Faster Outreach to Students, Through a Mobile App

The creators of a new mobile application are aiming to improve colleges’ engagement with students, using pop-up messages to survey students and aggregate data in real time.

The app, Student Engauge, is part of a larger trend toward mobile outreach, as colleges seek ways to engage with students who often don’t respond to e-mails or online pestering, says Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The app follows in the path of mobile warning messages that many colleges have adopted to alert students of campus emergencies.

Once downloaded on a mobile device, Student Engauge syncs to a student directory, allowing students to authorize their accounts using their existing credentials. The college can then send out questions or alerts based on those data—for example, asking a student whether he or she liked a professor, or asking a specific group of students if they found a counseling session to be helpful.

The app “taps into the one device students absolutely never put down, and that’s their cellphone,” says Nate Frechette, a recent graduate of Le Moyne College, who started the service with Aidan Cunniffe, a rising sophomore at Syracuse University.

While Student Engauge is the first app Mr. Reich has heard of that reaches out to students via their phones, he believes it fits into a broader effort in higher education to collect data about students’ experiences to improve college offerings through strategies such as online and in-class surveys.

“It’s pretty hard to get students to want to respond to these kinds of things, like course evaluations,” he says.

Le Moyne recently offered Student Engauge to its new freshman class, asking students who attended its summer-orientation program to download the app, and then sending out questions about their experiences or sending information to their cellphones. The college will expand the launch to the rest of the student body as the fall semester begins.

Deborah Cady Melzer, Le Moyne’s vice president for student development, says that after just one orientation session, students have already given feedback that has allowed administrators and staff members to improve the program.

“Without the app, we would have had to wait weeks, even months to receive evaluative feedback about the program that would not be able to be implemented until the following year,” she writes by e-mail. Syracuse, too, has begun using the app.

Of course, the response rate runs the risk of quickly falling at colleges that overuse the technology, says Harvard’s Mr. Reich: “I would imagine a lot of students saying, ‘This is annoying—I’d rather be text-messaging with my friends. Why do I want to interrupt that to answer a poll for you?’”

But finding ways to ask students about their learning experiences is something that every college should be doing, Mr. Reich says. And although there may be some “reasonable privacy concerns” about collecting too much information about students, he says, “the more we learn about students, the better we can do to serve them.”

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