Campus Smart

Frances Cairns introduces a brilliant new mobile tool set to explode across campuses nationwide.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Frances Cairns Founder and CEO of Campus QuadA single unified mobile communication platform for the entire campus community, this tool has success written all over it, is a why-didn’t-anyone-think-of-this-before type of service about to become commonplace across the country, and will make Facebook and Twitter seem, well, a bit old. For universities feeling a bit dated themselves, this is an immediate boost very much in line with their own best qualities that will rapidly bring them up to speed with a new generation of students. Launched in October 2013, the Campus Quad mobile platform and app allows students to instantly create and connect to content that’s relevant to their university environment fostering greater student engagement and campus affinity. This isn’t a heady startup fueled by youthful enthusiasm and beanbag culture, not that there’s anything wrong with that. With a vision to leverage mobile technology to improve college retention, graduation rates and student success, Founder and CEO Frances Cairns (pictured) established Campus Quad in 2012. Far from a newcomer to edtech, Frances has focused her career on the nexus of technology, content and learning. She has a passion for developing innovative digital products that encourage connection, community and a global ethos. Her career has dynamically extended from executive roles at universities to key leadership roles in the education segments of major brands Apple, Dell and Macromedia (now Adobe).

We’re now entering into a new era in higher education where it won’t be enough to offer mobile access to existing websites.

Drawing upon these experiences, Frances has successfully cracked the complex and relationship-driven student and university market on several occasions, bringing to market innovative solutions including iTunesU, Apple LapTops, iPod, Apple WorkGroup Cluster, Dell Education Services, and Macromedia Accessibility and Learning Solutions. Following her corporate high-tech career, Frances launched The Cairn Group, a consulting company which teamed with major brands to bring to market two new digital content products including, Disney Digital Books, and iChapters (now Cengage Brain). As President of The Cairn Group, she served as a business strategist for leading brands, Disney, Cengage, The Smithsonian, Audible, Griffin Technology, O’Reilly Media, and Safari Books Online, and more.

As the market shifted to mobile, Frances founded Inkstone, a mobile development and SaaS delivery platform adopted by major brands including: MINI Cooper, Apple, Williams Sonoma and Bonnier. Prior to her high-tech industry experience, Frances served as an administrator in higher education at the University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, Western Michigan University and University of Findlay. She is a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship and raised over $10 million in federal and private grants to support adaptive learning research and international exchange.

So, Campus Quad isn’t just an attractive, leading-edge, game-changing product — it’s one paired with robust leadership and a track record of solid success. And that alone might be exciting, but the product itself is one that fundamentally taps into the pulse of a community and is at one with the palpable energy of a campus — capturing human interaction, interest and sociability all in the palm of a student’s hand. However, that’s not the exciting part, either. After talking with Frances, the really exciting part is yet to come.

Victor: What prompted you to develop Campus Quad? What issues, challenges, problem were you trying to solve?

Campus Quad logoFrances: On a macro level, I wanted to create a product that would improve student persistence and ultimately raise college graduation rates. I believe that if you give students the tools to navigate their own college experience they are better informed and able to utilize the campus resources and take advantage of the richness the university offers in expanding their intellectual and social horizons.

On a personal level, I have a teenage son and watching him leverage his smartphone for just about everything in his life made me keenly aware that when he goes to college, there will still likely be a giant gap between how he utilizes his phone as the primary resource for figuring things out, geo navigation and connecting with friends, and how universities broadcast their offerings and resources. I wanted to build that bridge between today’s connected student and their university.

Universities are primarily still using list-serves, websites, paper posters and flyers to get the word out about their activity, club or event. Campus Quad gives students a way to tap into the campus in a fast, visual and location-based format — native to their way of life. For colleges, it provides a turn-key solution for reaching students on their mobile phones, driving student engagement and getting access to ancillary engagement data once lost to paper and email.

I believe Campus Quad is a game changer for higher ed as it gives them the essential tools to communicate via mobile devices, engage with students in real-time and assess the effectiveness of their programmatic spend. 

