Technologists: Colleges must adjust to the multi-screen world

Almost 8 in 10 people view another screen while watching TV.

Prospective college students might not browse a school’s website exclusively on their smart phones, but that’s often where the browsing starts, making the site’s mobile friendliness paramount in higher education’s tug-of-war for new students.

Responsive web design (RWD) has proven a hot topic in educational technology circles over the past few years, and a study conducted by Google, “The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-Platform Consumer Behavior,” offers good news for colleges that have invested in RWD, which makes a school’s site readable on an enormous desktop screen or a shrunken smart-phone display.

Nine in 10 respondents to Google’s survey-based research said they moved from one screen to another to accomplish a goal—from smart phones to PCs, for example, or tablet computers to PCs.

The prominence of what Google termed “sequential screening”—going from one screen to another to view a school admissions site, say—grabbed campus technology leaders’ attention this month as the best reason yet for schools to prioritize RWD as a way of attracting prospective students.

Smart phones, the Google study showed, were by far the most common starting point for those who fell into the sequential screening group.

“What the Google study shows is that the admissions game is probably not moving exclusively to mobile, but that your mobile site is becoming the first thing prospective students look at,” Karine Joly, a web marketing professional and founder of, a site at the forefront of the RWD movement, said in a blog post.People move to different devices because they want to accomplish different things, and they prefer to use the device that better fits the specific need they’re trying to fulfill at a given moment.”

Ensuring a school’s website isn’t hard to navigate on a smart phone, Joly said, will be a key to maintaining prospective students’ interest as they switch from one screen to the next, whether it’s their PC or tablet.

“This is the reason why the responsive approach, whether it is applied to design or to content, makes so much sense, as it lets institutions customize the experience for the device used at a specific point in the ‘conversation’ between the user and your institutional digital presence,” she said.

The Google research, which noted that 77 percent of respondents said they viewed another screen while watching TV, encouraged marketers to avoid focusing on one web format.

“Sequential screeners will start interacting with you on one device and then pick up where they left off on another, so making experiences seamless between devices is key,” the study said.

Perfecting RWD, of course, has proven highly technical.

Using proportion-based grids to create the site, words, and images can adapt to the layout of a viewing environment, or display. This lets colleges create sites that don’t have to be presented in a more basic form to be viewed on smart phones, for instance.

The proliferation of smart phones and tablets has mainstreamed mobile internet use—once the domain of the most tech-savvy students and faculty members on campus.

An inadequate mobile site could cost colleges prospective students.

Fifty-two percent of prospective college students said they had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011—more than double the percentage from 2010. Forty-eight percent of those students said the mobile site experience bettered their view of the campus, according to a survey conducted by higher-education consulting company Noel-Levitz and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions.

And more Americans will access the internet through a smart phone or tablet than via desktop computer by 2015, according to a 2011 report from International Data Corp.

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