With apps now a fixture on the vast majority of campuses, colleges and universities are no longer debating whether to develop their own mobile platforms. Instead, they are creating the next generation of apps for students who turn to their smartphones for everything from checking their grades to checking their laundry.
As of last fall, 79 percent of colleges and universities had activated mobile apps or planned to offer them by the end of the past academic year, according to the 2013 Campus Computing Survey. By comparison, only 60 percent had mobile apps in the fall of 2012, and 42 percent did in 2011.
With smartphone usage among U.S. college students now estimated at 89 percent, as Ball State University’s Institute for Mobile Media Research annual survey reports, it is easy to see why administrators are shifting their communication strategies to mobile platforms. “Everything seems to be going mobile, and if you don’t have that, you’re really falling behind the times,” says Amy Boyd, project manager for the app Texas State University Mobile.
A majority of administrators and mobile developers are realizing that the platforms they created over the past five years no longer meet the needs of students who now want to join discussion boards and pay for campus meals on their cell phones.
As with any mobile app, the general rule is update continuously so you can offer new features for an increasingly tech-savvy generation.
“The challenge is it’s a very rapidly evolving field so you want something that’s flexible to do applications you don’t even know about today,” says Michael Barrett, associate vice president and chief information officer at Florida State University.
Emerging emergency apps
Emergency communication is an app function that is still evolving. Officials want to send alerts out to the campus while also giving students another option for notifying authorities of crimes and other emergencies.
Using an app to centralize your campus
The business case that The Ohio State University technology staff made when they proposed developing a mobile app in 2010 was based on a hypothetical scenario: If the university didn’t create an integrated app, then individual departments would launch their own.
“We knew that if we didn’t do something centrally, we could see it proliferating and becoming very fragmented,” says Steve Fischer, the university’s director of web and mobile. Creating a single app also saved the university the money that would have been spent maintaining multiple campus platforms.
Developing a single app can also help unify various academic units on campus.
When the Dallas County Community College District released its app last November, the platform included information about the district’s seven college within one portal. From the app, students can access the individual websites of each college to find news, photos and social media activity.
Centralizing information about the seven colleges was a cost-effective approach, says Dan Luciani, project manager at the community college district. When students get information from the app—instead of calling the help desk—fewer resources are needed.
“If the students can get the information themselves, that’s less time they have to spend on the phone to an advisor or technologist,” Luciani says. “The fewer resources you use, the more money you’re going to save.”
Some apps offer a “safety” button that connects students to city or campus police. But at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, developers decided not to include an emergency button on its My UAlberta app because they found users could more quickly dial 911. One app the university considered would have required the user to unlock the phone, activate the app and then press an emergency button.
“I could call 911 three times in the time it takes to complete that process,” says Adam Conway, who heads the Office of Emergency Management.
The university uses its app to send emergency and weather alerts to anyone who has opted in to the system. Sending push notifications is faster than sending text messages: At the University of Alberta, which has 40,000 students, it takes 90 minutes to deliver 18,000 text messages but less than 10 minutes to send 44,000 push notifications.
Other universities, however, do not rely on emergency push notifications because not all students opt in—a legal requirement for such systems in both the U.S. and Canada—to receive them.
At FSU, for example, 75 percent of students have downloaded the institution’s mobile app, leaving a quarter of the student body unable to receive a push notification. Emergency alerts are sent by text message, one of 25 different types of communication used for safety notifications, which includes placing calls to desk phones in extreme cases such as an active shooter on campus.
“The students virtually all have text messages,” Barrett says. “It’s so universal, we can reach about 99 percent of our student population.”
Deploying a range of messaging systems in emergencies is an approach other universities also endorse. “Multiple messages is the best way to go with receiving these communications,” says Jennifer Carron, director of marketing for the University at Albany, which will launch its app in August. “You can never have too many messages in emergency situations.”
Some universities are integrating other emergency features into their mobile platforms. Later this year, FSU plans to combine two notification systems it purchased two years ago from GuardianSentral. One is a panic button that, when activated, automatically gives a caller’s GPS coordinates to campus security. The other allows a caller to notify a dispatcher when walking to a campus location.
“What we’re trying to do is minimize the number of applications that students, faculty and staff have to get to,” Barrett says. “If all the resources are available to you, you just pick what you want and all you have to do is push a button.”
Extending the classroom
Mobile devices are now becoming part of the learning process—in part because college students now spend an average of 3.6 hours a day on their cell phones and smartphones, according to a survey by the firm re:fuel. Blackboard’s Mobile Learn app has been integrated into mobile platforms at schools that use the company’s learning management system.
Students in the Dallas County Community College District can use the Mobile Learn app to check grades, submit assignments or post comments on a discussion board. “They can access their classes and anything they would do from a laptop,” says Dan Luciani, project manager for the college’s app.
Following the first release of the district app last November, the community college district is already working on a second phase that will directly link to its Colleague by Ellucian student information system, which would enable smartphone users to register for, as well as add and drop, courses.
At The Ohio State University, student evaluations—another mainstay of every college course—are migrating onto mobile. Last fall, the university began piloting a new feature on its app that allowed students to complete course evaluations on their smartphones. About 40 percent of the students submitted comments on their mobile devices in the spring semester, and the university now plans to extend this option for all courses, says Steve Fischer, director of web and mobile at OSU.
Despite the preference of many students to do everything, including coursework, on their smartphones, technical difficulties can slow them down. Addressing issues could require a substantial investment of time from a university’s information technology staff, says Nick Wang, lead developer of Texas State University’s app.
“If you’re walking around with your mobile trying to take a test and you walk out of range and don’t have access to a satellite, that could affect your grade,” Wang says. “The bottom line is if we can’t make it work 100 percent of the time, then we really can’t endorse it.”
Letting students lead the way
As colleges and universities revamp their mobile apps, many are relying on students to help determine what features to add. At the University at Albany and Ohio State, students were the driving force behind the development of the app.
When Shivam Parikh, now a graduate student in computer science at the University at Albany, began developing the university’s app with another student last semester, he suggested that the platform include a function that sends students a text message to notify them when their laundry is finished. Parikh had pitched the idea of creating an app while working for the university on website development last fall, at the same time officials were considering launching a mobile platform.
“What students had been doing is going on their computer and pulling up an actual website to check their laundry,” he says. “But they would rather see it on their phones.” Another icon planned for Albany’s app, Munch Money, will allow students to check the balance of their dining accounts and add money.
While revamping a campus app, it is critical to use focus groups or surveys to determine whether students will actually use a new feature.
“Make sure you understand what the users want and what they would use; those are not always the same,” says Fischer of OSU. “Putting something out there with three of the right features is better than putting out something with a lot of features and only one of them gets used.”
Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based writer.