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Campus officials supercharge The University of Akron’s mobile app to Better Serve Students

The easiest task I have as the digital marketing and communication manager at The University of Akron (@UAkron) is to forecast what students and staff want from the university.

Simply put, I know they want access to all the information they need at any time they want it, and on any device. That information can range from policies and tutoring services to access to the helpdesk and faculty contact information, to real-time updates on transit. It could even let students know whether there’s an open treadmill at the gym. 

We need to make this data as easy as possible to access and maintain. We knew we needed to make our information, from simple items such as class schedules to complex items such as individualized push notifications, available via an app accessible from any mobile device students happen to be using. 

The problem we faced was how to ramp up these kinds of features on the app we had created, how to prioritize these new additions, and how to make sure we kept every group, from students to professors to university vendors, well served and engaged throughout the process. Keeping these mandates in mind helped us improve our university app—UA Mobile—to the point that it won a mobile app award and became a model for other universities. 

When we first began re-imagining an app for The University of Akron four years ago, we wanted to integrate as many campus services as our students, staff, parents, alumni and other visitors rely on. With an urban campus of 218 acres, 18,000 undergraduates, and about 2,000 academic staff, this was more difficult than one would think. 

We worked with Modo, which gave us the foundation we needed to build our app. By deeply integrating our employee directory and student class schedules with Google maps, for example, buildings and contact information for faculty was just a tap away. Even as students were racing across campus to get to their next class, the app showed them their schedule, each class location with GPS-enabled walking directions, and even allowed them to contact their professor via phone or email if needed. 

But we also knew that as necessary as this basic functionality was, its importance would quickly fade. After all, students learn their schedules within a few weeks, and most staff and university workers know exactly where they need to go. So, we began brainstorming and collecting feedback on what to focus on next. 

Since that original directory and way-finding purpose for our app, we’ve branched out to more sophisticated tools. We know there is a wealth of information in our PeopleSoft data system that students could benefit from accessing on the campus app such as the financial aid they are receiving or the ability to add and drop classes. It’s a steady process but incredibly rewarding to see UA Mobile’s popularity grow.

We use a modular approach so that changes are easy and require minimal or no coding. And, since our department manages this app for the entire university, this ease of use is vital and because of it, we can update the happenings of our athletic department (Go Zips!) as easily as we can for the Student Affairs office. It also means that students don’t need to be constantly downloading new versions of the app; nearly all updates are immediately incorporated when the app is opened. 

We’re still in process with the PeopleSoft integration. RojoServe is our partner for this work. RojoServe, in collaboration with our IT Services team, has the expertise to allow our Modo-powered app to access the data in PeopleSoft, including data about courses, enrollment status, financial payments, and the like. Students have long asked us to make this available on mobile devices.

We unveiled a new, simplified, version of our UA Mobile three weeks before classes started this Fall and immediately saw results. Traffic in our app beyond the first two weeks of the semester is up 75 percent to 80 percent from previous years. 

As with all product and tech development, easily receiving feedback means we can get a read on what we’ve done well and what needs to be improved. Right now, we know that 85 percent of users appreciate our interface redesign, when we moved away from our old grid-based look. Future improvements will also be driven by feedback from users.

When I think about what other universities could benefit from knowing about campus apps, the first point that comes to mind is to not think of the campus app as a slimmed-down version of the university website. Instead, think of it as a personalized campus experience. With UA Mobile, our students and staff can now quickly check email, access their cloud file storage, submit timecards, check campus dining hall hours, and view a real-time look at the campus shuttle. 

The other point is to provide curated content to each constituency. We will soon offer professors the ability to not only see all the classes they are teaching, but to also see a student roster including photos of each student and their pronoun preference. Professors can now confidently walk into the first day of class with a good base of knowledge about each student and access it easily from their phone, not an unwieldly laptop or potentially out-of-date printout. 

Also consider push notifications. We can pinpoint different groups of users with pertinent messages while not unnecessarily including people who don’t need that information. Faculty and other staff don’t need a reminder to sign up for spring classes, and engineers don’t need to know about scheduling meetings with art advisors to enroll for next semester.

Our overarching goal, and the goal I think other universities should strive for, is to aim for flexibility and scalability. We know the more robust we make our app, the more useful it is to students, professors, and university workers. The more we can morph and customize the experience, showing staffers timekeeping records and students their academic history, for example, the more useful the app becomes to each group of users. These all need agile processes, which are critical to adjusting to our audiences. If we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we have to be agile in every single process, meaning that flexibility is critical, right at the start. Finding the right technology allowing quick iteration and adaptation is key to success. The changes you make might feel incremental or even insignificant enough that no one will notice but I can assure you, they will.

Steve Sedlock, Digital marketing and communications manager at The University of Akron.

Steve helms the university’s award-winning free app, UA Mobile. He also co-created an ad last year that highlighted students and the university’s persistence and creativity during the COVID-19 lockdown.

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