Simplifying the Student User Experience

How Smartphone Apps are Changing Universities

There’s an app for everything. Whether you’re looking for a ride, medical advice or girl scout cookies, a 20-second download is the only thing in your way.

With most Canadian university students experiencing the majority of their social and academic lives in a digital realm, app developers are looking to tap into the market of people that are technologically literate.

While not limited to those in higher education, a Nielsen study showed over 85 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds own a smartphone. In Canada, that number is expected to be even higher; some estimates say as much as 79 per cent of Canadians own a smartphone.

Even so, actually getting through to students has become more of a challenge.

“If today as a student I want to know what’s going on at my campus, my choices are 20 different Facebook groups, ten different Twitter feeds—it gets really fragmented,” said Danial Jameel from OOHLALA, an app development company focused on tools for university students.

Student life: There’s an app for that

Fresh out of university, young developers in Montreal are gauging ways to get freshmen more involved in campus life.

“When I come to campus it’s a very stressful time,” Jameel said. “What do I have to do, where do I have to go, where are all my services?”

Created by University of Toronto and McGill students, OOHLALA now works with over 100 universities in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Ireland. Its developers have already won numerous business competitions and landed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for education.

The team based in Montreal works with university administrators and student unions to set up software that organizes student services like advising, maps, campus events and calendars.

McGill launched an official OOHLALA app in September that was download by some 80 per cent of first-years and worked with the developers to set up a campus treasure hunt in 2012.

The Concordia counterpart is a lot more barebones, meant to help organize student’s time by personalizing their schedule and event functions. OOHLALA offers a free ConU version, but has yet to work with officials here, says Jameel, who has been focusing a lot on U.S. schools so far.

“If it helps you better organize yourself, if it helps you engage with your campus, chances are you’re going to do really well,” said Jameel about apps and student engagement.

Student engagement might solve the problem of university dropouts, who take on debt and end up costing universities.

Tom Zheng from Kreate, another developer targeted at non-profits, hopes to raise student interest in campus life and associations.

“The existing channels that they’re using, such as Facebook or Twitter, are not made for the purpose of increasing engagement,” said Zheng about university groups.

Zheng says the year-old startup is adamant about reducing political apathy.

Their software curates social media content to apps for student groups like the Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) and the Finance and Investment Students’ Association (FISA) at Concordia.

Last November, Kreate worked with Robert Vagramov on an app during his bid for city council in the B.C. town of Port Moody. Plans to develop a system for student association elections will hopefully see the light by the end of the school year.

But some of the more successful apps are created to keep up with virtual marketplaces, many of them providing freelancers new venues to sell their skills and buyers and sellers new platforms for exchange.

Recent Concordia finance grad Matthew Bruna launched a used book exchange app for university students last month. Sellers create a listing, scan their book’s barcode, upload a photo and set the price.

Concordia’s campus retail store offers a similar app, but Bruna says his app studEtree extends beyond Concordia and offers a lower commission.

“When you’re dealing with bookstores you’re constantly getting ripped off,” he said.

The project was picked up by Fondation Montreal, which supports new start-ups by offering them professional resources.

Academic mobil-IT

Meanwhile in Concordia’s IT offices, a new Student Information System (SIS) is being touched up and set for release by the end of the month.

The university’s services portal, MyConcordia, never made it into the app market, and with a new system launching soon, an app probably won’t exist in the immediate future.

“Whatever app would have been created would have had to be reworked from scratch,” said Alex Aragano, director of the application portfolio management.

An app is planned for later this year if all goes well, says Aragano, hopefully involving student in Concordia’s software engineering program.

“This is something that we’re working on. We haven’t officially decided to move forward,” he said.

And though the SIS will revamp the old portal and include new mobile features for people using browsers on their phones and tablets, looking towards McGill and the École de Technologie Supérieure, Concordia’s in the market for a new app.

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