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Tech Leadership                                             Page 11

 

Meeting Demand for a

District’s Mobile App 

BY GREGORY C. FARLEY

 GregFarley
Think of a parent in your school district tapping a four-inch iPhone screen to view a school calendar on a website that was intended for a 15-inch desktop monitor. It’s not a pretty picture. The results can be frustrating, and the small-screen-size experience may be so bad that it risks offsetting any possible benefits of mobile computing.

In Hazlet Township, N.J., our school district considers its website a hub for vital information. However, we did not realize just how much or how often our parents were visiting our site, particularly from mobile devices, until we investigated our user analytics. The usage data indicated visits to our website ranged from 55,000 to 85,000 hits per month with 25 to 33 percent from unique visitors.

This startling number confirmed our rationale for developing a mobile app for the school district, enabling handheld device users to navigate the website smoothly with buttons and the same functionality as a desktop browser. The app has opened our website to increasing numbers of parents and stakeholders.

Our district used Google Analytics, a free tool, to determine that 22 percent of the website traffic came from mobile users (iOS devices, Androids and BlackBerrys), and the number was growing each month. The data convinced us it was time to provide a convenient pathway to our website for the many owners of handheld devices and tablets.

Cost Considerations
One goal of our superintendent, Bernard F. Bragen Jr., has been to communicate effectively with all stakeholders. He directed a school district technology team to manage the exploration and implementation of a mobile app for our district during 2012-13. The team studied the analytics and the needs of parents using mobile devices. Last April, we unveiled for the school board and public a new mobile app, replete with a QR code for quick access to iOS, Android and Blackberry downloads.

Getting to that point was a sometimes-tedious process of vetting vendors and researching mobile solutions in a constantly changing marketplace. App development can be an expensive undertaking. We received price quotes from some firms of $20,000 to $30,000 for coding and recurring fees.

The newness and complexity of this venture forced the technology team to focus on cost, flexibility and functionality. Our eventual choice was Apptology, a company that offered a comprehensive and affordable mobile solution. The cost for coding the app was under $2,000, along with an annual fee of $800 for maintenance and hosting. The project took several months, including 10 weeks for the actual development, revisions, coding and submission for approvals of our mobile app.

Since its launch about 11 months ago, our app has been downloaded nearly 1,700 times, and our website’s mobile traffic has gone up 55 percent to approximately 25,000 visits per month. About 70 percent of our traffic goes to the parent portal, and another 20 percent accesses other features such as calendars, announcements, lunch menus and the photo gallery.

Comments from staff, students and parents have led to improvements, including the addition of a feedback tab and a means for parents to send photos for posting on our app, website, Facebook page and Twitter account. This tool helps us maintain a relevant social media presence for our school district.

Logical Functions
As the world of mobile computing advances, new and innovative functions in the app can redefine how our stakeholders use their devices. We have moved content and buttons to create a more logical flow, and we are experimenting with a rewards function that allows parents to handle check-in at PTO meetings and other school functions through a QR code.

In addition, Sarah Roman, an English teacher at Raritan High School in our district, is delving into mobile learning. She developed and now is testing a mobile app students can use to accurately cite sources in MLA format.

Hazlet Township’s school board and top administration have embraced the changes in computing, enabling innovative uses to achieve our goals. Staying ahead of the technology curve is essential for K-12 education as we pioneer the mobile computing landscape of the early 21st century.

Greg Farley is the supervisor of educational technology in the Hazlet Township Public Schools in Hazlet, N.J. E-mail: gfarley@hazlet.org. Twitter: @Hazlet_Ed_Tech

 

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