Features: March 13th, 2013

Rob Elliot discusses the position of mobile technology in the increasingly competitive world of further education.

From September 2013, further education (FE) and sixth form colleges will be able to begin recruiting 14 and 15 year-olds, which is likely to spark a major transformation in the hotly contested race for the best students.

However, it has been reported that of the 100 or so college representatives present at a conference held by the Association of Colleges in January, only a handful said that their institutions were ready to recruit younger students from the start of the next academic year. Despite this, colleges recognised the potential benefits of recruiting larger numbers of 14 and 15 year-olds and many more planned to do so from 2014.

Alongside the drive to meet the different requirements of recruiting younger learners, the FE sector is facing a variety of other challenges. There has been a fall in the number of vocational qualifications being delivered in colleges and as local businesses continue to steer their way through difficult economic times, apprenticeship places have proved more difficult for some institutions to secure than had been anticipated. This makes it a more complex undertaking for colleges to differentiate themselves from the competition in order to attract students through their doors.

To compete successfully, FE and sixth form colleges are looking at the different ways to market themselves to students and a mobile app is one way of doing this. They are also seeking new ways to improve student experience and deliver an education fit for our rapidly evolving and increasingly globalised workplace. The ability to recruit younger learners coupled with the 24+ Advanced Learning Loans are just some of the developments that will drive the need to provide a better service for students as colleges increasingly focus on boosting their funding.

Mobile business

Advances in IT are making education much more portable; institutions are looking at how mobile technology such as smartphone apps can help them meet the changing expectations of students who have grown up in a world where a mobile phone can be used to stay in touch with friends, find information quickly online such as a bus or rail ticket – or even to purchase a coffee.

So, how ready are colleges to meet the demands of a new generation of more discerning, digitally enabled learners?

The results of a survey conducted by Capita at the Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference suggest that in many FE institutions, mobile technology is being placed at the very heart of the strategy for recruiting students and enhancing their provision in the years ahead.

Almost half of the delegates who responded (46%) said that their institution already had a smartphone app and more than a quarter (26.9%) said that mobile technology was being introduced within the next two years. This isn’t surprising as there are expected to be 62 million smartphone users in the UK by 2015.

Whether a college wants to engage existing students or attract new ones, it is possible to implement mobile websites and apps simply and cost-effectively, without the need for coding expertise. Mobile technologies can also act as a catalyst; more closely aligning college communications with how the vast majority of young people today keep in touch with their friends and family.

The anticipation is that the use and development of mobile technology in the FE sector will continue to grow as today, 49% of phone users access internet and email on their phones. Students expect to be able to access information and services on their mobile phone as well as on their laptop. It’s simply not enough to just have a college website any more.

If you want to be competitive with the other institutions students are considering, it’s essential for colleges to implement a solid and sustainable mobile strategy.

There’s an app for that

We have seen a handful of teens building businesses from their bedrooms by developing their own apps. Entrepreneurs such as Aryan Mann, Nick D’Aloiso and Spencer Constanzo have all taken advantage of the growing demand for app technology in an exciting and innovative marketplace.

Although these teenagers may be the exception rather than the rule, digitally native youngsters will undoubtedly do for apps what they did for the explosion in texting 10 years ago. They act as a stark reminder to colleges: act now to avoid being left behind.

With 14 and 15 year-olds starting term in September; these younger, tech savvy learners will be even quicker off the mark than their elders and may disengage if they perceive their college to be out of touch with technology, an essential component in today’s workplace.

Looking at the options

In my view, the two main functions of FE apps are to recruit learners and to retain students. The less tangible benefit of having an app is that it positions the college as an innovator and an institution that’s keen to engage with its students, listen to and respond to their feedback. In terms of retention, any tool that makes students’ everyday lives easier can only be a good thing.

A college could choose to offer an app that guides new students through their first few days, with easy access to events guides and a site map. Alternatively, the app could complement the more traditional student portal and provide on-going, personalised information such as timetables and library accounts. Increasingly sophisticated apps are starting to emerge that allow students to use geo-tagging for location specific services, make payments for course materials or settle library fines.

The potential for FE colleges to tie mobile technology into their strategy for attracting and engaging their students is really exciting. Whether a college develops an app to improve their dialogue with existing students or to help boost their intake, there is little doubt that mobile technology will become increasingly fundamental to the FE sector moving forwards.

With growing consumer awareness among students, advanced mobile technology will help colleges to prioritise the student experience and connect with learners in a way that is quick, easy and inexpensive.

Institutions now simply need to explore the possibilities while ensuring that the tools they choose to provide really add value to the students’ experience of learning in the 21st Century.

Rob Elliot is with Capita’s further and higher education business. You can follow him on Twitter at: @capitafhe