The Revolution No One Noticed: Mobile Phones and Multimobile Services in Higher Education

min read
  • Mobile phone usage among students is virtually universal, presenting an opportunity for higher education to pursue.
  • Higher education, however, has failed to notice the potential of mobile devices to provide students with educational experiences and services.
  • A collection of scenarios demonstrates the many ways students, faculty, and staff can benefit from multimobile services.

The past decade has witnessed two revolutions in communication technology. The first, the Internet revolution, has changed everything in higher education. The second, the mobile phone revolution, has changed nothing. We're vaguely aware that our students have mobile phones (and annoyed when they forget to turn them off in class), but it hasn't occurred to us that the fact they have these devices might have anything to do with our effort to provide them with educational experiences and services.

HELLO? as our students sometimes say when trying to communicate with someone who's being particularly obtuse. Mobile phone usage among our students has become virtually universal. Isn't it time for us to stop ignoring and start taking advantage of this fact?

The first U.S. mobile phone networks were launched in the 1980s. Coverage, interoperability, and pricing issues limited subscription rates until the mid-1990s; then the revolution leading to today's near-saturation level of usage began. Mobile phone technology has evolved and improved at the same time. High-speed third-generation networks are operational in most parts of the world, with even higher-speed fourth-generation networks on the near horizon. And today's mobile phone is an amazing device, a tiny radio/computer capable of interacting with speech servers; sending and receiving text messages, instant messages, and e-mail; browsing the web; downloading and viewing documents and reports; and much, much more.

Our students own these astonishing devices. They have them in their possession all day long and use them far more frequently (and in many cases with far greater facility) than they use the Internet. How can we take advantage of this fact to make our services more convenient and/or effective?

To give you a few ideas, I'm going to tell you a story. It's a story about six students who take their phones to school with them and some of the services they're able to use as a result. I believe you'll find some of the services interesting, and the end of the story will surprise and, I hope, intrigue you.

Imagination: Telephone Registration Revisited

Janet, a sophomore at Whimsical State University, is registering for spring semester. She starts by looking up the ID numbers of the courses she needs to take. Then she opens a text file she has stored on her mobile phone. The file is the user's guide for WSU Mobile, a collection of unique services that Whimsical makes available to students. As the name suggests, students are able to use WSU Mobile services on their mobile phones.

Following the instructions she finds in the user's guide, Janet calls WSU Mobile. "Hello, Janet, what can I?" a synthesized voice begins to ask. "Register," Janet interrupts. ("Register" is the keyword for WSU Mobile's course registration service.) "OK," the voice replies. "Which courses?" "Thirty-two nine thirty-seven, thirty-three four eighty-four, and thirty-one five seventy-five," Janet says. "Psychology 1010, Philosophy 2200, and English 2220, is that correct?" the voice asks. "Yes," Janet replies. The voice requests her PIN, then asks her to wait for a moment.

Registration by telephone went out of vogue at Whimsical, as elsewhere, in the 1990s. In resurrecting it, Whimsical officials are acting on their belief that the proliferation of mobile phones, together with advances in related technologies, has enabled telephone registration to be used in compelling new ways.

"I'm sorry, Janet," the voice apologizes. "English 2220 is full. Would you like to be placed on the waiting list? There are two students ahead of you." Encouraged to hear that the list is so short, Janet replies affirmatively. "OK," the voice responds. "Confirmation of your registration for Psychology 1010 and Philosophy 2200 has been sent to your e-mail address, and you're third on the waiting list for English 2220. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Course registration is one of more than 20 services described in the WSU Mobile user's guide. Janet received the guide as an e-mail attachment when she registered her phone number in order to use WSU Mobile services. She refers to it whenever she needs to use one of the services.

