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Mobile Computing | Feature

Student Apps: Let Them Build Them and They Will Learn

At Loyola University Maryland, competitions are giving students real-world practice at conceiving, designing, and building mobile apps.

You don't need to attend more than one educational conference to know that the pedagogical focus these days is on student-oriented learning, with an emphasis on collaborative, real-world problem-solving. This hands-on approach--plus the chance to save a few dollars--is the driving force behind a new app-building competition staged by Loyola University Maryland.

"IT is always looking for ways to contribute to the mission of our university," explained CIO Louise Finn, who worked for six months with her staff to develop the contest and sell it to the university's leadership. "It seemed like a win-win situation to leverage students' untapped talents and energy. We would create an opportunity where our students could gain experience and skills they would be able to use once they left Loyola, and the university would gain needed mobile apps faster than our vendors were delivering."
The contest was not the first time Loyola has turned to students for help creating apps. "We had already sponsored an internship in which two students developed the first Loyola mobile app," recalled Finn, "and I had faculty approaching me for niche apps that could help them teach certain concepts, or make life easier at Loyola."

Laying the Groundwork
To organize the contest, Finn formed an advisory committee that included the director of research and sponsored programs, two alumni CEOs of local mobile app development companies, the alumnus who developed the first Loyola mobile app as a student, as well as faculty from the computer science and communications departments and the business school. From her side of the house, Finn brought staff from the project management office, web development, and mobile device management teams.

The committee named the competition iGoForth after a quote from St. Ignatius Loyola, who told his colleagues, "Go forth and set the world on fire." Central to the competition was the idea of collaboration, with student teams responsible for the complete System Design Life Cycle (SDLC) of their apps. As a result, rather than just appealing to programmers, the process encouraged marketing students, project managers, graphic artists, and communications majors to join.

Teams selected an app idea that had been submitted by faculty, students, or staff, who were known as "idea advocates." The teams then had to work with their idea advocate to flesh out the concept and design of the app. A timeline laid out key deliverables, including a requirements document, a scope statement, and a project charter. One of the biggest tasks was the creation of a set of wireframes to demonstrate how the app would work. Before development began, both the idea advocate and the advisory committee had to approve the wireframes. In addition, the teams participated in project management and mobile app development workshops, and marketed their app on campus using social media.

All the teams used the same development environment, Adobe PhoneGap. "We needed a tool that was easy to learn and use, low cost [PhoneGap is free], and had the ability to generate cross-platform apps from the same code base," said Finn. As a campus subscriber to e-learning service, the school was also able to identify tutorials to help prepare the student teams for work in the development environment.

IP Rights
One of the major issues Finn and her committee addressed was the question of intellectual property (IP) rights. "We engaged our legal counsel from the start," Finn recalled. Employees who submit mobile app ideas, including faculty and staff, fall under Loyola's IP policy. The ideas are "work for hire," noted Finn, and are the property of the university.

Students are a different matter altogether: The IP rights in the app belong to the idea advocate and the other participants who work on it. To ensure that the school can use the apps without becoming mired in royalty payments, though, Loyola does demand a free pass for itself.

"In consideration for the opportunity to participate in the contest and compete for valuable prizes, Loyola required the participants to grant the university a royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, sub-licensable, transferable, and exclusive license to use the app," said Finn.

Without doubt, this contract puts something of a straightjacket on how participating students can market their apps. "The word 'exclusive' means that the student/contest participant cannot license the app to anyone else (although Loyola can do so)," added Finn. "The licensing rights are necessary for any commercial development of the app."

The only way that student teams can retrieve the licensing rights so they can pursue commercial development is by giving Loyola a percentage of their revenue.

The Winners
When the competition kicked off, there were 13 participating students divided among three teams. Two teams made it all the way through the competition, developing apps that are currently available on iPhones.

The winning app, the CCSJ Navigator, provides an easy-to-use format for users to research all the community-outreach opportunities available through the school's Center for Community Service and Justice. By clicking on the button titled "Community Service," for instance, volunteers can find listings of scheduled activities and events in fields such as adult education, at-risk youth, and environment. "The level of detail provided in this app and its connection to the departmental website were much more sophisticated that anyone expected," remarked Finn.

The runner-up app, Loyola Lab Assistant, saves time and footwear by displaying the availability of computers in labs across campus--and providing directions. "As a result of this new login tracking database, we are able to track lab utilization much more closely than in the past," noted Finn.

The winning team received $2,000, with $1,000 awarded to the runners-up; $500 went to the idea advocate who submitted the original app proposal. "The students were given a certificate which detailed the contest activities so that future employers could see the requirements they met by participating," Finn added. Because the contest is considered an extracurricular activity, though, no academic course credit is given.

While the apps are undeniably useful, the real benefit of the contest may lie elsewhere. "[IT] has been able to overcome the stereotype of a back-office operation by being change agents at the university and delivering solutions that work," Finn said. "The direct interaction has been very satisfying for us, and also great for the students. This experience enabled our students to work in a field that is very cutting edge. It will provide immediate and long-term payback for their investment of time and effort."

And from an IT perspective, added Finn, "we have a much better sense of the people we are serving."

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