Victor: What’s something interesting about its development history?

Campus Quad mobile platformFrances: We’re probably rare in that we have women in both CEO and CTO roles. We are not the typical guys coding in a garage and trying to strike it rich. We’re about helping students be more successful in their college experience. We iterated Campus Quad with students and seeded pilots early to get the app right. We also had to hang our assumptions at the door when embarking on this venture as the mobile market shifts and changes quickly and higher ed is just beginning to experience ed tech influences that are disruptive. One big change we’ve seen is the difference between existing college seniors who still tend to be Facebook-centric vs. entering freshman who are more Instagram- and Twitter-focused. We find much greater affinity for Campus Quad in the earlier classes as they see it as a Top 3 app to check alongside Instagram and Twitter. Two years ago when we started our product design, juniors and seniors were very entrenched in Facebook so it was hard for them to see the value in a mobile community. Now, the overwhelming penetration of mobile usage among 18-24 year olds has completely changed that mindset.

We also under-estimated universities’ “inbox and web” dependence. It is easy in Silicon Valley to imagine every college staff member has a mobile phone, but they are not standard issue on most campuses. We had to add a lot of web interfaces so administrators could access and assess the app, and this continues to be the case as we work together to help campuses make the leap to mobile.

Victor: Anything interesting about your own background that informed your current approach?

Frances: Early on in my career, I held administrative positions at several universities as well as leading the education sector at several large high tech companies including Apple, Macromedia and Dell. My background has allowed me to cross the margins of both cultures, bringing the best of each into product production and delivery. I was also privy to working with students, faculty and staff in universities, so I have an insider’s view across the complexity of institutional organizations. This allows me to have a unique perspective on how technology can be utilized to solve problems and inspire and drive change.

Victor: You have an unusually rich resume of edtech leadership and success, what are key anecdotes with accompanying maxims that drive you forward as an efficient and effective leader?

Frances: For ed tech entrepreneurs “culture will eat strategy every time.” Many companies in ed tech fail to understand what drives higher ed. They treat it like any “vertical sector.” University staff, faculty and administration generally share a common value of advancing the university and the student. Within that context there are streams of activity that could benefit from technology. It is important to solve real pain and make a product that “amplifies the good in their life.” A lot of entrepreneurs try to change their customer — let’s make all faculty creators of books, let’s get the president to roll this product down to their staff, etc. The gist to entering the market is to take the time to learn it, build relationships and address real pain points. And above all, do it with respect and integrity.

“Innovation is applied creativity.” I had my greatest successes when I let the creative and intuitive part of my abilities take charge. Conversely, I’ve experienced my biggest setbacks when I buried that part of who I was because it wasn’t the norm of a company or culture. Innovators often give voice and line of sight into what is next. That’s greater than thinking outside the box as it requires you to abandon what “is” in favor of your vision and take people of talent along with you. 

Victor: What’s your 60 second pitch to someone on what exactly it is (Campus Quad), its benefits? 

Campus Quad image1Frances: Campus Quad puts the power of the university in the palm of every student’s hand. We make it easy for universities to communicate instantly with students on their mobile phones and for students to navigate in real-time the resources and opportunities the university and fellow students offer. We do this by providing an end-to-end mobile engagement platform that replaces email and paper flyers with mobile flyers that are easy to create and post to the campus community. The platform provides native mobile applications; APIs to broadcast flyers across campus websites, apps and digital displays and an analytics dashboard that provides real-time student engagement data metrics.

Victor: Do you have any direct or indirect competition?

Frances: We are first-to-market in the mobile engagement sector in higher ed. However, we have indirect competition from a host of consumer apps that hold general appeal to students. There is also the status quo which is to stay connected on web-centric applications. In the past year, I’ve seen significant change in university administrations regarding their urgency to move to mobile and apps that provide student engagement data.

Victor: Any highlights about test marketing it /starting out; any interesting feedback, reaction to it? 