Edward, Helen, Richard, and Adele are also registering for spring semester. All have mobile phones, and all use the WSU Mobile course registration service. Each does so, however, in his or her own way. Edward, consulting the user's guide, sends a text message to WSU Mobile's "short code." (A short code is an abbreviated phone number used for two-way text messaging). The message he texts is "register 30588,33818,31242" followed by his PIN. WSU Mobile texts back, "Math 1210, Physics 1040, and Spanish 1020, Edward?" Replying "1" for yes ("yes" would work as well), he's confirmed for math and physics and placed on the waiting list for Spanish. There are 10 students ahead of him, but he feels lucky.

Janet gets a call from WSU Mobile. "Good news, Janet, you've moved up to second on the waiting list for English 2220."

Helen is a BlackBerry user and, like most BlackBerry users, prefers e-mail to other forms of communication. Instead of calling or texting, therefore, she sends WSU Mobile an e-mail message. The format of her message is the same as that of Edward's‚ "register 33467,32956,31264" followed by her PIN‚ but she sends it without first consulting the user's guide. Helen has a keen memory and is able to recall most of the WSU Mobile keywords and commands when she needs them. WSU Mobile responds with an e-mail message: "Economics 1010, Communication 1020, and Chemistry 1010, Helen?" Replying "yes," she's confirmed for communication and chemistry and placed on the waiting list for economics, with four students ahead of her.

Edward receives a text message from WSU Mobile. He's moved up to ninth on the waiting list for Spanish 1020.

Richard, neither a big fan of user's guides nor possessed of a memory like Helen's, has discovered another way to register. He starts by instant messaging "help" to WSU Mobile's AOL screen name. WSU Mobile responds with a numbered list of help options. The first option is a general orientation; the second is a list of WSU Mobile services with their associated keywords. Richard IMs "2" to get the list; then, recognizing "register" as the keyword he needs to use, IMs "help register." WSU Mobile responds with instructions on how to use the "register" command. Who needs a user's guide?

Helen receives an e-mail message. She's moved up to fourth on the waiting list for Economics 1010.

If Richard can't be bothered with user's guides, Adele can't be bothered with keywords. Using her iPhone's built-in web browser, she registers by navigating to the WSU Mobile website (a site deliberately designed for use on mobile phones), logging in, selecting "Course Registration" from the menu, and submitting a form that asks for the ID numbers of the courses she needs.

Janet gets another call. She's now first on the list for English 2220.

Conceptualization: Multimobile Services and Servers

I need to interrupt the story to say something about the technology that makes services like this possible. The salient feature of Whimsical's course registration service is its ability to respond to several different kinds of messages and requests: voice, text, e-mail, IM, and web. Because it has this ability, I'm going to refer to it as a multimobile service. All of the services that constitute WSU Mobile are multimobile services.

Multimobile services run on multimobile application servers. A multimobile application server is a server that

  • is capable of receiving and responding to several of the kinds of messages and requests a mobile phone is capable of sending, and
  • extends that capability, in the form of an application programming interface (API), to the applications that are running on it.

Two kinds of multimobile application server are conceivable. The first, which might be called an integrated multimobile application server, would have the ability to receive and respond to messages and requests from mobile phones built into it. Figure 1 depicts an integrated multimobile application server.

Illustration of integrated multimoble application server

Figure 1. Integrated Multimobile Application Server

The second, which might be called an aggregated multimobile application server, would derive its ability to receive and respond to messages and requests from mobile phones from its communication with other servers. Figure 2 depicts an aggregated multimobile application server.

Illustration of aggregated multimoble application server

Figure 2. Aggregated Multimobile Application Server

Integrated multimobile application servers have sometimes been called mobile application servers or wireless application servers. There was a flurry of interest in these servers a few years ago; some of the products that were introduced at that time were reviewed by Jain, Puglia, Wullert, Parmeswaran, and Bakker.1 Most of these products have since disappeared, victims of poor performance in the marketplace. If an integrated multimobile application server is available commercially today, I'm unaware of it.

Aggregated multimobile application servers have never been available commercially, but many development teams will have the capacity to create one; instructions may be found in "Some Assembly Required," a Whimsy Project white paper.2 Alternatively, the server being developed by the Whimsy Project will become available later this year.

