Student Engagement and Retention: Enhancing the student experience through the use of mobile devices

Getting Started…

This is one of a series of guides collating evidence and learning from the 23 projects within the JISC Building Capacity programme (2010/11). Each is focused on a common institutional strategic aim, describing how projects built their capacity to meet that aim and how what worked in their context, could work in yours. The guides are written to be “just enough to get started” rather than all-encompassing.

This guide addresses one aspect of the broad area of student engagement, that of supporting student retention by enhancing the student experience through the use of mobile devices. In common with many other institutions, the University of Bradford has a strategic aim to improve student retention and success. A recurring theme across Bradford is the vision of a “web-enabled campus supported by wireless and mobile computing”. Their focus has been on enhancing the student experience through the delivery of an integrated web/mobile support system.

What are the takeaway ideas you could use in your context?

Following a keyword search on mobile technology of JISC project resources, suitable system options which could address the strategic objective were short listed. Having established a clear link between the University Strategy and the shortlisted solutions, senior managers were invited to vote on which of the shortlisted projects they would most like to see implemented. This resulted in a high level of buy-in; one stakeholder has even been piloting an open source social network in their own time since then.

An SMS text messaging feedback and response system was voted the most desirable project; a local social network, and the use of Quick Response (QR) codes in capturing data to connect a physical space or object to something in the electronic space to improve the student experience received less votes, but are expected to be implemented in the long term.

The University of Bradford has found that use of SMS has impacted significantly on addressing strategic objectives, in particular “to deliver professional and customer focused services and an appropriate and supportive infrastructure which communicates, guides and governs effectively…”. In the lifetime of the project the SMS system was used to help organise an event, as a mobile survey tool, for appointment reminders and setting up new appointments, and to provide IT support. In future they are also implementing Library overdue book reminders, a Blackboard plug-in, a password reset service, and finally for monitoring non-EU students’ attendance and engagement with their course.

TxtTools exceeds the required level of functionality, is fully developed and quick to implement, and yet through a tender process offered best value for money.

What benefits can be gained by using these ideas?

SMS usage can have a positive effect on diversity and equality by overcoming barriers such as reminders regarding appointments, and can encourage participation for students who don’t want to stand out; however, equally not everyone will have access to or will use SMS so people unable to use the service should not be disadvantaged, it should be an additional communication channel, not a replacement for others.

Strong links to University strategy and the inclusion of senior staff in the decision making process led to high buy-in of the ideas and system implemented.

How can you implement the ideas to realise the benefits?

“Recent research into how students use mobile devices has highlighted how frequently they access SMS and therefore this aspect is crucial to ensuring we engage effectively with them at key times and about key issues”
(Becka Colley, Dean of Students)

At the University of Bradford, TxtTools is an externally hosted system accessible through a web portal, however some technical work was necessary to link to address books in the student administration system. An account structure and charging mechanism for Schools was also required; it was decided that Schools would deal with internal recharging to Departments and any sub users.

There were some drawbacks to implementing the SMS system, which could be avoided by others adopting the same strategy:

  • be aware that use of an automated system is reliant on keywords, which can be forgotten or mis-spelled due to typing errors or predictive text;
  • a default SMS inbox must be kept d checked regularly as use of the incorrect keyword will result in messages being sent there;
  • message length should be limited to 160 characters as otherwise multi-part messages will be sent to some devices.

Other concerns included over use of the system (which has been avoided by production and signup to a policy of agreed use, or for time critical events) and the relevance of texts (avoided by restricting Academic Schools to only be ale to send messages to their own students; services with a University wide remit, such as counselling, disability, marketing, are managed by subscription, or addition to contact lists).

As the University of Bradford project’s literature review concluded, “[other] studies have demonstrated that well designed mobile learning enables greater flexibility, accessibility and inclusivity…”

Further Information