Mobile App Development for Higher Education: How to Build an App Students Really Use
Whole dissertations have been written about the rise of mobile. Few cultural shifts have been nearly as seismic as the ubiquity of mobile devices and the apps that make them both useful and distracting.
It started with “Snake,” a game that you could install on Texas Instruments graphing calculators so you could secretly tune out in AP Calculus class. In 1997, the Nokia 6110 came with “Snake” pre-installed—the very first mobile app, a concept that exploded in popularity and took the world by storm.
Apple Computers visionary Steve Jobs actually conceptualized what became the App Store as early as 1983, laying the groundwork with the iTunes Store and the iPod. The iPhone debuted in 2007 with a complement of native apps, and the App Store debuted two years later with a catalog of 500 apps to choose from.
The operating system that ran these apps, iOS, was quickly adapted to the iPad tablet, and quickly gained a competitor in Android, which ran on competitor smartphones and tablets, setting up a parallel version of the “Mac/Windows” blood feud in the mobile world.
According to Wired, the Angry Birds franchise amassed 2 billion downloads between its debut in 2009 and 2014, finding its way onto more than 50% of all mobile devices and spinning off merchandise, theme park rides, and motion pictures Click To Tweet
Apps quickly became sensations. According to Wired, the Angry Birds franchise amassed 2 billion downloads between its debut in 2009 and 2014, finding its way onto more than 50% of all mobile devices and spinning off merchandise, theme park rides, and motion pictures. “App” was voted “Word of the Year” in 2010 by the American Dialect Society.
Apps had a huge economic impact, with Apple claiming that mobile apps had added 300,000 jobs to the economy. Facebook acquired the mobile app Instagram for a whopping $1 billion.
Today, apps are firmly ensconced as a cultural institution. Every company, organization, non-profit, or brand has tripped over itself to create a mobile simulacrum of their website, brick-and-mortar, or telephone experience.
Universities and colleges have credibility as a cultural institution in their own right—to the point where a mobile app may seem superfluous to administrators. Do the Harvards and Oxfords of the world really need to compete for attention with the likes of Snake and Angry Birds?
The short answer is “yes.” We will delve into why, as well as why the Harvards and Oxfords of the world, and their competitors, can’t settle for a low-rent app by a lesser developer.
There’s more to higher education mobile app development than earning a spot on the home screen. Users have to find the app useful, motivating, and intrinsic to their success in college. This article will dig deep into mobile app development for higher education — why it is important, and how to do it right.
Today, apps are firmly ensconced as a cultural institution. Every company, organization, non-profit, or brand has tripped over itself to create a mobile simulacrum of their website, brick-and-mortar, or telephone experience. Click To Tweet
Why Mobile Apps Are Important for Higher Education
Universities rightly pride themselves for operating on the cutting edge. No matter how old or august the institution, the students and staff are always working hard to push the limits of human understanding into a brighter future.
Like it or not, mobile apps will play a key role in living that mission. Here are just a few reasons why institutes of higher education shouldn’t neglect or phone in their higher education mobile app development. A great mobile app helps them:
- Meet students where they are. An educational institution is nothing without students to teach, and one of the quirky features about students is that they tend to be younger than their professors.
In fact, Gen Z, which has been trickling into universities for the past six years, was born in 1997 — meaning they have never known a world without the internet, and they were a maximum of ten years old when the iPhone debuted.
Most of Gen Z has also never known a world without mobile apps. That bell can’t be unrung. Subsequent generations will consist only of children born into a mobile app world. According to a study by CGK, 95% of Gen Z has a smartphone; 25% have had one since they were ten years old.
This generation of students not only likes it when their favorite brands have a great mobile app—they expect it.
Their chosen degree program is not exempt. Rather than trying to lasso young people into an old, “tried-and-true” way of doing business, savvy colleges and universities are discovering much more success by meeting students where they already are instead of where some dean wishes they were. This means investing in higher education mobile app development.
- Create a centralized communication conduit to the student body. College students use apps on their smartphones (not including games) for an average of 4.1 hours according to App Annie each day. It helps to understand how they use their mobile devices, so you can leverage behaviors they already have ingrained--for example, chatting with friends or checking notifications.
