Learning to go mobile: LAU's handheld ambition
The Lebanese American University deploys Ellucian Mobile, which offers students new ways to consume university services
The Lebanese American University (LAU) is one of Lebanon’s leading universities, spread across two campuses in the country — Beirut and Byblos. It operates under a charter from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, and is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. As of autumn 2014, the university had 8,221 students enrolled across its two campuses.
Certainly, LAU has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the early 19th century, when it was originally called the American School for Girls. Following strong growth, the school transformed itself from a simple school to a fully fledged university, and by the 1970s, it was admitting students of both genders. Fast-forward to now, and the institution is fully accredited and able to offer everything from bachelor of engineering degrees to doctor of pharmacy courses.
As the university has evolved, so too has its reliance on IT. As recently as the 1990s, its enrolment processes, including registration and fee payment, were purely paper-based. The university remedied this in the late 1990s with the implementation of an early version of Banner by Ellucian, a highly regarded student information system, and has since made it something of a mission to make use of the latest technologies in order to offer better student services.
In 2012, following various upgrades of Banner by Ellucian, LAU decided that it needed to keep up with the wave of mobility sweeping the modern student body. According to Camille Abou-Nasr, assistant vice president for IT at LAU, students these days demand mobility, not only because they all have smartphones, but also because they expect to learn in new and collaborative ways.
“They no longer just go into the classroom in the traditional way. The delivery of information has changed, the expectation has changed, and the way of studying has changed. Now, studying is a social thing, it’s a collaborative effort, and they can no longer be bound by a PC on a table. We have to deliver information to them in the way they expect to study,” he explains.
What LAU wanted, then, was to bring all of the functionality of Banner, which provides a student portal featuring things such as schedules, lectures and payment information, to a mobile app that students could download. LAU also wanted to add extra functionalities to make the best use of the fact that the app would be viewed on mobile, rather than desktop — after all, the fact that the device is mobile provides all sorts of interesting applications.
The solution came in the form of an offering called Ellucian Mobile. Essentially, it is a mobile app that integrates with the Banner student portal, and can be configured via the cloud for real-time customisations and updates. It also offers analytics to improve the mobile experience, and is capable of delivering various different kinds of content. According to Abou-Nasr, the solution was chosen not only because LAU had been working with Ellucian for over a decade, but also because the offering seemed to fit perfectly with what students were demanding.
“We saw that it would meet our expectations in two aspects. First, it was quick to implement because it’s native with Banner. And, second, it delivered the desired expectations for the students,” he says.
LAU rolled out the solution in 2012, and decided to take full ownership of the implementation — there would be no systems integrator involved, so LAU’s IT team would run the deployment, with advice and help from Ellucian if required. Naturally, this led to some teething problems — LAU found that its IT team lacked the competencies to make the best use of the application. Abou-Nasr says that it was the first time LAU had experimented with mobile app development, so the IT team had to re-skill and re-train. However, despite LAU’s best efforts, the solution failed to properly deliver on a number of counts.
“It would often hang and that caused some issues. Plus we had a couple of issues that were pain factors. And when we first rolled it out to students in 2012, we found that they still liked the web version more than the app, and that was frustrating for us,” Abou-Nasr explains.
However, the following year, a new version of Ellucian Mobile came out, and, not deterred, LAU decided to deploy it in order to make the mobile offering more robust. What’s more, by the time LAU opted for the later version of the solution, its IT team had gained more mobile development skills, meaning the roll-out was much smoother. Of course, the application required some tailoring to LAU’s needs, but following this roll-out, Abou-Nasr says that use among the students skyrocketed.
Abou-Nasr says that LAU students now use the Ellucian Mobile app for a variety of different services, ranging from final exam and class schedules to a nifty maps feature that shows the students exactly where they are on campus. “The students can go there and they’ll find everything they need. It’s even more than we deliver through the web application. The web application would only show grades and schedules, but the other functionality wasn’t there. We integrated that on the mobile app,” he explains.
The main benefit to LAU is that it makes students’ lives easier — happy students means a well-regarded university. What’s more, Abou-Nasr says that LAU plans to add even more services to the mobile application as time goes on. For example, he foresees a messaging system, done via Ellucian Mobile, which will let professors communicate with their students. He also wants to make it possible to complete student registration through the app.
“LAU is a student-centric organisation and, if you look at our mission, students are at the core of it. So we do anything to help students do what they do, and have them do it better. Students are more mobile, and they study in groups with collaborative learning, so this all leads to student satisfaction,” he says.