Rob Elliott, UK products manager at Capita’s further and higher education business

In 1975, Dr Henry Edward Roberts unveiled the Altair 8800. It was the first PC ever invented and instantly changed the world, forever. Today, the PC is in every home, office, school, college and university.

But technology continues to evolve, creating new opportunities to engage with others. The humble PC is now in direct competition with the mobile phone – no longer just a device from which we are able to make and receive calls. It allows us to send emails, surf the internet, take photographs and even track our location to within a couple of metres. We all now want and expect to be able to access information when we want it, wherever we want it.

Given that the vast majority of students today are already used to and indeed expect the ‘any place, any time’ mode of communication, the further and higher education sectors must adapt to the latest developments. Providers need to be able to connect with their customers in a manner to which they have become accustomed, or else run the risk of simply losing them to institutions that do.

The future is bright

Let’s imagine that Mr Scholar is just about to set up a room for his next class. Upon arrival, he discovers that there has been a timetable mix-up. Currently, he would have no option but to quickly find a new room and scribble a note on the door alerting students to the new room location.

Then there’s Miss Trainer, a sport and exercise science lecturer. Much of her teaching and assessment takes place outside or in the confines of a swimming pool – not the most convenient locations for a laptop. Her only option is to record attendance and marks by writing on paper. She then has to type them up again at a later date to keep an electronic record of her students’ progression.

Mobile technology provides a simple solution, enabling both staff and students to carry out helpful management information system tasks through their mobile phone.

Mr Scholar would be able to Instant Message all his students the alternative room location with a simple tap of his mobile phone screen, and even send them a map to the new location.

Likewise, Miss Trainer could keep track of her students’ achievements in the field, saving her time and ensuring all data was accurate and always up-to-date.

Seeing the benefits

Kirsten Foulkes, business systems team leader at The College of Law, Guildford, is excited by the prospect of universities and colleges adopting mobile technology: “It’s undoubtedly the way forward. The majority of students have smart phones, and an increasing number have iPads or tablets. This is how they communicate with each other so why not with their tutors, college or university? I can certainly see the benefits of introducing it to communicate class changes, centre closures and even access to assessment results.”

With mobile technology, users have the ability to monitor enrolment and activities, collect and update information, see reports, view timetables and attendance records, monitor Twitter feeds and much more besides. With some of the software now available, data can be seen on any smartphone device, saving institutions the expense of tailoring the solution to different handsets.

Staff can access whatever vital information they require, whenever they need it. Lecturers are able to answer queries instantaneously, thus supporting students in a practical, yet effective manner.

As a second year FE student remarked: "I organise my social life on the phone, so being able to organise my college work this way as well just makes sense. It shows an understanding of the way we learn these days and an attempt to communicate with us on our level."

As well as giving students easy access to information such as course deadlines to help them remain organised and up to date, mobile technology can help ensure students are on track and motivated. Motivation plays an important role in student achievement rates and retention, vital in this new era of heightened competition and concerns surrounding student fees.

Tailor-made

There’s good news for institutions that want to explore the advantages of mobile technology without investing huge swathes of time and money; there are ‘off the shelf’ solutions available that provide a comprehensive package, including viewing marks and attendance, sending messages and viewing announcements.

Applications can be rapidly deployed and the information provided will be seen in a format that is appropriate to the device in use. What’s more, information will always be up to date, regardless of where or when it is retrieved.

Institutions with a very specific list of requirements can opt for a browser application design tool, which usually does not require any retraining in specific software languages. This hands you all the functions required to customise an application for both the web and mobile devices, without the need for specialised programming skills.

An eye on the future

It’s clear that keeping one step ahead is vital for the success of any institution, but what’s more important is having the tools in place to ensure that you can adapt to such rapidly changing needs.

For example, mobile technology’s reach can be extended to parents and guardians who want to have access to their child’s attendance record or grades. Also, an employer may want to have access to the record of an individual they have been sponsoring to ensure they are meeting any pre-set targets. We also envisage the expansion of its use into marking, allowing both staff and students instantaneous access to the grades they have achieved – vital during the release of A-level results.

It will also be possible to integrate longitude and latitude location codes into software. Integrating GPS functionality into mobile applications would, for example, allow Mr Scholar to locate any media studies students struggling to find the new room, or vice versa. And there are many other potential uses, including gathering statistics to help campus congestion or reporting vandalism to the caretaker with a photograph and map of the location. One day, accuracy may even be good enough to carry out a basic attendance system based on where the student is.

Embrace change

Over the last three decades, technology has revolutionised every area of our lives, and all of us in the further and higher education sectors need to ensure that we keep abreast of these changes.  The harsh reality is that to attract and retain a high calibre of learner, we need to engage with existing and prospective students wherever and however they see fit.

Rob Elliott is UK products manager at Capita Further and Higher Education, which provides fully integrated student management systems for FE and HE organisations

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