The most successful colleges and universities exist in a constant state of dialog with their student bodies, disseminating their messages and receiving feedback from the student body in order to better serve them.
Colleges and universities can use their mobile app as a direct-communication conduit to every student, accessible to them at all times to seek help, answer surveys, have their questions answered, obtain services, and supply administrators with the data they need to improve school operations.
- Facilitate student-faculty interaction and engagement. Universities benefit from an engaged student body. It’s one of their biggest assets, right up there with the faculty and state-of-the-art facilities. Students who passively march through the motions not only suffer in their education, but they don’t contribute to the culture of learning that universities labor to create.
Higher education mobile app development can be a touchstone of the most important relationship that a college can foster — the relationship of trust and engagement between students and the faculty. The app can be used to disseminate course material, track students’ progress, create “virtual office hours,” even conduct whole courses online.
- Grow and evolve their digital presence to meet changing needs. Many organizations — universities included — shy away from technology like mobile because it changes so fast. Why invest time and money into a product that will be a dinosaur with the next iPhone drop?
Designing a great mobile app for universities can be costly in terms of resources and intellectual capital. Administrators understandably don’t want to spend that capital on an app destined to become obsolete.
The good news is that the app industry knows this and has adapted. App developers don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every year either. Today’s mobile app platforms are more flexible than ever, able to produce an app that does not need a major new release annually.
Instead, the app can expand and evolve as the university’s needs change, adapting to include more features, delete unneeded features, and unlock a school’s ability to scale its digital experience. In short, today higher education mobile app development is a good investment — with the right development strategy, you can count on them to go the distance with you.
Useful Functions for University Mobile Apps
A university mobile app can be many things. One of the first steps in mobile app development for higher education is deciding what you want the app to actually do. There are a host of options, including but not limited to:
- Digital ID Card. The student ID card is a time-honored tradition. Many campuses now use mobile architecture like XModule to create a digital version of the ID card, which can be used for dining halls, libraries, equipment rentals, facility access, and more.
- Communication. Apps are great communication tools. The mobile app can serve as a hub of communication from student to faculty, student to administrator, even student to student.
- Campus Intelligence. Apps can help students plan their day relative to campus conditions — for example, where they might find the best parking, or how long the line is at on-campus restaurants.
- Event Attendance. Mobile apps can be used by students to register for events and store a digital ticket. They can become hubs of interaction at events, with opportunities to fill out surveys, ask questions, or otherwise contribute. Administrators and faculty can use apps to track student behavior and gather event-specific data.
- Campus Marketplace. The app could be a hub not only for swag e-commerce, but for buying, selling, and trading among students; even a job or gig marketplace.
- Orientation. An app can help guide students around campus and familiarize themselves with student services and important locations available to them.
- Classroom Supplement. App modules for courses provide easy access to syllabi, recorded lectures, supplemental materials, and suggested reading.
- User-Generated Ecosystem. Campuses are, at least in part, created by the students who occupy them. This ecosystem can be reproduced online with user-generated content — students contributing to a crowdsourced campus tour, tips and lifehacks, etc.
Examples of Great College and University Mobile Apps
A great institution of higher learning deserves a great mobile app — something students and staff will find useful, an app that will advance the school’s mission and drive revenue. Here are some examples of university mobile apps that did this to excellent effect.
- UH Go (University of Houston). UH Go uses XModule and Blackboard LMS to create a digital ID card (the “Cougar Card”) for a streamlined campus experience, personalized online learning, and easy authentication.
- CSUSM Mobile (California State University - San Marcos). CSUSM also uses XModule to create a digital ID card that students use to access library resources, help desk resources, event attendance, and equipment rentals. They also use CSUSM mobile to check parking availability and dining hall wait times.
- NAUgo (Northern Arizona University). Leveraging the proven power of mobile apps to help people build good health habits, NAU added a “Be Healthy” function to their popular NAUgo mobile app. Students can use the module to interact with university medical personnel, track workouts, access bikes, and seek counseling.
- CSUN Mobile (California State University - Northridge). CSUN used Modo Marketplace to create a safe, user-friendly campus marketplace, including access to donated resources to help them control costs.
