Mobile Development | Feature
How Notre Dame Creates Mobile Apps With No Coding Required
Non-technical end users can now build their own mobile apps using a modular, do-it-yourself approach.
When the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, rolled out its new ND Mobile App a few months ago, a key goal was to enable non-technical staff and students to create and modify the app design and content without coding expertise. "We wanted to invest in a mobile platform that would allow us to develop and respond to campus needs quickly," explained Matt Willmore, mobile ND program manager in the Office of Information Technologies.
The idea of "citizen development" led Willmore and his team to implement Kurogo Mobile Campus, an app platform from Modo Labs. The technology's pre-built modules allow users to focus on developing app content without getting too technical. "Even when we do need to code," Willmore said, "it's limited to the custom functionality pieces, as Kurogo takes care of the UI, integration with other modules and instant deployment to iOS, Android and mobile web platforms."
Users no longer have to wait for IT developers to do the work, speeding up the process of making changes to the app or its functionality. "One of the primary advantages of a DIY [do-it-yourself] approach," said Willmore, "is that we have a much tighter cycle between a need or a change and its resolution." For example, updating information or temporarily disabling a link can be performed quickly and easily.
The new ND Mobile App includes multiple editions that present unique content for general users as well as for students, staff and faculty. For this year's fall orientation, Notre Dame plans to add another edition specifically for incoming students.
Getting Students Involved
With its new app platform, Notre Dame is able to tap the student population for app development work and ideas. "Notre Dame has a long history of talented student developers," Willmore pointed out. "With the new app, we can recruit talented students to help develop modules in Kurogo." Working closely with students also helps IT make sure that the mobile platform ties in the services they want most. For example, the institution is adding LMS functionality to the app, allowing students to access course content in Sakai on a mobile device.
Still, it's important for the overall development process to be managed within the IT department, Willmore stressed. "App development will always mean troubleshooting bugs and wondering why something isn't working correctly," he said. For that reason, app creation and development continues to flow through his office. "I work with a small committee of staff involved in campus content, to vet and review new content. We work to ensure that what ends up in the app is relevant, functional and always adds to the user's experience."
Because the app is still young, and because there are university policies to consider, all the code continues to go through IT. But despite monitoring and overseeing, citizen app development by Notre Dame students continues to grow. "We are using these students as paid employees," said Willmore. "The concept of students developing and deploying code is rather new, and we're not going to just throw the doors wide open. However, we do believe in giving students the ability to contribute to the app."
Resources for "Citizen Developers"
To help users improve their mobile skill sets and provide the tools for R&D, evaluation, testing and comparison, Notre Dame created the Mobile Innovation Center and Mobile Device Lab, which came into operation a year ago. "The Lab assists the citizen developer concept by removing the barrier that implies that a developer needs a particular device or software version to ensure functionality," Willmore said. "It was much easier in the desktop days. Today you have to be very deliberate in ensuring that the mobile apps you write function across a large matrix of devices and OS versions." He added that this is an "enormous issue" for Android devices. Even though the majority of incoming freshmen are using iPhones, he noted, "most of the Lab's devices are different combinations of Android, OS and form factor."
Notre Dame also hosts an annual Mobile Summit, to help connect campus developers — including students — with those on campus who have similar interests. It also provides them with resources and knowledge around mobile development.
Opening Up Campus Data
As users increasingly rely on their mobile devices to do business, Willmore and his team have seen an increased desire across campus to "make an app for that." "This starts with e-mail and grows to include calendaring, accessing cloud storage and productivity apps," he said, noting that Notre Dame has been able to translate many of these requests into additional functionality within ND Mobile.
Underlying that increase in functionality is the need to access campus data. "We've been hard at work intelligently exposing university data through APIs [application program interfaces]," explained Willmore. "This leads to endless possibilities for citizen developers to turn that data into tangible, actionable knowledge. Anyone should be able to access anything — with appropriate security controls — anywhere, any time, on any device. This is what we fight for every day, because we know that this is the convergence of mobile technology and mobile needs on campus."
While opening access to campus data poses some security issues, Willmore believes the risks are manageable — and the benefits are well worth it. "There are valid concerns about supporting a citizen-developed app, or allowing someone who doesn't work in the IT organization to access institutional data," he said. "However, if proper measures are taken to address those concerns, the boundless energy and creativity of these citizen developers are intoxicating."
Never underestimate the talent and ideas that students and other non-developers can bring to the table, he said. After all, citizen developers get involved because they have "a true passion and a desire to make things better."
Toni Fuhrman is a writer and creative consultant based in Los Angeles.