This is the age of mobile applications. The proof is in the numbers: In March, for example, according to Nielsen, smartphone users spent 87 percent of their time using mobile apps and just 13 percent on the mobile web. Portio Research, meanwhile, predicts that 82 billion apps will be downloaded worldwide by year's end.
Given these trends, it's not surprising that some K–12 IT leaders are determined to have their districts participate in the apps movement. For Steve Young, chief technology officer of the Judson Independent School District, a system of 28 schools in and around San Antonio, the turning point came in 2011, when Google Analytics reported that mobile traffic accounted for 10 percent of all visits to JISD's website.
"Mobile was clearly gaining ground, and we figured we needed to do something about that," Young explains. "We also knew that people on mobile devices tend to find applications more convenient to use than websites."
Today, the district offers parents, teachers and all 22,500 students the ability to access via the app an array of important information, including school and district news; social media activity; photos; sports schedules and scores; lunch menus; videos; bully reporting; class list, contact and attendance data; and even grades. To date, Young has recorded more than 14,000 installations of Judson ISD Connect, which runs on Android, iOS and Amazon Kindle devices.
But Young knows as well as any educational IT leader that districts generally confront some big challenges when developing mobile apps. For one, they don't necessarily have people on staff with the skills to complete such work. "Some companies said they could write an app for us for $50,000 or $75,000, but we don't have a budget for anything of that nature," Young says. Hiring a full-time developer wasn't feasible either. "If we had proposed that, the reaction would have been, 'That's a great idea, but we could hire another teacher for that,' " he says. "And it's hard to argue with that."
Parsing the Mobile App Process
Fortunately, there was another option — one that cost a lot less, didn't require building on-staff app expertise and wouldn't take too much time away from the IT department's other responsibilities. The web-based mobile development app Conduit Mobile made it easy for the IT department to pull together Judson ISD Connect in just 30 days by leveraging the district's existing website content.
For a $500 district lifetime subscription (the cost during Conduit's beta period), plus app development account fees, Young and his team turned the JISD website into a mobile app. They took advantage of features that let them pull in data from the website management system's existing RSS feeds, such as calendared events. When the website is updated, so is the mobile app. The staff also can leverage built-in social media connectors to the district's presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
When needed, the staff custom builds other schedule feeds and app modules. "But it's still web development, not writing code," Young says, "so we're able to leverage the skill set we already have in-house to create the parts of the app that require a little more work."
Better still, Young doesn't have to worry about reconfiguring what's been built for a new display when smartphone vendors change screen sizes, or compiling new installer files and waiting for app store approval when he wants to enhance the app. Conduit handles everything from display reconfigurations to app store submissions — and Young can typically push out new capabilities that appear as other icons in the app without doing a full update. "Just because you build it once doesn't mean you're done," he says. "There are things you will want to update and add, changes that people will want to make."
56% Percentage of parents who say they'd be willing to purchase a mobile device for their child to use in the classroom if the school required it
SOURCE: Living and Learning With Mobile Devices (Grunwald Associates, 2013)
Time for the Bandwagon?
Other districts are using outside services to build mobile app versions of their sites as well. Eric Lott, webmaster for the Brandon School District in Ortonville, Mich., also used Conduit Mobile to repurpose the district's website as a mobile-friendly app with news, a calendar, athletic schedules, social networking links and video announcements.
"My philosophy is, don't reinvent the wheel," Lott says. Even so, he's considering adding to the app this year, possibly with help from another solution such as Buzztouch, which he says gives developers "more access to the backend, for customization purposes." The benefit of that, he adds, is that it creates a community of developers who are selling prebuilt modules that address new customer app needs.
What the district has so far is serving its purpose well, both as a communications vehicle for existing stakeholders and as a marketing asset for the district's six schools. "Michigan is a Schools of Choice state, and our district opts into that, so the marketing of schools is huge," Lott says. "No other district in the area that we know of has a mobile app. As people do research on districts, and learn that we have an app that makes it easier to communicate with the parent community, that's a win-win."
"Mobile is being leveraged in a lot of different ways, but the real goal with mobile apps is to enable anytime, anywhere teaching and learning, rather than limiting it to the classroom," says Andrew Codding, education analyst at e.Republic, a research company focused on the education and government markets. Mobile apps also hold the promise of potential cost savings for districts: Instead of buying new textbooks to accommodate curriculum updates, for example, districts can simply refresh the content digitally.
The appeal of mobile apps certainly isn't lost on today's students, who have grown up surrounded by technology. "Mobile apps can increase student engagement by creating a personalized learning environment that allows them to learn at their own pace," Codding continues. "Rather than being limited to one book or one library, students gain access to a wider variety of available content, whenever they want it."
Mobile App Development Tips and Tricks
What should district leaders keep in mind as they assess the potential of mobile app development for their users? Let these considerations be your guide:
Content is still king. Steven Young, chief technology officer for the Judson Independent School District in Texas, recommends making it easy for everyone to contribute. "If people have to enter data twice — once for the website and once for your mobile app — they're not going to do it," he says.
Design with user needs in mind. Instead of simply putting a phone number in the mobile app that parents can call when their child is sick, for example, Eric Lott, webmaster for Michigan's Brandon School District, advises building the app so that users can simply tap on the number to automatically dial it.
Solicit community involvement early and broadly. Doing so allows decisions to be made with input from a diverse base and with full disclosure, says Carolyn Galvin of Galvin Consulting. "Mobile learning apps that may necessitate additional infrastructure such as networking upgrades may require significant expenditures," she explains. "With buy-in from the start, these types of hurdles are easier to overcome."