Build, borrow, or buy, however, the motivation for acquiring a multimobile application server will be the same - a vision of the kinds of services it will enable us to offer our students.

Back to the story.

Elaboration: Multimobile Services for Students

John is offered a half-time job that conflicts with one of the classes for which he's registered. He hates to drop the class, but he needs the job. Like Richard, he texts "help" to see the help options, "2" to get the list of services, and "4" for Course Withdrawal (the fourth service on the list). WSU Mobile replies with a numbered list of his courses and asks which one he needs to drop; he replies "3." "English 2220?" "1" for yes. "PIN, please." After sending his PIN, he receives a message that confirms his withdrawal.

Moments after John withdraws, Janet gets another call. English 2220 is now available; does she still wish to enroll? Yes! Her enrollment is confirmed, and she's reminded that the course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:00 a.m. in room 323 of the social sciences building.

Two weeks into the semester, Richard receives an instant message. His password will expire in two weeks; would he like to change it now? Something of a procrastinator, Richard decides to do it later. A few days later, he receives another warning; a few days after that, another. His password finally expires, inevitably, and he finds himself unable to log in to his online course. IMing "help," he gets a response that takes him by surprise: "Need a new password, Richard?" Meekly replying "1" for yes, he receives an IM with a temporary password.

In February, the six students all receive a message from WSU Mobile. Janet receives the message by voice mail. (When she registered to use WSU Mobile services, she specified this as the way she'd prefer to receive notifications.) Edward and John receive the message by text; Helen by e-mail; Richard by IM; and Adele by a posting on her personal bulletin board on the WSU Mobile website. To promote cultural awareness, the message says, a new notification service has been created. Managed by the International Students Office, the service is called "Happy Holidays." On each of the holidays celebrated by the world's major religions, subscribers will receive a holiday greeting. The greeting will include a link to a website where they can learn more about the holiday. Would they like to subscribe to the new service? Edward and Helen reply "1" for yes.

Helen and Richard are in the library, studying for an exam. They decide to take a break, and wonder whether the coffee shop in the Student Union is still open. Helen e-mails "hours coffee" to WSU Mobile and gets a quick reply‚ the coffee shop is open until 10:00 p.m. It's only 9:15. Plenty of time.

Over coffee, Richard receives an IM from WSU Mobile. "Yes!" he exults. The basketball team has upset Pragmatic State University, WSU's archrival, on their own court. He checks the schedule‚ sent to him by WSU Mobile at the beginning of the season‚ to see when the home rematch is going to be played. Not wanting to miss it, he IMs his customary "help" to WSU Mobile, intending to reserve tickets. "This will only take a minute," he promises, but Helen, not a fan, really needs to return to her studies.

Adele receives a text from a notification service called "Look, Up in the Sky!" (Although she uses the web for most things, she specified text as her preferred way to receive notifications.) The international space station will be visible tonight, appearing in the northwest sky at 10:23 p.m. and passing directly overhead. It's always a spectacular sight, not to be missed. "Look, Up in the Sky!" is managed by the physics department.

Edward is at home working on his honors thesis. His topic is esoteric, and he isn't finding anything he can use through Google. He texts "ask library" followed by a plea for help to WSU Mobile's short code. He's not optimistic, but in a few minutes he receives a reply with references to four articles that turn out to be exactly what he needs. A link in the message enables him to download a PDF containing the full text of one of the articles.

Behind the scenes, WSU Mobile has converted Edward's request into an e-mail message and forwarded it to an e-mail account used by the library. A reference librarian has replied to the e-mail message without worrying about (or even knowing) what kind of message it was originally. WSU Mobile has converted the reply back into a text message and sent it along to Edward, saving the attached PDF on the WSU Mobile website for him to download later. WSU Mobile performs the same kind of conversion when students "ask advising" or "ask graduation" and when prospective students "ask wsu."

