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Tech Leadership                                              Page 12

 

The Case for School

District Apps     

BY CODY CUNNINGHAM

 Cody Cunningham

School districts are suddenly waking up to the reality that our students are socially, academically and emotionally connected to their smartphones. The “Bring Your Own Technology to School” movement is spreading rapidly as educators warm to the idea of smartphones in the classroom. This shift in thinking could not come at a more appropriate time.

A leading technology research firm, Gartner Inc., reports that sales growth of smartphones has risen to 85 percent year on year, with estimates that more than a million devices are being activated every day. Within a year, the majority of U.S. teens will own a smartphone.

Concurrently, we’re witnessing an explosion of growth in mobile applications, known increasingly as apps. An analyst firm, Berg Insight, predicts that, by 2015, nearly 1 trillion apps will be downloaded globally compared to just 7 billion in 2009.

Given the overwhelming evidence, why are so many school districts reluctant to acknowledge the compelling need to address mobile websites and apps as a means of engaging their stakeholders?

Pent-Up Demand
If you were to poll school districts in your region, there is considerable likelihood that just a handful, if any, have a district mobile application or mobile website. More alarming is the fact many aren’t even entertaining the idea. The data would suggest that, in most communities, the demand has been there for quite some time.

In the McKinney Independent School District, a fast-growth suburban district near Dallas, we began exploring the possibility of developing a mobile app at a time when I could adequately respond to the question “How do you know they will go there?” So without quantitative evidence but with confidence in my knowledge of our community, I would simply respond, “They’re already there.” The problem, of course, was that we weren’t. While it took little to convince our superintendent and board of the merits of a mobile app, many districts still struggle to make the shift from traditional communication vehicles, mainly print publications, to digital media. And while many districts remain reluctant to invest development dollars into a mobile application of their own, those who have are realizing significant benefits.

Our goal in McKinney was to offer a tool that was useful and relevant to every stakeholder group. In partnership with app-development firm WillowTree Apps, our district created a dynamic mobile app (misdGO) that provides real-time district news and information, event calendars, menus, lunch account balances, maps, access to library databases, a staff directory, jobs, fine arts information, athletic scores, password-protected access to student grades, progress reports, homework assignments and more. The app even allows push notifications for alerts, such as weather-related closings.

In the first two months, 9,000 individuals downloaded the misdGO app, eclipsing our projections and confirming my inclination that our parents and students were “already there.” More than 12,000 parents, students, teachers and community members now use this dynamic tool daily.

Voice of Experience
Developing and launching a mobile app did not come without pain along the way, so I would like others to learn from our headaches by following this advice:

  • Seek input from students, parents and staff about what they want most.
  • Be honest when it comes to using students or in-house technology staff to develop an app. Just because they can doesn’t mean they are the best option.
  • Be cautious of hiring a firm that charges large annual recurring fees.
  • Don’t underestimate the complexity of integrating your student information system with an app. (Most developers will.)
  • Involve multiple departments with emphasis on curriculum, communications and technology.
  • Don’t limit your research to school districts, as universities and companies are generally ahead in app development.
  • Place significant resources on branding and marketing the app — perhaps through a communication campaign that includes posters, QR codes, a promotional video, campus giveaways and social media.

Cody Cunningham is chief communications officer in the McKinney, Texas, Independent School District. E-mail: cocunningham@mckinnneyisd.net 

 

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