- UCSF Mobile (University of California - San Francisco). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UCSF used their mobile app to create a virtual version of their traditional Accepted Students weekend, resulting in more participation and engagement than the in-person event.
- Oiler Mobile (University of Findlay). Also in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Findlay leveraged Oiler Mobile to keep students engaged while the campus was shut down, sending push notifications and inviting them to participate in games, forums, and other mobile events.
- UCF Mobile (University of Central Florida). UCF used photo stories, Modo Quick Polls, and personalized communication to create a virtual New Student Orientation experience on their mobile app.
- UA Mobile (University of Akron). UA Mobile streamlines event management by allowing students to easily register, check in, and fill out surveys, while staff can easily track attendance in real time.
- UNCG Mobile (University of North Carolina - Greensboro). UNCG took a comprehensive approach to relocating their campus experience in mobile digital format in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, moving orientation onto the app and crowdsourcing the creation of campus tours to create engagement and community among students.
Planning for Mobile App Development for Higher Education
Ready to build the perfect mobile app for your college or university? It starts with a robust planning phase to set the stage for success. Considerations for the planning phase of mobile app development for higher education include:
Establishing Stakeholders and Aligning Internally
Every project has stakeholders — people with an interest in the success of the project. For a university, this could include administrators and board members, but it could also include representatives from the faculty and even the student body. After all, they will be the ones using the apps most heavily.
Once a team of stakeholders has been identified and assembled, the team must make sure that they understand the objective of the higher education mobile app development project. Once the stakeholders agree on the importance of the mobile app, they will be less likely to impede the project with conflicting interests.
Agreeing on App Goals and Core Functions
The stakeholders must also brainstorm and agree on the app’s goals and core functions. This is another way to head off disagreement and prevent stakeholders from defending their turf to the detriment of the overall project.
Brainstorm a list of desired features — digital ID card, campus orientation, course supplements, marketplace, whatever comes to mind — and rank them in order of importance. Some functions may not serve the core goals of the app and should be discarded.
Formulating a Budget and Target Timeline
Every project also needs a target timeline and a budget. Developing a great mobile app usually takes between three and six months. The budget can be measured in the thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the functions and complexity. Make sure to align your team of stakeholders around a timeline and budget that makes sense to everyone.
Vendor Selection/RFP Process
Most universities and colleges won’t develop their apps in-house and instead depend on a third-party vendor to lead the development team. Reach out to reputable vendors in the higher-education mobile app space with a Request For Proposal (RFP). Review the proposals, schedule interviews, and decide which proposal makes the most sense.
Mobile App Development for Higher Education: The Importance of Great Design
Website and mobile app developers often talk about “UX design.” UX is short for user experience, and it refers to a design ethic that takes into account, first and foremost, the user. For a college or university app, the users will almost certainly be the students, but also the faculty and members of the administration.
Believe it or not, app design with the user in mind is a fairly new concept. It refers to designing the app not just for the functions, but for the user’s ability to access those functions and actually make use of them.
This might sound obvious to you, but in the early days of websites and apps, developers didn’t necessarily know what a user would find intuitive. There was no design language or generic UX that a digital experience could be built around.
Today, years of studies and data — some of it conducted by university think tanks — have been compiled about how users interact with apps, giving a bare-bones idea of good UX that a developer can build a unique digital experience from. UX design in higher education mobile app development needs to address:
Navigation and Taxonomy
Navigation refers to how a user finds their way around the app and locates the functions they are wanting to use. UX design has established several rules for mobile app navigation that account for the diminished screen space they have to work with.
Examples include strategically hidden text, as well as using one word or an icon whenever possible to convey an idea. Some icons, like the “hamburger” collapsing menu, “text-bubble” chat icon, or the magnifying glass to indicate a search field is well-known among app users. Including these familiar signposts can be critical in helping them find their way around.
Taxonomy is an important consideration in the arrangement of app functions. It refers to the hierarchy of “levels” within your app. In short, how many times does a user have to touch the screen before (s)he finds a function?
Good UX design calls for a taxonomy of two, maybe three layers. Four or more is pushing it — a user may give up before they find a function that they have to dig four layers deep to access.
Once the stakeholders have a handle on navigation and taxonomy, they can start to design a user journey — a defined series of steps that the app will walk the user through, hopefully with the help of intuitive navigation.
