Before they set foot in their first class, incoming college students face a maze of requirements and resources that will be critical to their success. So-called “student supports” abound. Yet forty percent of first-year students don’t return the following year, and a growing number report information overload as they navigate campus life amid newfound independence.
Perhaps with good reason. Today’s students are “over” email—and university websites just aren’t intuitive to the touchscreen generation. The nine in 10 undergraduates who own smartphones are probably familiar with the xkcd about it. College-aged Americans check their devices more than 150 times per day. So it should be no surprise that a growing body of research suggests that mobile solutions can play a critical role in enhancing the student experience.
But with an explosion of campus apps for academics, extracurriculars, and events, going mobile can create an even more fragmented online experience. The risk of “app fatigue” looms large for student affairs professionals.
Here are five questions institutional leaders should ask—and answer—when evaluating the potential for mobile solutions.
1. Is the mobile app native?
We’ve all had the frustrating experience of using a smartphone to navigate a page that was designed for a computer. But when designing native mobile apps, developers start with the small screen, which leads to simpler, cleaner platforms that get rid of the clutter of the desktop browsing experience.
(Next page: Ask these questions before you go mobile)
And simpler browsing is just the first step. Native apps can also harness the myriad built-in capabilities of mobile devices, including push notifications, calendars, and GPS, to reach students. Unlike personal computers, mobile devices are location-aware, internet-enabled, and always on, which makes it possible to reach students in real time with the information they need. As smartphones overtake laptops and desktops as the most popular way for young people to get online, native design is critical for universities to embrace.
2. Is there a simple content management system?
Amid the flurry of communication on academics, logistics, and extracurriculars that universities send to students each day, mobile apps can play the role of air traffic controller, but they can also produce gridlock. When considering mobile platforms, university leaders should ask vendors to demo the content management system and pressure-test its ease of use among faculty or other stakeholders that you expect—and encourage—to use it.
It’s also critical to explore whether mobile apps integrate with an institution’s existing LMS, CMS, and academic platforms. The most effective apps will allow you to draw upon and translate existing content and resources directly into the mobile experience.
3. Does it allow you to take targeted action?
Colleges and universities, awash in data, are able to make increasingly targeted decisions about support and intervention.
Mobile apps should help advisors and student affairs offices target support not just at groups of students, but also toward individuals. This can help institutions close the feedback loop on coaching and advising, and, over time, measure impact. At-risk or disengaged students often require more targeted communication and engagement which, if used effectively, can prevent them falling into those categories in the first place.
Unlike web-based tools, mobile apps should not only communicate information, but also generate insights and reports, highlighting key information into how students use the platform.
4. Does it offer communication and social networking opportunities?
However well-designed, an app is only effective if students actually use it. And a quarter of all downloaded apps don’t make it past the first use. The apps with staying power, according The Economist, are those that offer built-in communication features.
Teenagers who grew up with chatbots and Snapchat expect instant communication to be part of any online interaction. Instead of making students toggle between the student affairs office and conversations with advisors, mobile platforms that offer in-app messaging can streamline the experience and keep users engaged.
5. Does it empower your staff?
Developing a mobile app shouldn’t mean hiring additional staff to monitor and troubleshoot the system. The most effective apps can make it feel like you’ve brought a new team member on board. Platforms that simplify logistics can free up time for the student affairs team to focus on providing the direct support that matters most to students. And support from the app provider is also critical: Consistent app updates and troubleshooting should allow your team to spend less time administering the platform and more time using it.
Mobile computing is ubiquitous among college students. As students’ preferences continue to shift, colleges and universities can stay ahead of the curve by leveraging mobile platforms that meet students where they are. Having an effective, well-designed app doesn’t just make school look cool. It also provides a vital support system for students as they adjust to the college experience and offers a way for institutions to tap into data-driven insights on the factors most critical to engagement and success.