Modo Labs’ growth shows how colleges are studying Mobile 101

Bringing new technology into a bureaucratic university environment can be a challenge, but colleges are learning that if they want to attract new students, they need to meet them on familiar ground.

This week, Modo Labs, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup providing open source mobile platforms, said that since its launch last year, its Kurogo platform for building mobile apps has been adopted by more than 200 universities across the country, including Harvard, Boston College and Villanova University.

In many cases, the company said, the schools’ motivation for going mobile was to provide current students with schedules, campus updates and tools for keeping in touch with faculty. But, later, the schools started to realize that most of their traffic was coming from off-campus.

That observation was backed up by a February survey from the National Research Center for College & University Admissions and consulting company Noel-Levitz. It found that 52 percent of prospective college students said they viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011 – more than double the percentage from 2010. Of those students, 48 percent said the mobile site experience improved their perception of the school.

“Today’s prospective students are using mobile websites and apps to evaluate schools,” said Andrew Yu, CEO of Modo Labs. “The universities are responding with interactive campus maps, guided tours with photos and videos, social media integration and detailed admissions information to enable prospective students to learn without having to be on campus and without a desktop or laptop.”

Last fall, a survey of nearly 500 IT leaders from the Campus Computing Project found that 55.3 percent of public universities had activated mobile apps or would do so in the coming academic year, compared to 32.5 percent in the fall of 2010. For community colleges, that percentage more than tripled from 12.4 percent in 2010 to 40.9 percent in 2011. A few months ago, Erica wrote about YourCampus 360, a mobile app recruitment tool that gives prospective students virtual tools of colleges from their smartphone.

Historically, bureaucracy and cumbersome technology has made it difficult for universities to keep up with technological trends, Yu said, but new open-source platforms and easy-to-use tools, such as Modo Labs and Google Apps for Education, are helping them pick up their pace. Much of the momentum he’s seeing with Modo Labs’ Kurogo platform is at the grassroots level, from students and other community developers looking to bring mobile innovation to their schools.

But while schools are using mobile platforms to recruit new students and help current students manage their college experience, it will be very interesting to see whether mobile devices will help the educational process.

“There’s a huge debate over how the mobile experience will change learning,” said Yu.  Digital textbooks from Chegg, Apple and and Amazon are bringing tablets into education, but he said the smaller screen of the smartphone poses challenges for delivering educational content.

Earlier this month, MIT and Harvard announced that they’re collaborating on free online courseware technology, called EdX. But though Yu said he’s been in contact with the schools and expects it migrate to mobile platforms eventually, he said it’s not an area of focus.

“Mobile is definitely on the list,” he said. “But it’s not the most urgent priority at the moment.”