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Excellence with Mobile

Smartphones, smart students, and smart IT all contribute to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University’s mobile campus solution.

by Alison Weiss

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) has a long and proud tradition of serving and celebrating its students. Originally founded in 1887 as the State Normal College for Colored Students, FAMU was named one of U.S. News and World Report’s top 15 most popular universities in the U.S. in 2012. Located in Tallahassee, Florida, and part of the State University System of Florida, FAMU attracts a student body of approximately 13,300 students from across the U.S. and more than 70 other countries.

FAMU’s renowned schools of business and industry, architecture, and pharmacy bolster a stellar academic reputation, matched by an equally strong student environment and sense of community. “I came to FAMU to get personal one-on-one attention, especially from my professors, and I also wanted to embrace my rich, historically black culture,” says Kayla Allen, a student at FAMU majoring in English with a minor in law. “FAMU is such a family-oriented school, with smaller classes and professors who actually care.”

Indeed, the school’s motto is “Excellence with Caring,” and building success among students includes providing user-friendly technology to make life easier on campus. FAMU’s Division of Enterprise Information Technology (EIT) supports wireless internet, e-mail, and iRattler—a system based on Oracle’s PeopleSoft Campus Solutions—to access campus finances, academic records, enrollment, and academic planning. In addition, EIT supports eight IT kiosks across campus and a help desk center located in the university commons to assist students with technology-related needs.

This emphasis on service was underscored recently when FAMU Student Body President Breyon Love approached EIT with a pressing request: students wanted mobile access to student services from their smartphones. And unlike many other larger institutions, where technology requests can take years to be fulfilled, it took just a matter of months for FAMU to go mobile. “I really pushed to make sure it happened sooner rather than later,” Love says. “And EIT did a great job of listening and making sure we got mobile access this school year.”

In September 2011, EIT began working with Miami, Florida–based Oracle partner HighPoint Technology Solutions to implement HighPoint Mobile, a turnkey Web browser–based mobile application with real-time integration with PeopleSoft Campus Solutions. In December 2011, iRattler Mobile launched in time for the new school semester. Now, students, faculty, and administrators have immediate access to important student and campus information through their mobile devices.

Mobility Monsoon

FAMU is in good company when it comes to embracing mobile computing. According to Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project (the largest continuing study of the role of computing, e-learning, and IT in U.S. higher education), there is increasing interest from colleges and universities to support mobile applications. In fact, while just 32.5 percent of public universities participating in the 2010 Campus Computing Survey reported activating mobile applications for the 2010 school year, the following year’s report revealed that 55.3 percent of public universities had activated mobile applications as of fall 2011 or planned to do so in the coming academic year.

Green says several factors are driving this expansion. He reports that 97 percent of college students ages 18 to 24 own cell phones, more than half of which are smartphones. And best estimates are that 10 percent of students also own some kind of tablet. But colleges and universities are facing consumer catch-up or consumer entitlement. “Students come to campus wanting to use their mobile phones or tablets to access resources, and they are very vocal about their expectations. It’s in the best interest of schools to offer these mobile services to their students,” Green says.

Love concurs that FAMU students know what they want when it comes to mobile. “Our university does a good job working with us and realizing we’re the customers,” he says.

Dialing Up the Enterprise

To meet student needs, Michael A. James, interim CIO for EIT at FAMU, looked for a mobile solution to connect with the university’s existing PeopleSoft solutions—including PeopleSoft Campus Solutions 9.0, release 8.9 of PeopleSoft Human Capital Management (HCM) applications, and release 9.0 of PeopleSoft financial management applications. These systems are all fully integrated, making FAMU one of the first universities of its size in the U.S. to connect these applications.

James learned about HighPoint’s mobile solutions at a higher education conference in 2011. HighPoint Mobile was designed with out-of-the-box PeopleSoft Campus Solutions integration and connects to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. “We assembled members of the university community, IT staff, and enrollment services personnel to see remote demonstrations of the solution and shortly afterward appointed Reiko Mitchell, EIT’s executive assistant, as project manager,” says James. “It was received quite well, almost instantaneously.”

HighPoint Mobile demonstrated the PeopleSoft Campus Solutions functionality that students are most interested in accessing on the go—including class registration, class schedules, financial aid status, and review of pending fees. The solution also features integration with Google Analytics, which reports metrics on user volume, preferred functionality, device type, and geolocation.

“We had very interactive conversations about not only understanding the technology in our solution but also how it integrates with PeopleSoft and what type of architecture needs to be in place,” recalls Mario Albuerne, partner for sales and business development at HighPoint.

Mobility with Security

Based on the successful remote demonstrations, FAMU Vice President for Administrative and Financial Services Teresa Hardee approved the project in fall 2011 with the goal of launching by the following semester. Because the application is essentially turnkey, Albuerne and his team were not worried about meeting the tight project deadline. In fact, it takes only one day to have the mobile interface application integrated with a PeopleSoft Campus Solutions system.

But EIT staff requested that HighPoint spend five days onsite to accommodate security customizations. James needed to ensure that mobile students would see the same information they would expect if they logged into PeopleSoft any other way. “We needed to make sure access was managed consistently,” says James. “For example, not all staff should be able to view a student’s financial aid record, so we had to set access privileges.”

One customized security component provides authentication via Oracle Access Manager, part of the Oracle Identity Management solution. Albuerne and his HighPoint staff created the Oracle Identity Management connector, which authenticates users through the mobile application before they access the PeopleSoft system. Albuerne believes the connector customization will have appeal for other HighPoint Mobile customers authenticating users across different, interconnected systems.

Another customized security component provides power user security. Integrated with Oracle Access Manager, a device releases a code approximately every minute to authenticate power users into the system from mobile devices. “We were very impressed with the time HighPoint took—maybe three days—to integrate Oracle Access Manager and provide our users with an interface,” James says. “They turned it around very quickly.”

