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There's an App for That

Answers to common questions about getting started with institutional apps
University Business, Feb 2012

Social networking, online banking, entertainment... There’s an app for that—and for everything else you can think of. When it comes to higher ed, there’s an app for that, too. From behind-the-scenes mobile CRM apps to in-your-face athletic program apps, campus administrators are developing ways to make students’, administrators’, and faculty members’ lives a bit easier (or just more fun).

It’s not just for clout, either. Smartphones and other mobile devices are taking over. A 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project survey showed that, as of May of last year, 49 percent of college-aged students (18 to 24) owned a smartphone. Experts have reason to believe the numbers have grown quickly from there.

“Students want one application that allows them to do everything they can do online or in the real world from an app,” points out Chris Hopkinson, director of business development for mobile applications developer Dub Labs. His company’s campus guide mobile app platform is licensed to over 600 institutions through partnerships with Datatel, Moodlerooms, and AT&T.

“I think all the schools now understand the need to have a mobile application, or they at least understand that most of their constituents, either students, alumni, or prospective students, have these [mobile] devices,” Hopkinson adds.

Below are a few questions to consider before getting started.

Will your app be web-based or native to mobile devices?

George Fox University (Ore.) was one of the first to jump into the mobile space. In 2007, when the first iPhone was released, the IT department was ready, having already developed iGFU, the university’s web-based mobile portal. The portal featured school news, course schedules, upcoming events, and athletic information. Recently, when it was time for an update, “we evaluated heavily whether it should be app based or web based,” shares Greg Smith, CTO.

“We steered in the direction of web based. With apps, you have the issue of platform and distribution. There isn’t enough significant difference between what you can do with an app and what you can do with the web,” he says. “If it was just a mobile app, you wouldn’t be able to see it on a computer at all.”

Still, there is an allure to having a branded app that prospective students, current students, and alumni can download and have available with the touch of a screen, and numerous institutions are selecting this option.

What operating system will it run on?

an infographic describing app statistics

If you go the app route, it’s important to understand what devices your campus community is currently using. Demographically, Android phones—which account for 35 percent of smartphone users—are most common among young adults and African-Americans, while iPhones and BlackBerry devices are most prevalent among college graduates and the financially well-off, according to the Pew survey. BlackBerry devices and iPhones are each used by 24 percent of smartphone owners, while Palm and Windows devices are owned by 6 percent and 4 percent of smartphone users, respectively.

Despite Androids having 11 percent more share of the market than Apple, there are currently many more Apple device apps. By the end of 2011, there were more than 500,000 iOS apps for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod in Apple’s App Store. By comparison, the Google Android Market hit 400,000 apps by year-end, while the BlackBerry App World and the Windows Phone Marketplace each had just 40,000 available.

Will you develop your own, or hire an outside developer?

Brian McLaughlin, senior application developer at George Fox U, is the man behind the popular geocaching app that allows users to use their device’s GPS to hunt for hidden containers, called geocaches, and share their treasure hunting experiences online.

With such talent already on staff, it was fairly easy to develop iGFU. But even if you don’t have an app guru on staff, all you need is “people who are skilled at knowing how to access the data and extract and present it,” says Smith.

Apple’s iOS Developer University Program is a helpful option for those looking to train students and staff. The program allows instructors and professors to create a development team with up to 200 students who are then given the tools to create, test, and share apps.

And while George Fox U lucked out having an experienced developer on staff, if you don’t already have the talent on staff or don’t want to take the time for training, there are plenty of companies that will do the programming work for you.

When administrators at Loyola University Maryland decided to implement a mobile CRM app in a short period of time, they turned to Datatel for their MOX Mobile Access app, developed by Dub Labs.

“The timing of their delivery was such that it has saved us from having to figure out how to develop and distribute a mobile app and connect it to our various campus systems,” says Louise Finn, CIO and AVP for Technology Services. “This was an incredible perk that Datatel provided their customers. To me, it demonstrated Datatel’s understanding of where the higher ed market is going, also recognizing the constrained IT staffing challenges we deal with. Subsequently, we now have the luxury of deciding ourselves whether or not we need a mobile app developer position on staff.”

What kinds of apps are institutions implementing?

  • Sports fan experience: Since AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots were installed at the Stanford Stadium and Maples Pavilion at Stanford University (Calif.), being a football or basketball fan has become a mobile experience. By accessing GameDay Live!, a mobile site developed by Taqtile, fans can watch instant replays in the stands from their phones and see live stats.

Students can get around campus using the map feature in RIT’s campus app. Rockhurst’s app allows students to go to one place for all their needs.A second product, the iCardinal app for iOS and Android, also by Taqtile, lets fans following from anywhere get general team information and news about all of Stanford’s athletic teams. Sports enthusiasts: think of it as an ESPN app, but just for Stanford athletics. It also features maps of the sports facilities, a calendar of events, videos, and an area for purchasing tickets.

They also can order food, explains Kevin Blue, associate athletic director for business strategy. “They can see the menu from their seat, receive a text that their order is ready, and pick up their order at the fast lane line.”

  • Campus navigation: The most popular type of app is the all-in-one guide type of app, which can either be created by an institution’s own developers or licensed from an outside company. All of these apps, including Modo Labs Mobile Campus, Datatel MOX, and AT&T Campus Guide, allow members of the campus community to go to one place for all their needs.

The AT&T Campus Guide is free to download, works with any service provider, and is available on the iOS, Android, and BlackBerry operating systems.
Rockhurst University (Mo.) chose this option because it offers students the ability to access course information, news, videos, and events all from one convenient location, shares Michael Craig, director of infrastructure services. His team began working with AT&T in October 2011 and released the app in January.

“We would recommend this to other schools looking to get a fully-functional mobile application in a short amount of time,” he says.
Other features include a campus directory and maps with turn-by-turn
directions. The notifications feature allows the school to push out announcements of school cancellations, overdue library book reminders, or tuition payment reminders.

  • Homegrown all-in-one: Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.) created its own native iOS and Android apps using the Kurogo open-source framework from Modo Labs. By creating its own campus app, the tech-savvy campus could tailor it to fit its precise needs.

“The apps benefit each student or administrator differently,” says Jeanne Casares, CIO at RIT, adding that it all depends on how they use each one. “Students and staff are able to maintain their busy lifestyles without having to check multiple sources for simple information, such as bus schedules, class times, and dining hours. Alumni feel more connected to RIT because they’re kept more in the loop about events and news than they were before, when they needed to log on to the website.”

These connections are key, explains Hopkinson of Dub Labs, because well-designed mobile apps have the ability to help schools recruit prospective students, retain current ones, and reengage alumni.

So what does the future of mobile apps look like?

“Right now, the apps are very much focused on the campus experience, checking your assignments, checking your grades,” says Hopkinson. He believes that, in 18 months, students will be able to do everything from a mobile app that they do online today."

“In two to three years, what will change is, we’ll start to see more instruction going on from the app in class. I think it’s going to get to the point where you won’t just be learning and engaging with your class during that session, but after class, pre-class, with whatever the professor can push out to the app so the student can continue that experience.”