The end of the semester is approaching, and student elections are in progress. Adele is running for Humanities Senator. On their way to class, Helen and Janet stop to read one of her posters. They can vote for her, they learn, by texting "vote Varens" to WSU Mobile. Helen sends an e-mail instead. Janet speed dials. It's the first time students have been able to vote in these ways, and the first time either Helen or Janet has voted.

When John tries to text his vote, he discovers he's forgotten his PIN, so he logs in to the WSU Mobile website to set a new one.

When the votes are tallied, Adele is elated. She's won by such a comfortable margin that she feels she has a mandate for her platform. The student government office is also elated. Three times as many students have voted as in any previous election.

On April 21, Helen gets e-mail from "Women Writers," a notification service managed by the library. Charlotte Bronte was born on this date in 1816, the message informs her. After reading the information on the supplemental website, Helen adds Jane Eyre to her summer reading list.

A week after the semester ends, our six friends are notified of their final grades. Janet calls and listens as WSU Mobile reads her grades over the phone. Adele finds her grades posted on her personal bulletin board. Edward, John, Helen, and Richard are presented with options‚ they can have their grades sent to them in a text message (Edward and John), an e-mail message (Helen), or an instant message (Richard); they can have them posted on their bulletin boards; or they can call and listen to them. Helen, concerned about the security of e-mail, calls and listens to her grades; the others elect to receive them as text or IM.

Elucidation: Characteristics of Multimobile Services

There are 10 things I'd like you to notice about these services:

  1. They're convenient. Students can use them from home, from the library, from computer labs, walking across campus, or wherever they happen to be.
  2. They're flexible. Students can use them by calling, texting, instant messaging, e-mailing, or browsing‚ whichever they prefer, or whichever happens to be most convenient at the moment.
  3. They're proactive. Janet never has to check her position in the English 2220 queue, for example; WSU Mobile notifies her whenever her position changes. Because they're proactive, the services can play a preventive role, or at least try to: Richard's password expires, but he can't say he hasn't been warned.
  4. They're friendly and personalized. WSU Mobile recognizes the students' phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and instant messaging IDs and calls them by name. Notifications are sent only to students who've signed up for them; when sent, they're sent in the form each student prefers.
  5. They're intelligent. The services know things and use what they know to anticipate students' needs. Richard doesn't have to tell WSU Mobile he needs a new password‚ WSU Mobile already knows.
  6. They're more than mere alternatives to corresponding web-based services. Their convenience, flexibility, proactiveness, friendliness, and intelligence put them in a class of their own. I've already labeled this class multimobile services. To emphasize the features I've just called to your attention, I'd like to propose this characterization: A multimobile service is a convenient, flexible, proactive, friendly, and intelligent service that may be used on a mobile phone.
  7. Their importance is cumulative. There is no "killer" WSU Mobile service. The value of the services is their collective value‚ the fact that they enable the accomplishment of a lot of little tasks, not that one of them enables the accomplishment of a hugely critical task. Part of the reason is that multimobile services are best suited to relatively small tasks that can be performed in one or two steps with minimal entry (that is, thumb-typing) of data. Whimsical State University students use WSU Mobile services to register for classes, receive notifications, and vote; they don't use them to fill out applications for graduate school. The flip side of this observation is that one of the keys to the success of WSU Mobile is the relatively large number of multimobile services offered.
  8. They're used with remarkable facility. There's an obvious reason for this facility, according to Steven Johnson. Students have grown up in a world in which systems as complex as WSU Mobile are, quite literally, child's play. Today's 10-year-olds are "shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching." As a consequence, they possess a "seemingly effortless ability to pick up new platforms on the fly, without so much as a glimpse at a manual. What they've learned is not just the specific rules intrinsic to a particular system; they've learned abstract principles that can be applied when approaching any complex system."3
    The students use WSU Mobile services in different (but overlapping) ways. Janet and Edward refer to the user's guide whenever they need to use one of the services. Helen has the keywords memorized. Richard and John take advantage of the help system. Adele prefers to use the web. Regardless of the way they use the services, however, they do so with enviable ease. If we hesitate to introduce multimobile services because we think our students will find them difficult to use, we're projecting our own technological comfort levels, not gauging theirs.
  9. Some of them raise security issues. Text messages, e-mail, and instant messages are widely regarded as too insecure for the transmission of sensitive information. I don't pretend to know how to resolve this issue. In some cases it may be irresolvable, in which case (obviously) it won't be possible to offer the proposed service.
    I'd like to suggest, however, that the security issues raised by particular multimobile services be construed as challenges to be overcome (if possible), not as knee-jerk reasons to dismiss the possibility of offering these services. My bank recently introduced a number of text-messaging services. I'm now able to see my account and loan balances, transfer funds, make loan payments, change my PIN, and perform several other functions by sending text messages. If a financial institution can figure out how to offer these services without exposing me (and itself) to an unacceptable level of risk, is it fanciful to imagine that the IT staff and security officials of a university, thinking together creatively, could figure out how to manage the risk associated with offering a proposed multimobile service?
  10. Collectively, they're far from trivial. They make a significant contribution to the friendliness, convenience, and effectiveness of WSU's educational environment. The university continues to support the creation and introduction of new services, like the "Happy Holidays" service, for this reason. And the services aren't just for students. WSU Mobile benefits Whimsical faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni as well, as the rest of the story illustrates.

