7 Essential Features to Consider when Designing College/University Branded Apps

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by admin on August 9, 2012

7 Essential Features to Consider when Designing College/University Branded Apps

Incoming students to colleges and universities today are probably the most connected students in terms of personally owned networked devices that give them 24×7 access to information. Facebook, Twitter, Instant Messaging, and gaming apps are one click away, and are constantly being accessed by students either using their own data plans or wifi networks that are ubiquitous on college campuses. College branded mobile apps can provide tremendous opportunities to bring academic, administrative, and social functions under one mobile app umbrella. This article provides essential features that would most benefit the institution by engaging students in the institutional social network. Based on my experience as an educator for over 25 years in small and large universities, as well as review of research literature in the areas of usability, information technology, instruction, and administration, the following features are being recommended as essential for college and university apps.

IT departments at colleges and universities are playing their traditional roles and are busy with maintaining desktop and laptop computers. Senior leadership and CIOs at most colleges have largely ignored the diffusion of mobile devices, and opportunities offered by these devices in terms of academic, administrative, and social applications that can find a niche in college related issues. The potential offered by mobile apps is huge provided a strategic plan is developed based on input from target audience of these apps. Once a plan is developed, colleges and university can leverage opportunities offered by mobile devices that are digital extensions of today’s connected college student.

1) Campus Maps/Tours/Bus Routes: The beginning of every semester brings wide-eyed students carrying maps and trying to locate buildings/classrooms on campus. Prior to the start of a semester, during orientation sessions, guided tours can be seen on campus with high school students and their parents being given information on various buildings and landmarks on campus. Apps can include this feature and provide a self-guided walking tour which can be used by students and visitors on campus. The app could also provide bus routes and updated schedules. In fact, advanced feature in the app could also use GPS trackers installed in buses to locate when the next bus would arrive at a certain bus stop.  

2) Academics: Learning as we know it today is much different from the past. This is primarily because of technology that has made it possible to learn at a distance. Course, certificates, programs, diplomas, degrees are being offered by colleges and universities. By using laptops, tablets, and/or mobile devices, it is now possible to enroll in courses that are offered either on campus, off campus or as a hybrid model. Two examples of excellent resources that are available online are Apple iTunes U and Khan Academy. Apple iTunes U allows colleges and universities to make available to their students lectures, videos, podcasts that can be downloaded to mobile devices, tablets, and laptop computers. These learning objects offer advantages such as immersive learning which is built into to the app. The app can provide all course materials in a single module that will allow students to interact with course content from within the app. Similarly the Khan Academy provides videos that can be used to supplement learning.

Most colleges and universities have deployed institution wide course management systems (such as BlackBoard and Moodle) that provide course material, lectures, videos, discussions, assessments etc in the online environment. Access to these course management systems from the app is a necessity. Students need to be given access to these course tools so they can at the minimum communicate with the instructor or other students on a regular basis. This access has the potential to improve multi-dimensional perspective of course pedagogy, communication and engagement. Access to course tools from mobile apps would help students check deadlines, reply to discussion posts, communicate with peers or the instructor thereby maintaining sustained interaction within the course.
3) Library: Are Libraries Obsolete? In the traditional lexicon, a library is often described as a physical location which has stacks of books, journals, and reference material. Today a library can be an electronic repository of the same information (books and journal) that exists in electronic format. Most colleges and universities in poor economic times and budget cuts often look to the library as the first to receive funding cuts.. Journal subscriptions are cut, new books are not purchased. An option is to receive only electronic subscriptions of books and journals which can be made available to students via the library website. The website could also be morphed into mobile web platforms including using the app to at least search for relevant articles, books, and monographs needed for research. Advanced app features could allow students to download ebooks and articles directly to their mobile device. Of course this would have to be made available via an authentication mechanism similar to downloading books on ebook readers such as the Amazon kindle.

4) Campus Life: It is important for a college to promote a balance between academics and social life. Students receive a formal education at educational institutions, but they also discover lessons of life in the social atmosphere at the institution. The Social aspect of campus life can be integrated into apps. Although students may be using individual apps such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc., these services could be integrated into the college app to provide a social network with groups on campus. The different services offered on campus could be presented along with information about campus events such as concerts, exhibitions, and university clubs which can be populated within the app. Students should be able to select, explore, and customize their own Campus Life experience based on interests, and also integrate scheduled events into the calendaring option built-in the app.

5) Athletics: Very often the popularity of a college or university is mainly defined by the success of their athletic program. Case in point is the recent scandal at the prestigious Penn State University that has put the university under a cloud. For universities that have successful sports teams (esp. high revenue generating sports such as Football and Basketball), the use of apps can be an advantage in bringing together the college community and supporters in the local area, and alumni who often travel to campus to attend sporting events. Athletic sports teams can bring brand recognition to the college, attract students, donors and national attention provided there is a “buzz” generated around accomplishments of the sports program. Advanced app features could include a selection of sports, schedules, current scores, live updates, and twitter feed of trending games being played at home or away locations. This would create the social buzz related to athletic events thereby promoting the school spirit.

6) mCommerce – Mobile commerce (mCommerce) which is considered the evolution of eCommerce, allows users to make business transactions online by using mobile devices. Sites such as Amazon.com, Apple.com, Dell.com have become household names and retail transactions using these sites have become as common as making purchases from brick and mortar stores. Since the sales transaction is not confined to location, time, and space, mCommerce offers a better advantage over Ecommerce because transactions can be conducted anytime, anywhere from mobile devices using apps.

Advanced mCommerce app features may include the ability to pay for purchases from within the app. This would require the back-end infrastructure to support students’ information which could be linked to a bank account or a credit card. Currently many colleges are pre-loading financial aid funds to university cards which serve multiple purposes such as being an identification card, having debit card feature, checking account balance for campus services such as printing, paying for meals etc. These card-based features would migrate to app-based feature having similar functionality. New developments such as Google Wallet and Near Field Communication (NFC) features on smart phones would make it possible for students to pay for products and services using their smartphones. See example of NFC Feature on Smartphone.

7) Emergency Broadcast – None of us will ever forget the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre. Lives may have been saved because of the notification system that alerted students about an emergency situation on campus as it was happening. A multi-pronged approach, i.e. one that uses email, sms, sirens, phone calls etc. in addition to push notification could be used by colleges. This would alert the entire community and updates could be provided on a regular basis. If needed, the community could also be segregated by roles (e.g. students only) and relevant information could be sent to specifically to this sub-group. The emergency broadcast could also be used for transmitting inclement weather and other rapid alert information that calls for immediate attention by the campus community.

One of the biggest challenges in developing a college/university app is the nature of users who would be using the app. Every educational institution has a a different culture because of diverse population with different needs. An app has to address needs of current students, prospective students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents, alumni, vendors, donors etc. Each app user would only be interested in features that are most appealing to his/her needs. When designing apps, each college/university may place a different weight (in terms of priority) to the above mentioned features. While the above list provides a starting point for app development, the strategic mission and vision developed by campus administrators, along with input from the students, and extensive app testing would define the diffusion and acceptance of the app for it to be successful.

Do you have other ideas for features that should be included college/university apps?

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