Smartphone access to the Intranet–another step forward for Birmingham City University

Windows mobile 7

Last week, I posted a blog on how Biz Talk at Birmingham City University had been integrated to support both staff and students as well as cost save. Along with Biz Talk, the university is now using Windows Phone 7 to enable staff and students to have everything they need to have together, not just through their pc and laptop.

Gerald Haigh, independent writer to Microsoft looked at how Birmingham City University has taken the Windows Phone 7 to create an app that does just ‘’bring it all together.’’

It’s one thing to use your phone to tell your university friends where you are (“On the bus, running late…” ) It’s quite something else for your phone to tell you where you should be. But think smartphone working with a personalised web-based university intranet that knows your timetable and recognizes your log-in and you can see what I mean.

Smartphones are taking over from PCs we’re told. 100.9 million smartphones sold in the last quarter of 2010, against 92.1 million PCs. You can argue about whether that’s a true like-for-like comparison but it’s a readily observable truth that there’s a hugely increasing demand for on-the-hoof smartphone access to all the services we love and cherish.

And in education, that includes being able to look, on your phone, at the intranet that has your timetable, departmental messages, coursework due dates and the like, with maybe at least a glance at the VLE.

The IT team at Birmingham City University, whose superb Biz Talk enabled and highly personalised iCity intranet, were quick to realise the importance of smartphone access to it. In 2009 came the issuing of iPhones to all senior staff, together with the in-house development of an ‘iBCU’ app first for iOS then for Android and now for Microsoft Windows Phone 7. (Direct web access to iCity is possible, of course, but the ‘app approach’ takes full advantage of phone functionality).

As a result the number of mobile hits on iCity has grown exponentially over the past year.  Between Easter and September 2010 there were approx. 2000 visits. From then to February of this year the number shot to 250,000!

It’s a hit rate that can only keep on growing, helped now with the arrival on the system of the Windows Phone 7, a smartphone which, described by Paul Aspel, Head of Integration and Development, is ideally suited to the task.

“It has the brilliant new Metro interface. As soon as we saw it we knew we had to include it, and we used all that we’ve learned on other smartphones and came up with iBCU for Windows Phone 7.”

A quick look at Windows Phone 7 with iBCU made me realise, in fact, that among its other qualities, it very neatly overcomes what I’ve always thought as “The Dashboard Dilemma”. It goes like this, if you think of the home page , as a dashboard,  your first contact, bleary eyed in the morning, the challenge is to put enough information on it to be useful but not so much as to make it unwieldy. (In that respect it is just like designing a car dashboard)

Birmingham City University’s iCity, as seen on a PC, deals with this beautifully, partly by a considerable degree of personalization – as far as possible you see your own stuff, pushed and sumarised and partly through clever scrolling windows within the page.

Smartphone access, though, with iBCU introduces the further challenge of putting the home page on to a small screen. And it’s here where Windows Phone 7 really comes into its own, with two related killer features available to an app developer. One of these, “Panorama”, means you can appear to be sliding the phone’s screen left and right across a wider area, so if what you want to look at is just off screen to the left or right, more of the text you’re reading for example, you just use your thumb to slide across. The other feature, “Pivot” enables the developer to put related pages together so you can again flick through them. Taken together, features like this take to a new level the smartphone’s ability to handle big and multiple pages in a way that’s quick intuitive and clear. It’s ideal, in fact, for smartphone access to a school, college or university intranet.

Paul Aspel’s visibly excited at what’s being achieved with iCity, iBCU, Live@edu and smartphone access.

“Students can download iBCU before they get here, and get some up to date background, and directions how to get here from the station. Then they can see the courses, with videos of students giving their impressions. They can even contact lecturers and fill in course applications.”

Contact, of course, is something that the smartphone makes easy. Where a website says, ‘contact us’, you can actually press the button and make the call.

The underlying theme here, of course, is ‘Bringing it all together”,making everything available to the student or staff member– including social networking sites through one single sign in. Biz Talk made this possible at desktop and laptop level. Now smartphone is providing a step change in terms of anywhere, anytime access, and Windows Phone 7 is adding its own considerable momentum to the process.

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