students through school email, then complain when students don’t read the emails. The problem is that students don’t like email. Upswing has sent thousands of emails to students at our partner schools and we’re pretty excited when we can get an open rate over 10%. If you have an important message you need to deliver to the student body, and only 10% of your intended audience sees it, something needs to change. Sure, you can blame the students, but it isn’t their fault. Students are moving on from email, and it’s time that colleges do the same.

Over the past few months, Upswing has been working on building Ana Scribe, a tool for students and professors that aims to act as a personal assistant. When we started, we used email to communicate back and forth with students. We quickly found that even with open rates around 20%, we couldn’t get students to read their reminders, much less respond to any of our prompts.

As soon as we switched to text messaging, however, we saw engagement increase tenfold. Not only did we see students actually checking the reminders, but also replying to our prompts at a healthy rate. By having our communications arrive directly on our students’ lock screens, we were able to get in direct contact with them instantly, which isn’t something email was doing for us.

With the exception of emergency alerts, most universities don’t have any sort of text messaging system in place for sending important information about upcoming events, important deadlines, and new assignments. With the right tech in place, colleges can positively influence student outcomes by making sure they’re on the right track as the school year progresses. Sending important reminders, providing support with FAFSA/financial aid applications, and making sure students have enrolled in classes that meet their graduation requirements are a few small ways in which schools can have a significant impact on their students’ success.

Sending text messages is cost effective, especially when you consider the return you can get from keeping students enrolled. For the price, text messaging is a much more engaging method of communication, and can positively impact student performance by motivating students to stay on top of their academic responsibilities.

But there’s also much more to mobile than just text messaging. We’ve seen that a large portion of our students are scheduling tutoring sessions on their phone through Upswing, then completing the session on their laptops at home. Mobile is also a great medium for supplemental instruction, like videos and interactive learning experiences. By looking at mobile with fresh eyes, college administrators will be able to fully unlock its potential and better connect with their students.