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Mobile Development for Non-Developers

Notre Dame and George Washington University mobile experts share their experience with getting non-technical students involved with app development.

Last year, the University of Notre Dame held a mobile development contest for non-developers. The "VisitND Challenge" was a first-of-its-kind contest designed to give students real-world mobile development experience. Ten student teams were tasked with building a mobile tour for the campus using a theme of their choice. The theme of the first-place team was a history of Notre Dame; other finalist themes included dorm life, a campus pilgrimage and notable Notre Dame people.

"The VisitND Challenge was conceived as a way to engage the student population in technology while also improving the guest experience," said Matt Willmore, Notre Dame's mobileND program manager. "We wanted to build an event that directly involved content creation for the ND Mobile app, but did not require technical ability."

Notre Dame students built their app modules using the Kurogo Publisher Platform from Modo Labs. According to the company, the software "puts mobile implementation and deployment capabilities directly in the hands of non-developers," using a "Mobile-Optimized Middleware platform that accesses and quickly mobilizes any data source, such as maps, transit information, dining menus, news, courses, and more, in a unified campus app." Students were provided with a one-hour training session as well as sandbox environments for testing their creations.

VisitND has been one of Notre Dame's biggest crowdsourcing projects to date. "We called it crowdsourcing because these students were not professional IT people working on the apps," said Willmore. "Our goal was to try to find creativity in the student populace. I wanted the students to think of this app in terms of ownership. Although it was the property of Notre Dame, the idea was to design the tour that they would like to present to the current student body, as well as the next generation of students. It was an opportunity to see what visitors wouldn't normally see while on campus."

The students took ownership of the quality and experience of using the app, Willmore noted. "They found out what worked and didn't work. It needed to work for freshmen coming to campus, and their parents. It needed to answer questions before those questions were asked."

In this sense, crowdsourcing was, according to Willmore, "a little more formalized than a mall gathering." It required a lot of review and curation. Students were asked to contribute in a way that was meaningful for them.

Other Uses

Use of Notre Dame's mobile platform has extended beyond the VisitND Challenge. "Many departments have used the Kurogo Publisher tool to build no-code, rich-UI modules in the ND Mobile app — like Sustainability, Admissions and Faith," explained Willmore. "These modules are created and maintained by the department, not by my team. These departments are not necessarily app development experts, but they are the absolute experts in their content." Willmore added that each department pays for their app functionality, incorporating the costs into their own budgets. "This helps to drive each department to invest the time to add great content to their module and promote the app, which benefits everyone."

Although the VisitND tours were completed at the end of 2015, Willmore and his team are now going back to look at content for clarification and clean up. "We're also going to other interested campus departments to sign them up to adopt and curate tours. For example, even though students created the spiritual tour, a campus department involved in Notre Dame's faith mission might sponsor and own it." That department would also review the tour for accuracy, add additional content and modify it over time as campus interests change. "There are a large number of departments with a presence in one of our apps," added Willmore. "Each department maintains its content in the app — not IT."

Willmore recommends the following steps for building mobile apps for non-developers:

  1. Look for a platform that lets everyone interested participate, not just those with technical chops.
  2. Involve students as often as possible and work to give them a feeling of ownership. The app is for them, and they will always have better ideas than you about what will make that app useful to them.
  3. Identify "information pain points" — things about campus life that students struggle with daily — and focus on those app development issues. If the app can help add convenience throughout their day, you will have a better chance of developing lifelong users.

Getting Started at George Washington U

Another school investigating the possibilities of crowdsourcing is The George Washington University, where Mark Albert is director of university web and identity services for the Division of Information Technology. Albert will be teaching a master's level mobile development course this fall. He'll use both the Kurogo platform and Phone Gap, the open source platform supported by Adobe, to give students — many from the School of Business — hands-on experience in mobile app development.

"The students in the Master of Science in Information Systems Technology take a mix of business and technology courses," Albert commented. "They're focused on solving business problems faced by IT management. The well-rounded discipline does not expect the students to be expert developers or system administrators, but they could be. The students are expected to be critical and strategic thinkers and be able to relate technology to business."

While Albert's course is just beginning, he has some advice for getting started with crowdsourcing on campus. First, he suggested, define your audience by engaging with the students and asking what they need and/or expect from a mobile app. "Don't assume you know what students are thinking," he emphasized. "Ask them." Investigate the sustainability of app development (including the use of internal resources), the cost and the level of student involvement. Build a relationship with the student government, and with graduate classes. "Remember that somebody has to manage it," noted Albert. Set up a monthly touch point for feedback, and consider year-to-year knowledge transfer. "IT may provide access and information," said Albert, "but it's the students who provide a history of the content. By partnering with the students on the development, maintenance, and content of mobile apps, these same students can help transfer knowledge to the next groups of students that will develop and maintain the information."

"It doesn't matter how people think about mobile," added Albert. "These are not technical students, but college students who are able to think of things I never would have thought of. When students give birth to ideas, they want to take the next step."

What Students Want

At a recent Kurogo Conference, a panel of four students discussed their personal mobile usage and preferences. Among the findings:

  • Facebook and YouTube are no longer top of the heap. Students prefer messaging platforms like Snapchat (the content disappears) and Yik Yak (the content is anonymous). These platforms are often the first place students look to see what's happening on campus. Vine is also popular for quick and condensed videos, while Reddit, unedited and mostly anonymous, is useful for news, entertainment, and discussion.
  • Privacy is "a big deal." Privacy has become an important consideration for students. However, they're willing to give up "a lot of information" if they get information or a benefit back. In addition, students want to be in control of opting in or opting out.
  • E-mail is not thriving, but it's not dead. Especially for students with jobs, e-mail is still important — but students want to be able to turn push notifications on and off. For example, push notifications are important for student body elections, and for reminding students to vote — but should be used sparingly. "Our generation is very much opposed to seeing the same information multiple times," the panel emphasized. Overall, freshmen use e-mail more than upper classmen and grad students.
  • App and browser usage is neck-and-neck. Students are still willing to go back and forth between app and browser, depending on which device they're using at the moment. When there's a choice among devices, it all comes down to whichever is fastest. "Having your app target for you" is ideal: If it's just "Action/click, Module/click, Connect!" — that's what students will go for. If the search is more complicated, students will go online.
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