Once Sideshows, Colleges' Mobile Apps Move to Center Stage

Screen shots from the new mobile app for California State U. at Northridge. Early on, the most common campus apps were maps and bus routes, says Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue U. "Now the apps have gone beyond general information. They can actually engage students as part of the teaching-and-learning process."
November 04, 2013

Ten weeks before California State University at Northridge was to enroll its largest freshman class ever, Hilary J. Baker, vice president for information technology, and her colleagues decided to take the mobile leap.

They spent about $75,000 and much of the summer working with a company called Modo Labs to create a mobile application with which students can add and drop courses. Northridge would be the first in the 23-campus Cal State system with such an app, and colleagues up and down the state were watching.

Designed to work on both iOS and Android devices and developed in tandem with the university's new mobile website, the app went live on August 21, a few days before fall classes began.

"There have been about 16,000 downloads of the app," Ms. Baker says, noting that 15 percent of all use during the first week of classes was concentrated in the class-registration feature. "We get an average of 150 more downloads a day. As our students are about to enroll in classes for spring 2014, we expect to see this particular feature used even more over the next month."

Some colleges released their first mobile apps with the debut of the Apple App Store, in 2008. They were early players in a booming market that would yield location-based advertising and a fresh crop of technology entrepreneurs, not to mention Angry Birds. Now 79 percent of institutions say they have activated or will soon activate mobile apps, according to the 2013 "Campus Computing Survey," the latest edition of an annual report on information technology in higher education.

But while early iterations were typically afterthoughts to web portals used from desktop computers, a slate of generation-2.0 apps is taking on an increasingly central role in both business operations and learning, as conduits for activities like recruitment, in-class assessment, and alumni giving. Their rise is being fueled by an explosion in mobile computing and in user-friendly technology that allows updates and maintenance to be done by a variety of staff members, not just the HTML ninjas in information-technology departments.

"A lot of the early apps were focused on news and information, with the most common being campus maps and bus routes," says Kyle D. Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue University. "This was really the mobile equivalent of low-hanging fruit. Now the apps have gone beyond general information. They can actually engage students as part of the teaching-and-learning process."

'It Has to Happen'

Many of the newest apps are collaborations among campus offices rather than the sole responsibility of central information-technology departments. Georgetown University created a function within its new mobile app, built by Modo Labs, specifically for freshman orientation. At Oklahoma Christian University, parents can track students' chapel attendance via the university app, an AT&T Campus Guide Plus product. Some generation-2.0 apps allow students to check account balances. Bill paying is on the horizon, campus technologists and app developers say.

"Four years ago, mobile in higher education was a question," says Ryan Irwin, head of product at Blackboard Mobile, which unveiled an updated mobile app in October. "Today it is no longer a question, it is an answer. We know that it has to happen—what is the best way that we can do it?"

Maryville University of St. Louis released its first mobile app in 2011, in part just to have one, says Shani Lenore-Jenkins, associate vice president for enrollment and head of the university's interactive-media group. Two years later, with the enrollment office looking to expand its reach nationally, the university decided it was time for an upgrade.

"It was one thing that we decided we were going to do to help us leverage recruitment," she says. "We know students are looking for information quickly and on their mobile device."

Maryville settled on AT&T Campus Guide Plus, an app built on an open-source platform that offers functions in modules that, like building blocks, can be swapped in and out according to an institution's needs. The app, released in August, had been downloaded 836 times by the end of September, Ms. Lenore-Jenkins says. It provides access to admissions information, library resources, and campus news. One feature aggregates the university's multiple social-media feeds into a single thread. Soon Maryville will add functions that will let users access Desire2Learn, the university's learning-management system, and to add and drop classes.

The app's most popular features are the video and photo modules, which pull from university accounts such as Flickr and Instagram.

"I think when a student has a really great experience, whether it is physically in our office or online, you can't put a dollar amount on it," Ms. Lenore-Jenkins says. "It translates into happier students and happier alumni. Speaking from an enrollment perspective, the happier my students are, the more they start talking about Maryville."

'Innovation Culture'

Some institutions, like Duke University, are working in-house. After contracting out its first app, in 2009, the university is in the early stages of a rollout of an internally developed mobile dashboard and mobile app, says Tracy Futhey, vice president for information technology. It uses HMTL5, the latest version of the web's page-display code.

Central to Duke's strategy is engaging students in the development of the app's functionality. The university recently concluded a mobile challenge in which students were given the source code and access to data sources to build their own functions. The winning entry was a dining app, which allows students to pinpoint when and where to eat. The university hopes to incorporate the student-created features starting in the spring semester.

"There are things that we want to do faster than any company is going to deliver," Ms. Futhey says. "We don't necessarily have the bandwidth to do it, but if we create this innovation culture and environment and support the students, in that scenario we are sort of crowdsourcing the solution. We create a baseline and then look for people to contribute improvements to it."

There is plenty of room for growth on the mobile-app frontier, according to information-technology officials and app developers. Enabling students and their parents to pay bills is imminent, says Andrew Yu, founder and chief technology officer at Modo Labs. The company was born our of his work as mobile platform manager at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"What can you do with the app to actually improve certain types of student life, or certain kinds of processes that the university has to go through­—everything from registering for classes all the way to getting donations from alumni?" asks Mr. Yu, who adds that his company typically charges $20,000 to $75,000 to develop an app. "They really want to be able to integrate those core features. It is no longer just about looking up where the campus building is. It is really about the next generation."

At Cal State Northridge, Ms. Baker, the information-technology leader, expects to build additional functions into the campus app that will allow students to access photos and video and to view accounts and pay bills, among other things.

"Mobile and mobile applications—these features are absolutely center stage for us now," she says.

Her advice for other institutions looking to invest in their own apps is straightforward: Focus on selecting meaningful content. Ms. Baker also recommends designing an app that is compatible with multiple platforms but uses only one code base, so as to simplify maintenance.

Then, she says, "test, test, and then test some more."