Frances: We hear most often from students — “This is cool why hasn’t someone done this all ready?” Or, “I wish I had this when I was a freshman.” We also have people who are still embedded in Facebook groups so we’ve had to put some energy into showcasing the unique benefits of Campus Quad to individual students and student groups to open their minds to what the app has to offer them.

We’re also learning there’s a commonality in student groups and the limit to their general sphere of influence in the wider campus community is about 150 students. While there are many groups with greater numbers, the norm is 150 per what we call “interest nodes.” These nodes represent groups of students who share passion for a given interest, e.g., chess club, swim team, etc.

In the past, data related to social influence and intelligence was lost to Facebook or Twitter. Campus Quad creates a college exclusive community that can look at mobile engagement data for the first time with an eye toward how to assess student programs and ultimately their associated spend. This is truly groundbreaking and early beta testing with administrative users with the analytics dashboard has been met with both amazement and a host of questions that has helped direct the development team to enhance and improve the platform. 

Victor: What else can you say about the value and benefit of Campus Quad? 

Campus Quad image2Frances: Higher ed is under pressure to account for the increasing cost of education and their effectiveness at placing graduates successfully in the job market. The mobile wave has taken the commercial consumer market by storm and the shift was dramatic. We’re now entering into a new era in higher ed where it won’t be enough to offer mobile access to existing websites. Within the next year or two, every incoming student will be ‘mobile first’ and expect access to mobile apps, tools and information in a way that is native to them. Universities need to think beyond hosting a set of mobile apps, integrating their mobile experiences into both student and academic life. They need to do this in a way that enables them to capture critical data that provides insight into student learning and the development of social intelligence. It is all about reaching students where they are with the resources they need to succeed and Campus Quad gets them there.

Victor: Anything else in the works? Additional products, features, series or angles? 

Frances: We’re working on enterprise readiness so it’s simple for anyone to plug-and-play Campus Quad in their existing communication networks. One example is an API that gives colleges the ability to embed flyers into their websites, apps and digital displays. At Stanford, we’re also piloting use of Campus Quad for career services and enrollment management. It is truly pioneering and I believe it will set a new benchmark for how front line staff engages with students and makes better use of university resources.

Victor: Your thoughts on education in general these days?

Frances: I am intrigued by the rise of MOOCs. They are being disruptive in a way that has pushed many universities into more affordable online options. My hope is that they will truly democratize education. This is good for all as it opens minds to look at education in a new way as well as making the knowledge in elite institutions more available to everyone. In some ways, it feels similar to Apple’s iTunesU, which I was part of launching. In short, there was a pent-up demand for university knowledge that could be delivered to the consumer. It has been a winning strategy for Apple.

We have accomplished a lot in the last few decades to bring technology solutions to higher ed. Great strides have been made in the enterprise, the classroom and now the social and experiential side of a student’s college experience. There has been little attention, however, given to leveraging the power of technology to better prepare students for the social intelligence they will need to be successful in their jobs and life. With Campus Quad, we are leading the development of a new product category that measures student engagement in the college experience. This type of product is incredibly powerful and transformative.

Victor: Any guidance or advice to educators these days? 

Frances: I believe we need educators to participate in the mobile education movement. Without them, students will learn about this world on their own or on the job without the benefit of faculty and staff to provide key learning and guidance along the way. Also, we need them to lead the way in educating students for the complexity of the global economy — students who can navigate any context successfully. This is a critical issue facing corporate America. I recall my own hesitation to hire new grads when I worked at large corporations because we had to invest so much time and energy bringing them up-to-speed, not on their knowledge of their chosen field, but rather their ability to navigate the social complexity of international work, to think independently and solve problems in groups efficiently. Learning has become so specialized that students come to the market without the skills to integrate and think outside of their own culture and training.

Victor: Anything more you’d like to add or emphasize? 

Frances: In closing, I’d like to issue a ‘call to action’ to all university pioneers and mavericks to embark on a ‘mobile first’ strategy now. The time is right to train a new generation of faculty and staff to think and go mobile as part of their means to communicate and engage students.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: 

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