Developers usually chart out user journeys with an “if/then” style of flow chart. Good UX design calls for simplicity and intuitive design. If a step of the user journey has more than a handful of choices, the user may become overwhelmed. It helps to only offer one, two, maybe three choices for a user to select at each stage in the journey.
Loading speed is a function of mobile UX that often gets overlooked--unless it becomes a problem, and then it becomes impossible to ignore. One of the pitfalls of simply trying to clone your website experience into an app is that web functions often load slowly on a mobile app. Your institution’s website must be reconfigured for mobile to ensure it retains functionality.
Users tend to abandon user experiences that take too long to load. We’re talking about two, maybe three seconds you have to work with before frustration sets in. Great mobile app developers go to great lengths to ensure that an app loads quickly. To do any less would be to sacrifice UX for the sake of functionality.
Clarity of Function and Purpose
Many organizations — universities included — know that they need a mobile app. The kids these days and their apps, right? But they risk failure if they skip the step of asking why they are designing this app. What are the core functions and purposes of the app? How will it add to the experience of being a student, administrator, or faculty member?
Will the app serve as a digital ID card? A means of communication between the faculty and the student body? A hub of student activity, from tracking health to event attendance? Will it be used for orientation, or to reproduce the classroom experience online? Will it depend on user-generated content to build a kind of “virtual campus” ecosystem?
All of these things are possible in mobile app development for higher education — if you are clear about what you are trying to achieve with the app.
Almost There: Development and Testing for Your Mobile App
Once the planning and design phases are done, it’s time to start the development and testing process. This is an exciting phase, where your university’s mobile app actually starts to take shape. Key considerations in mobile app development for higher education include:
Two dominant development methodologies exist in the app-building world:
- Waterfall. A methodology adapted from physical product development. Waterfall Methodology approaches development in a series of sequential steps that cascade into each other like a waterfall, each one building on the last. Waterfall Methodology is not favored by many software developers because it is less flexible. After all, water never runs back up the waterfall. With software development, it often pays to have the option to backtrack.
- Agile. Invented for the software development discipline, Agile Methodology approaches app development from the standpoint of defining a problem, then forming collaborative and cross-functional teams to solve the problem (or problems) systematically over a series of “sprints,” with constant evaluation and feedback at each sprint. Many software developers favor Agile Methodology because it is flexible, fast, and gets a useful product to market quickly. From there, it can be tested, adapted, and improved.
A majority of app developers prefer Agile Methodology. If you consider an app developer who prefers Waterfall, make sure you understand their reasoning.
Digital security is everyone’s concern, and students place a great deal of trust in their universities. Colleges owe it to them to take mobile app security very seriously. Considerations include:
- Authentication. Require strong authentication to access the app — not just a username and a hashed password. Consider adding two-factor authentication, biometric authentication (fingerprint, retina, etc.) and so on.
- Mobile Encryption. Data at rest, as well as data in transit between communicating devices, should be encrypted with SSL keys and session-specific keys.
- Automated Data Caching. Require a password to view the data cache, and automate the deletion of the cache so students don’t have to think about it.
User Acceptance Testing
Once a working version of the mobile app is built, it’s time to put it into the hands of target users. User acceptance testing (UAT) must be done before the launch of the app to identify problems with the UX and go public with the tightest version of the app possible.
The traditional UAT model involves restating the objective of the app, identifying target users, creating a test case scenario, running the test case with the app in the hands of the target users, recording data, and comparing that data against the objective.
Your Mobile App Launch and Beyond
Congratulations on the launch of your app! The next step is to construct a plan for faculty training, tech support, and student adoption.
Don’t be concerned if the app experiences hiccups along the way to widespread adoption. An app is never really “done” — it is subject to constant feedback and improvement.
With the right development partner, your app will cruise through its first roll-out and only get better with time.
A mobile app is an essential part of the experience a college or university offers its students, faculty, and staff. All it takes is planning, design, and execution with the help of the right partner — someone experienced with mobile app development for higher education.
Looking for clarity on what roles you want the app to fulfill and how to get it done? Reach out to DAP. Our team of app wizards specializes in higher education mobile app development.
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