Once the customized security elements were in place and tested, HighPoint also added a bus shuttle service schedule and branded the interface with FAMU’s orange and green school colors—leading finally to the official creation of FAMU’s iRattler Mobile. Next, James directed Mitchell to coordinate focus groups with campus enrollment personnel and students to test the interface and to iron out any kinks prior to launch. “We got excellent feedback,” says James. “We knew that this was something that was going to catch on.”

Head of the Class

Unsure how fast iRattler Mobile would be adopted, James and his staff did a two-day soft launch and invited key university staff to participate in a special demonstration to get their support. This helped iRattler Mobile take off at launch, spreading via word of mouth, Twitter, and other social media avenues.

FAMU staff used Google Analytics to measure 4,500 mobile visitors on December 19, 2011, the day grades were released. On January 4, 2012, the second day of the new semester, 5,000 students accessed the mobile interface to view class schedules, enroll in classes, view grades, and view financial aid. More than 10,000 unique users accessed iRattler Mobile during the system’s first eight weeks.

One key to iRattler Mobile’s success was fast access to information. For example, the Web-based iRattler requires users to follow four links to access grades—iRattler Mobile requires only two. According to Mark Karlstrand, senior manager, product management, in the Oracle Identity and Access Management product group, this reflects mobile developers’ understanding that user interfaces for mobile must be streamlined—whether for native mobile applications or mobile Web browser applications. “Performance is always a concern,” he says. “And even within mobile design the difference in performance between a mobile application and mobile Web browsers must be taken into account.”

Easy access to financial aid information also received high praise from students. More than 90 percent of FAMU students receive some form of financial aid, making iRattler Mobile support very popular. “This is my personal favorite,” says Allen. “On the computer, you have to go through six or seven screens to view your account. With the mobile interface, it’s just two clicks.”

Michelle Williams, interim director of the Office of Financial Aid at FAMU, credits mobile access with improving communication with students. “They can come into the office anytime during the week, but we’re seeing a decline in students actually coming to the office,” she says. “They are telling friends that they can see the information in real time on the phone, which they love. And sometimes they even come into the office looking at their telephone and saying, ‘I’m looking at my financial aid. Is this right?’ And we say yes. We’ve also had no performance issues whatsoever.”

Future Focus

With the huge popularity of iRattler Mobile, James and his EIT staff are already working with HighPoint to implement enhancements. Topping the list is providing mobile access to PeopleSoft HCM applications so staff can view paychecks and insurance benefits, which is likely to be available in spring 2012.

Love is already thinking up new additions to the system. He says he’s looking forward to a way for students to pay miscellaneous fees, such as parking tickets, via mobile device, functionality that should be available in the near future. And Love is confident in the solutions. “EIT is very receptive and responds to what students need on campus,” he says.

James has seen growing interest among students for mobile solutions and advises other colleges and universities to follow FAMU’s lead. “You can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to be widely accepted with a great deal of excitement by students,” he says.

Alison Weiss is a frequent contributor to Profit.

 
 
Snapshot

FLORIDA AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL UNIVERSITY

    • Location: Tallahassee, Florida
    • Students: 13,300
    • Academic staff: 763
    • Endowment: US$94 million in 2010
    • Oracle products: PeopleSoft Campus Solutions, PeopleSoft Human Capital Management applications, PeopleSoft financial management applications, Oracle Access Manager, Oracle Identity Management
Snapshot Michael A. James
  • Interim CIO, Division of Enterprise Information Technology
  • Length of tenure: 31 years with Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
  • Education: BS in business management and Master of Education degrees from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University<
  • Personal quote/mantra: “‘Excellence with Caring’ is the university’s motto, and we feel that we deliver this to the university community, especially students.”
A Delicate Balance

Mobile Usability and Security

Smartphones and tablets are everywhere, and users—at universities as well as traditional enterprises—are asking IT managers to fold the devices into their enterprise IT strategy. But this means that malware, phishing, and other security threats associated with desktop computing are now following users wherever they go.

According to Mark Karlstrand, senior manager, product management, in the Oracle Identity and Access Management product group, not many threats existed on mobile platforms until recently. But wide-scale adoption of smartphones and tablets—and their ability to run multiple applications at a time—has caused security threats to migrate to the new platforms.

To complicate things, the countermeasures typically available to protect users against security threats—strong, complex passwords—do not translate well to the user interaction model and smaller form factors typical of mobile computing. IT strategists need to take this changing security landscape into account when planning their mobile strategy. “Balancing usability and security requires taking into consideration the user experience and what is a reasonable risk,” Karlstrand says.

Karlstrand explains that if security is too lax, users (and enterprise systems) are exposed to malware and fraud threats. But if the security layer is too complicated and cumbersome, user adoption can be affected and support costs can rise as users struggle with security measures not suited to the mobile platform. Karlstrand suggests that companies implementing mobile access security measures need to employ forms of security appropriate for the platform—device fingerprinting, location tracking, and user behavior profiling— reducing dependence on complex passwords. If an access request or transaction attempt is deemed high risk, a user can be challenged for additional authentication such as a secret question or single-use password sent via SMS.

This layered security approach offers a variety of benefits. First, these methods can be implemented to run intelligently in the background to be largely invisible to users unless the risk is high. Second, unlike traditional access controls, each layer offers an opportunity to verify identity, ultimately making the system more secure.

At the same time, it is also important to design access that doesn’t require unnecessarily wading through several pages to get to information. That is not a positive user experience on small mobile devices, especially in terms of performance. A better choice is to apply intelligent, risk-based security that requires users to do extra security interactions only when risk is determined to be high, such as when accessing financial information or records with sensitive personal information.

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