Extrapolation: The Rest of the University

Rowland works for the university as a plumber. It's been a long semester‚ lots of problems with Whimsical's aging water system‚ and he needs some time off. He texts "vacation" to WSU Mobile, receives a reply telling him how much vacation leave he has available, and goes to see his supervisor.

Dr. Temple is teaching a large lecture class. In an effort to keep the minds of her students engaged, she's started using one of Whimsical's multimobile services. Every quarter hour or so, she poses a question, then displays a blank bar chart on the projection screen at the front of the classroom. Options for responding to the question are shown along the chart's horizontal axis, and students are invited to text their answers, in a special format that identifies the class, to WSU Mobile's short code. As the answers come in, the bars on the chart show their distribution, and Dr. Temple is able to judge whether or not the students are ready to move on.

Dr. Rivers has the flu and needs to cancel his classes for the day. Consulting the user's guide, he sends an e-mail message‚ "cancel classes, professor ill"‚ to WSU Mobile. Within a few moments, his students receive messages notifying them of the cancellation. As several of the students commute, they appreciate the courtesy.

Dr. Reed discovers her e-mail isn't working. It's early, she's just poured her first cup of coffee, and she isn't amused. She calls the help desk and is outraged, initially, to hear WSU Mobile on the line. "We're very sorry, Dr. Reed, we're having a problem with the e-mail system. Is that what you're calling about?" "Yes!" she snaps. "Would you like to be notified when the system is working again?" This catches her by surprise, and defuses her indignation. "Yes, that would be helpful." "Would you like a phone call or a text message?" "A text message. Please." "Do you need to speak to someone at the help desk?" "No, I suppose not." "Thank you, then. We'll send you a text as soon as the problem is solved." The promised message arrives just as Dr. Reed is finishing breakfast. She's still annoyed by the way her morning has been disrupted, but appreciates the fact that she hasn't had to check every five minutes to see if she could get into e-mail.

Dr. Mason is the keynote speaker at a professional conference. It's such a large audience that fielding questions from the floor is going to be awkward, so he decides to take advantage of one of the services offered by WSU Mobile. He begins his speech by inviting the audience to text, IM, or e-mail questions, in a special format that identifies his presentation, to WSU Mobile; the required short code, instant messaging IDs, and e-mail address are displayed on the projection screen. Regardless of the way the questions are sent, they're forwarded to Dr. Mason as text messages, and he responds to some of them (and chooses to ignore others) at intervals during the speech. Following the speech, Dr. Mason considers using this service in one of his classes; it might encourage more active participation by students who suffer from social anxiety.

