Program director gives best practices on how to design with students in mind for optimal engagement
There is no doubt that today’s college student is tech-obsessed, with some studies citing that students are carrying on average seven devices around campus.
In order to meet students where they are, we educators need to go mobile. To succeed, however, we have to do this in a way that meets the young person’s desires for functionality and the institutions need for sharing important content. Plus the design also needs to be cool.
As the director of University 101, a first-year student seminar, my goal is to help new students make a successful transition to the University of South Carolina, both academically and personally. The University of South Carolina has a reputation for being innovative, and I have been an advocate for making our courses, and particularly our textbook, more mobile friendly.
The response to the mobile app we created for University 101 has been overwhelmingly positive: Students like having all of the info they need on their mobile devices—in their pockets instead of in their backpacks. Plus, the interactive elements offered on the app allow students to engage with the material in a more enjoyable manner and allow us to include more content than could be delivered in our old print text due to size and budget constraints.
Our instructors are also excited about mobile. They especially like the ability for students to email assignments digitally rather than having to collect physical paperwork.
While we have used the app for our course textbook, university apps are a great way in general to communicate with students, professors, alumni and potential prospects. And there are various platforms available. We used Mag+ as it was easy to learn and we really like the features they offer, but Adobe DPS, Oomph and many others are also good choices. What you choose will depend on the level of creativity, cost and design work you want to invest.
Here is our formula for making a winning app:
1. Write out goals and measurements
In order to measure the success of your app, you have to know what you expect from it at the start, as well as how much time and resources you can devote.
Creating realistic goals and designing around those goals helps you achieve a better outcome. For example, is it realistic to assume that 90 percent of students will regularly use an app if there is nothing attractive or interactive about it? Probably not, since you are competing against Instagram, Facebook, and Yik Yak for their brain space.
If your initial goal, however, is to get students to move 40 percent of their homework and class communication to mobile, that is a specific and measurable goal you can design around. You need those students to want to open and use that app, thus forcing you to make it more fun, engaging and easy to navigate.
(Next page: Best practices 2-4)
2. Remember that students are your customers
If your main purpose is to engage your current students, you need to think like them. It is most important to design your approach from the outside in. Be sure to use language that makes sense to students and organize information around their natural area of questions and topics rather than organizing by institutional offices and silos.
As far as content, those new to the campus will most likely be interested in places to go on campus for various needs, what the local attractions are, the best places to eat and things going on around town.
Students closer to graduation may need a portal to explore internships or get advice on graduate schools. Using a mix of magazine-like articles, videos and interactive maps, or two-way communication helps keep people connected.
3. Design to delight
Plenty of colleges go mobile by simply putting a PDF replica of brochures on apps. It’s a start, but not a strategy for growing interest or increasing engagement. Do your best to implement interactive elements; for example, pop-ups, videos and Twitter feeds are crucial for optimal engagement and seem to connect best with our students. Be sure to take advantage of the technological capabilities out there.
The platform we use, Mag+, allows educators to “chunk” information and present it in sections, helping students learn in a more effective way.
In addition, the app takes advantage of the always-connected digital nature of the mobile device by adding new app-only features, like the ability to complete and email assignments to professors. Plus, it features up-to-date newsfeeds and athletic calendars, making it a living text that’s always up to date and a valuable app even for older students.
4. Use your student design talent
Tapping into your existing student base for the app development process for many reasons is key. By utilizing students from your school’s design (journalism, marketing, etc.) and technology programs, the process becomes more cost effective and ensures a higher quality product.
For instance, we used two Computer Science students to help us develop some of the interactive assignments and components. We also had current students consult with us on the layout, design, and functionality to ensure we were meeting their needs and increasing engagement with the text.
As your college moves to mobile, remember that the process should be as easy as possible and fun. The possibilities are endless and you don’t have to go too far off campus to find the talent and ideas you need to create an app that your whole school will love.
Dan Friedman is the Director of University 101 Programs at the University of South Carolina, where he provides leadership for four academic courses, including over 200 sections of the first-year seminar (UNIV 101). Dan is also an associated faculty member in the Higher Education Program in the Department of Education Leadership and Policies, where he teaches courses, advises students, and serves on Master’s theses. Dr. Friedman’s area of research has centered on the First-Year Experience and he has made numerous presentations and published several articles and monograph contributions on this topic.
- How higher ed can set students up for successful internships - September 27, 2023
- How to prioritize data protection this school year - September 26, 2023
- Creating a positive campus for the new academic year - September 25, 2023