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Student-Built App Gamifies Learning at Old Dominion U

Packed with goal-oriented learning tools, the iAchieveODU mobile app helps students manage their studies and find the information they need to succeed.

mobile app for learning

"Mobile development is about convenience," said Preston Brown, app developer and senior at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. "Most people want something they can use right away. Two or three actions can deter a person from doing something on a device."

It's this understanding of what students — like himself — want in a mobile app, together with his skills as an app developer, that led to the success of iAchieveODU, an app the university bills as "the ultimate student success tool." Continued Brown, "Everyone who has ever been successful in school has used an organizer of some kind to stay ahead." With multiple goal-oriented tools to keep students on track, iAchieveODU has plenty of appeal — and it also helps with such institutional goals as retention.

Building an App for Student Success

"Retention is a priority with us," said M'hammed Abdous, director of ODU's Center for Learning and Teaching, where Brown works part-time. "We're looking to better understand our students — their makeup, their characteristics and what they're struggling with. We want to provide best practices in terms of helping students to become self-learners, and helping them to set goals for learning."

Preston Brown

Student developer Preston Brown

Abdous recognized Brown's ability and asked him to develop a student app. Initially launched for iPhone and iPad only, the Android versions of iAchieveODU became available this spring. Four versions of the app have been released since last year, with a fifth version release scheduled for the middle of this month. And the app's popularity has matched its growth: iAchieveODU boasts an Apple App Store rating of 4 out of 5 stars.

"It took about six months to develop," recalled Abdous. "We worked with a graphic designer (also a student), who helped with the design, interface, icons and so forth."

A priority for Abdous and Brown was to put all of the information and guidelines for students in one place, so that users would not have to "fly all over the Web" for what they needed. Finding information via traditional methods is not easy, they noted, and student misinformation and lack of coordination can lead to additional learning difficulties. "We listened to students, and we used students as we built the app," said Abdous. "We also surveyed our students after the app was launched, and we're continuing to make adjustments."


iAchieveODU's learning tools

Incentivizing Success

"Students get bored," Brown noted. "They want to distance themselves from education." He explained that the iAchieveODU app "gamifies" the learning process, using incentives to help students succeed. One of the app's features that Brown counts among his favorites: badges. If a student gets a certain number of A's in coursework, for example, he or she will earn a badge. "It's the educational version of winning something," Brown explained, adding that statistics show that people who work toward something work harder.

"On the flip side," he quipped, "the app doesn't yell at you. It doesn't call your parents or send them a text message."

"We want to empower our students to become lifelong learners," said Abdous. "When they're in high school, students are told what to do. Their family keeps track of them. Once they're in college, they're on their own. They need skills or they can quickly fall behind."

A variety of iAchieveODU features are designed to help students learn how to learn. Students can integrate courses and add assignments right in the app: "It helps to prioritize," Brown pointed out. "You can see all your assignments in a table. It's easy to read and follow." Users can also track their grades and calculate their semester GPA. Other popular features include a template for creating an unlimited number of flashcards, three ways to take notes (traditional note-taking as well as the "Cornell" and "Chart" methods), study tips, time management tools and information on campus resources.

The integration with Khan Academy is another key feature, said Brown: "It took me the longest to do but it is one of my favorites." Students get direct access to the entire Khan library, which includes thousands of instructional videos. "We integrated the entire video library," noted Brown. "You can open up any video and put it on your device." Making this library accessible "at the swipe of a finger" is one of the ways in which the app makes it "as easy as possible" to study — anywhere, any time.

"We see iAchieveODU as an app that also teaches you how to learn on your own," noted Abdous. "Many students don't have the right tools from high school. We're trying to support the retention effort, but through a different approach than tutorials."

Future App Development

Asked about his ongoing work on application development, Brown said, "I keep a list of things I want to work on," which includes a new app for distance learning at ODU. Brown, who is taking some online classes, said the app will allow students to access their online classes via mobile device.

Brown's advice for other young people who want to develop apps is: "Just do it!" He said that a lot of people approach him for advice on developing apps, "but the only person who took my advice is 12 years old. She got a MacBook for Christmas and she asked me how to start developing apps. I told her the only tool she needed to develop her own app was free: Apple Xcode."

The young girl happens to be his cousin — perhaps another talented app developer in the making.

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