Dr. Poole, a high-level administrator, is having a cup of coffee in the cafeteria of the state capitol building, waiting for a meeting with one of the legislative budget analysts. Reviewing her materials, she discovers that her enrollment figures look suspicious. Looking at her watch and cursing herself for not checking them earlier, she opens her copy of the WSU Mobile user's guide and, following its instructions, texts "report enrollment" followed by her PIN. A few minutes later she receives a text message in reply. The message contains a link to the freshly generated report, which she downloads to her phone and reviews on the way to her appointment.

On the third of March, having signed up for "Happy Holidays" notifications, President Brocklehurst receives a text message wishing him a Happy Hinamatsuri. Following the link in the message, he learns that Hinamatsuri is the Shinto festival of dolls, when Japanese families take ceremonial dolls out of storage and display them in prominent places in their homes. Some of the dolls are very old, having been in the family for generations. The celebration includes a visit to a favorite shrine and a feast where traditional food is served. The purpose of the festival is to honor the daughters in the family. Touched by the holiday sentiment, President Brocklehurst reschedules an appointment and takes his daughter out for dinner.

Frederic Granby, a wealthy alumnus, is a loyal fan of Whimsical's basketball team, but a contentious and interminable meeting of his board of directors is forcing him to miss the home game against Pragmatic State. Of all the games to miss! he fumes. At an opportune moment, he surreptitiously mutes his phone (as he wishes he could do to a certain member of the board) and IMs "scoreboard" to WSU Mobile's Yahoo ID. He then places the phone on the table, glances at it from time to time, and experiences alternating elation and despair as momentum shifts from Whimsical to Pragmatic, to Whimsical, and back again.

Commencement: Joining the Revolution

If I've accomplished my purpose in telling you this story, three things will happen:

  • First, "multimobile" will remain in (if not on) your mind. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the factors that cause products and technologies to suddenly leap from limited to widespread adoption. One of the factors he identifies is the "stickiness" of the terms and slogans used to brand and advertise a product or technology. By "stickiness" he means the tendency of the terms and slogans to stay in your mind, causing you to continue to think, even against your will‚ about the product or technology.4 We're a long way from the tipping point for multimobile services. If my story has lodged "multimobile" in your mind, however, it may be a start.
  • Second, ideas for the creation of multimobile services will begin to occur to you with surprising frequency. We're surrounded, on the one hand, by chores that insist on being performed in ways that ignore the fact that the mobile phone has been invented and, on the other hand, by unrecognized opportunities to turn the universal use of mobile phones to our advantage. Once your attention has been called to a few of these annoying anachronisms and squandered opportunities, you can't help noticing others and musing over multimobile alternatives and possibilities.
  • Third, your musings will stop seeming whimsical and start looking like genuine opportunities to make your educational environment friendlier, more convenient, and more effective. Resources for getting started may be found at

Now for the surprise ending: I've asked you to imagine multimobile services. Would you like to try a few? At you'll find a mock-up of WSU Mobile and tutorials that will let you use‚ and produce‚ some of the kinds of services I've described.

For our fictional friends, the story ends here. For higher education, it's time for the story to begin. Multimobile services have the potential to improve the educational environment in substantial ways. That we've ignored this potential for 10 years, and continue to ignore it today, is a blind spot we simply must correct. A billion mobile phones will be sold this year. A billion. This isn't a case of handwriting on the wall‚ this is a case of a revolution having occurred while we weren't looking. The information appliance of the future isn't in the future anymore; it's here today, in astonishing numbers. All of your students, and all of your prospective students, own one of these appliances. HELLO?

  1. Ravi Jain, Stefano Puglia, John Wullert, Kirthika Parmeswaran, and John-Luc Bakker, "The Mobile Application Server (MAS): An Infrastructure Platform for Mobile Wireless Services," Information Systems Frontiers, vol. 6, no. 1 (2004), pp. 23‚ 34.
  2. Alan Livingston, "Some Assembly Required," Whimsy Project white paper,
  3. Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 144‚ 145, 176‚ 177.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2000).

Alan Livingston ([email protected]) is Director of Research, Development, and Planning for the Information Technology Division at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.