Mobile apps contest helps stock a university apps store, while providing "perspective on what computer science is like outside of the classroom."

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

July 12, 2013

6 Min Read

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To stock its new campus app store with university-specific mobile apps, Loyola University Maryland held a contest, soliciting ideas from the community and inviting students to turn them into reality.

The winning app was based on a request from the Baltimore-based Jesuit university's Center for Community Service and Justice to match volunteers with needs in the community, combined with the work of three computer science students who did the programming and a fourth who became their marketing director. They won even though two of the three coders were on a semester-abroad trip to New Zealand when most of the programming needed to be done.

"All the development took place long distance, and we used email and Skype to coordinate everything," said Megan Gansfuss, the team member who remained behind in Baltimore.

[ More work for student coders: How To Close Gaps In Campus Apps.]

Loyola CIO Louise Finn said she was impressed by the way the team turned that potential liability into an advantage, crafting its own "follow the sun" strategy where Gansfuss would work on coding or bug fixing into the night and then pass the baton. "She would be handing off the project to the girls in New Zealand, and they would work all night while she slept and fip it back to her in the morning," Finn said.

The winning team was also clever about the way it designed its app to fetch content from the CCSJ website, Finn said.

Loyola CCSJ app

Loyola CCSJ app

Gansfuss said she thought they did pretty well, "especially given we only had about four months to both code and learn how to code the app." The biggest value she got out of her participation was learning the software development process in a context where her team was working with a client -- the social services agency that had asked for the app -- and needed to define all the requirements clearly, then make sure their software addressed them, she said. "It was a great perspective on what computer science is like outside of the classroom."

She also had a success story in mind, where one-time IT summer intern Joshua Phelps had produced a successful iPhone app promoting the university and gone on to work for MLB Advanced Media, the subsidiary of Major League Baseball that handles its TV and digital production. Phelps, who served on the advisory board for the contest, said he learned a tremendous amount in that process and is glad to see Finn carrying on the tradition.

"I have no idea what I would be doing right now if not for that internship," Phelps said. When he started his project, neither he nor his adviser knew anything about iOS programming, so beyond the specific technology one of the most valuable things he learned was how to teach himself things. "That's just as invaluable. When someone asks me if I can do something, I'm comfortable saying yes," Phelps said.

The students participating in the contest actually had it a little easier. Where Phelps had to teach himself Objective C, the native language of iOS programming, contest participants worked with Adobe's PhoneGap tool, which creates apps using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. On the other hand, Phelps pointed out they had to do their work while juggling a regular course load, whereas he did his work over the summer when he could give it his whole attention.

Finn said she conceived of the contest after attending a Gartner Inc. session where the analysts talked about the need for enterprises to field their own app stores. She saw the need to have a custom store to organize all the university-recommended or supported apps supplied by vendors, plus some that would be unique to the university. Since nobody on her staff was a mobile developer, her next thought was "our students are ready, willing, and able -- why not run a contest?" she said. "I'm always looking for ways to get students involved in technology from more than just an end user perspective."

Air Watch, a mobile device management vendor that cites higher education as one of its major environments, provided the private app store software.

While that was being prepared, Loyola ran the first phase of its iGoForth apps contest in the Spring of 2012, asking for app ideas from students, faculty and staff. From 37 submissions, a team of judges narrowed the field to five ideas that seemed practical and useful. The formation of student teams followed in the fall, with the 13 students who volunteers organized into three teams. Sponsors for each of the proposed projects gave presentations for their ideas, and the student teams chose their favorites. The chosen sponsors then played the role of customer. Following a more detailed interview with their new customers, the student teams were required to present a high-level design to the contest advisers, then further elaborate it into a detailed plan. The IT department also put them through a project management workshop. Each team created a charter, a requirements document, and a wireframe diagram to guide the development process.

"By the end of the Fall semester, before they left for Christmas, we met with each of them, and they walked us through their design," Finn said. The advisers "made them think hard" about whether there was anything they should change before they started coding, Finn said. "We set them up for success as best we possibly could."

The completed apps were then introduced to the Loyola campus community, which was asked to pick the winner. This crowdsourced process asked the community to evaluate the apps according to specific criteria, rather than just picking their favorites.

Finn said she is also working with Air Watch on fielding a public version of the app store, partly because CCSJ services are not limited to the university and the app ought to be available to the citizens of Baltimore. "We're planning to get the mobile app into the community over the next year," she said.

Only two of the three teams wound up completing an app. The one that fizzled was more "thrown together" from individual volunteers, whereas the ones who completed their work started with a core group of students who already knew each other, Finn said. On the other hand, the second team that finished produced something useful -- an app that monitors the usage of computers in the computer lab and lets you know when one is free. In fact, Finn said she has received inquiries from other universities who are interested in using it, giving the team the potential of starting a money-making venture.

Loyola's iGoForth apps contest video

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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