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2014 May 13 - 01:59 pm

Mobilizing the College Experience

With Rise of Mobile Devices, Del Mar College Embraces Technologies That Put Resources in Students’ Hands

The technological tide is turning at Del Mar College, and advancements in the last year amount to a full-blown sea change. The objective: Give today’s tech-savvy students what they need when they need it — and make it available on whatever electronic device they may be using.

A slew of new, interactive projects, some completed and others in the pipeline, are making the college experience easier and more accessible than it’s ever been for students and prospective students.

“We’ve never had this many projects launched in one calendar year,” said August Alfonso, chief information officer at the college. “Collectively, we’re defining the prominence of technology at Del Mar College.”

After all, 60 percent of Internet activity is wireless and increasing, Alfonso said.

The college took the first step toward this technological revolution a year and a half ago by directing the Information Technology Department to put college resources at students’ fingertips.

“They asked us to maximize high-tech and high-touch, with the number one goal being access to Del Mar College,” Alfonso said. “We know students have the devices. We want to allow them to use our resources. This is a major change.”

Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD, is the infrastructure behind the change. It isn’t so much a technology as it is a guiding principle aimed at making academic activities possible on any device 24/7. Any student with a browser, whether on a smart phone, tablet or laptop, has access to the college.

BYOD’s inception paved the way for a succession of forward-thinking projects. Viking Net, a wifi network designed specifically for students, enables them to surf the Internet, check email and do anything else online with their own device.

(The Viking is the Del Mar College mascot.) Where the student goes, access follows.

“I use it for entertainment and to do research for my classes,” said Hilliary Herrera, 20, a nursing education major, as she browsed Viking Net on her tablet. “It’s very useful when I can’t get to a computer.”

Academic activity and mobile technology merged in August 2013 with the adoption of the Canvas learning management system, which allows interaction in a userfriendly, online environment with a social media feel. Users can download the mobile app, and students can submit assignments and communicate with their classmates and instructors. Alfonso calls it mobile learning.

“It’s self-service,” he said. “Students can practically complete a course with this.”

Daisy Garnica, 19, a chemical engineering major, especially likes Canvas’s calendar feature because it helps her stay on track with her class assignments.

“When you work and go to school like I do, your time is limited,” she said. “It’s good to have that visual.”

Because Canvas is hosted in the cloud, there are no servers to buy and maintain. And there’s no possibility of interruptions in network connections that could halt coursework. That’s a significant advantage in the sub-tropical Texas Coastal Bend, where the threat of a hurricane can lead to shutdowns and evacuations six months out of the year.

Recently, the college upgraded its telephone system to better manage calls from people asking general questions, which increase exponentially at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters.

Dedicating additional staff to answer the calls wasn’t feasible. The dilemma turned into an opportunity and interactive technology again was the solution. Using their own devices, students can now just Ask the Viking.

Accessible via a button on the college’s home page (www.delmar.edu), Ask the Viking goes beyond the standard “Frequently Asked Questions” feature. It is regularly updated according to users’ questions. More than 90,000 inquiries have been answered since its launch in August 2013.

“It’s a great tool for answering preliminary questions,” said Gracie Martinez, Student Enrollment Center coordinator. “The calls that come in now are much more manageable. They’re specific questions from students who genuinely need additional assistance.”

The top three questions from Ask the Viking users are:

How do I get a campus map? How do I apply for admission? How much does tuition cost? The questions are valuable to the college because they reveal interest by prospective students, Alfonso said.

Attracting students is part of the strategy behind the new technologies. Enhancing the college experience is another part.

“We have to be efficient but also offer the best service possible so that students have a positive experience,” Alfonso said. “That’s key to being a technology powerhouse.”

The college has invested about $184,000 in Viking Net, Canvas and Ask the Viking, Alfonso said. More projects are in the works, such as a scholarship app. The college’s web server, located 140 miles away in San Antonio, will soon be migrated to the cloud. Eventually, students will be able to apply, register and pay for classes on their mobile device, Alfonso said.

But the most far-reaching project is the 78415 initiative. Set for a soft launch this summer, it will make wifi service available in the ZIP code with the highest number of the college’s students – essentially expanding BYOD and Viking Net. There are 1,318 students from the ZIP code enrolled at the College for the spring 2014 semester.

College President Mark Escamilla strongly supports the project because 78415 is an underserved community where economically disadvantaged students don’t take online access for granted. The infrastructure for wireless connectivity already exists through a network that emanates from City of Corpus Christi facilities, light poles and intersections with traffic lights. The city, seeking ways to upgrade the network for residential and municipal use alike, is enthusiastic about partnering with the college.

“We have a mission to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Corpus Christi and this fits directly into that,” said David Treviño, the city’s Information Technology Program Coordinator and Network Manager. “It’s going to benefit all residents of the ZIP code. The applications that can use public wifi are practically unlimited.”

Once 78415 is launched, the college hopes to grow the project to all the communities it serves. Alfonso expects the cost to decrease proportionately with the number of students in other ZIP codes.

The college’s technological advances wouldn’t be possible without progressive thinking by college stakeholders, Alfonso said. Like him, they see the writing on the wall.

“Mobile learning is upon us,” he said.

“Our students are dictating this. The institutions that provide mobile access will be the successful ones.”

“The technical environment at Del Mar College is ready. This is the right place and the right time.”

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