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EDUCAUSE 2011 Speaker Spotlight: Bill Allison, Director of Campus Technology Services at UC Berkeley

Posted in Knerds on October 19, 2011 by

EDUCAUSE 2011 is finally here… and along with it, our final Speaker Spotlight post.

Bill Allison is the Director of Campus Technology Services at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s leading a session tomorrow (Thursday, October 20) entitled You Need to Go Mobile Now, but How? The UC/UCLA Mobile Web Framework. Bill was kind enough to answer our questions about the intersection of higher ed and mobile frameworks, EDUCAUSE, and more.

Missed our previous Speaker Spotlight and other EDUCAUSE-related posts? Find them here.

1. What is driving the need for higher education institutions to go mobile?

It’s simple – that’s the platform our constituents are moving to, in droves.  Just this week Response magazine reported that mobile traffic increased 153% last year – with 87% of traffic coming from small screen devices.  We see these findings mirrored in our own traffic and survey data as well.

Second, as the name suggests – mobile means conveniently sized, networked computing that travels with people everywhere.  As an entire ecosystem of consumer services from Amazon to Zipcar has migrated to mobile platforms, people expect to do all their business there.  For a university like Cal, going mobile enables us to effectively reach and engage with students, faculty and staff.

2. What are the biggest hurdles universities face in taking on mobile web framework implementation?

The good news is that implementing technology like the UC mobile web framework or commercial mobile services isn’t that hard in and of itself.   Like most IT, the real barriers arise when a team sets out to enable features that require information and data from other systems.  Integrating multiple data sets is required to deploy many of the more useful mobile applications.  University mobile initiatives languish or drag on because of immature data governance models (read: politics), institutional risk aversion, and because many core systems, especially legacy applications, aren’t hooked up to modern data messaging and middleware technologies.  These challenges are magnified for mobile applications that *write* to systems such as course enrollment as well as reading from them.

Most universities can implement a basic mobile platform itself in a matter of weeks (or even days) – especially for the basic elements of a campus primary mobile presence, such as that offer campus maps, campus directory, bus schedules, news, events, links to university videos.  After that, the next wave of capability will bring applications that provide on-demand information with minimal customization.   One of the advantages I’ve seen with the UC mobile web framework is that it is designed so that the current maintainers of any  web-based system can modify their application’s presentation layer and logic to bring mobility into their existing applications relatively easily.  The framework itself is run centrally, but the implementation of mobile applications is distributed, and in parallel.

3. What have been your greatest lessons in developing the mobile infrastructure at UC Berkeley?

The power of a framework in our environment has been its appeal to a widely distributed set of stakeholders and developers, focusing them on being productive on a common technology.  The risk before we had this common approach was that the developers and teams were starting to fragment into many divergent approaches.  Now we have a common strategy that has rolled out across UC Berkeley (and now even more widely across the UC system), and we have focused a single team on improving that framework to leverage the investment widely to benefit everyone.   The framework provides a lot of leverage in that it is a single service that solves a lot of developers’ needs in providing robust mobile content and applications – but the design lets distributed developers work in their existing programming languages with significant control over their content.

Another insight came out as we sought to get more widespread adoption of the mobile framework at UC Berkeley.  We took an approach to training that centered around free classes and workshops in how to use the mobile web framework, coupled with incentives for class participants to take concrete and immediate action with what they learned in class.  We hold contests for class attendees where they can win iPads as prizes.  Response has been great, and staff are better retaining what they learn since they immediately practice what they learned in class.  The net result is that the University has made rapidly accelerating progress in enabling mobile applications compared to where we were a year ago.

4. How do you envision a fully mobile-enabled future for higher education? How far away are we from that future?

We are much closer to this future than you’d think.  With Google’s Chromebook and Android strategy, Amazon’s new Kindle with their family of “cloud” readers and players, and Apple’s iCloud the clear trend is for mobile devices as the tool to use cloud services, and the decoupling of the mobile device from the computer, which has been the paradigm since the Palm was introduced more than 10 years ago.   The criticality of a particular physical device, including concerns like on-device encryption will diminish rapidly as convenience and the benefits of abstraction of these problems prevail.  The expectation is that storage on devices will be volatile. While not common yet, there will be a diminishing need to have a separate computer and mobile device.

With that in mind – let’s step away from the technology side of the equation.   A mobile enabled future means that once challenging problems – like making clickers available to everyone in classrooms, enabling a student to maximize their time by watching a video for a course on their bus ride home, or eliminating the strain of lugging around twenty pounds of traditional printed overpriced textbooks – go away.   The most exciting part of the mobile future is that the focus will be less on the technology itself, and more on creative use of the devices’ capabilities — connected with the disciplines of the faculty and students using them. We’re now seeing the beginning of academic applications we never even dreamed of.  One UCLA professor built an Android mobile application to crowd-source identification and tagging of native trees now being ported to the UC mobile framework.  The volume of information she got from volunteers with mobile phones would have required an army of paid grad students in the past, and the IT resources required to make this all happen? Tiny.

5. Are there any sessions or speakers you’re particularly excited about seeing at this year’s Educause conference?

Yes – there are many.  What I’m most excited about though is the amazing deep conversations I’ll have with colleagues from all over the country and the world.   People in higher ed IT today work in a very collaborative field with some crazy challenges. Most of us are extremely energetic and committed to continually improving ourselves and the field.  Our industry is quite different than the corporate world (where I came from originally), and we benefit from sharing and collaborating.  One of my teams, for example, created the Kuali Ready business continuity tool for the University of California. At first we ran it just for Berkeley for about $100k a year, then we ran it for the 10 UC campuses for a significant savings. We are now a service provider through the Kuali Consortium, and run Kuali Ready on a SaaS model for over 130 institutions that benefit from lower insurance premiums and dramatically lower costs than doing it themselves – somewhere around $4k a year.  In the current climate we get to be very creative, and nowhere is this more focused than when we all get together to compare notes.