App Development | News

Creating An App to Market Your School

With schools and districts beginning to delve into mobile apps, one school is taking the concept beyond lunch menus and news briefs.

As mobile engagement spreads to communities large and small, everyone from the corner coffee shop to your local library is launching an app. Now even schools and districts are reaching out.

Custom mobile apps, which typically function as condensed versions of a school or district website, are a nascent, but growing, trend. Most help parents and students catch up on the latest news or browse specific information, like teacher contact information sorted by school or last name, along with calendars, news briefs, and even photos. Many offer only basic navigation and a perfunctory interface.

The Tishomingo School District's (MS) iPhone app, for example, includes news, an updated lunch menu, and photos from its middle school's spirit day. In suburban St. Louis, the Rockwood School District (MO) offers an app that lets users browse its schools' contact lists and peruse school news and classroom blogs. A search of the Apple iTunes store reveals a handful of other school and district apps offering similar functionality.

While these few app pioneers have tapped the medium's potential for dispersing information to its existing community, it's still rare to see a school design its app as a marketing tool. But that was precisely the goal at the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, a K-12 online school that offers both real-time and self-paced learning models, with nearly 11,000 students from nearly every school district in the state.

The school's new iPad app features much of the standard fare--links to the school website and social media feeds, an e-mail contact, an interactive map--but also includes self-promotional content like vision and mission statements, admissions details, and glossy videos focusing on student activities, enrollment, and curriculum. And, in contrast to other school and district apps, its target audience is not existing students and parents.

"It's mainly aimed at prospective students and families that don’t have a great deal of knowledge about us," said Ben Brautigam, the school's R&D coordinator who developed the app. "It's just another avenue for people to know what PA Cyber is all about."

A cross-collaborative team spread across several of the school's departments decided on the app's features. Unlike other schools that farm out the actual app development to web development firms, Brautigam worked with the school's technology department and others to build the app in-house using Xcode, Apple's development software. From conception to release, Brautigam says the app took about three months.

"Things went on and off the drawing board as far as features we wanted to include and implement," he said. "It did have challenges, but it was a kind of discover-as-you-go type of thing."

Brautigam says future apps that focus on curriculum and learning utilities are in the works. Presently, the school is engaged in another mobile initiative: an iPad program for 300 hand-selected students. Feedback obtained from the pilot will help the school move toward providing mobile learning tools and devices for every student.

"A total mobile learning environment is the ultimate goal," Brautigam said. "Funding out here in Pennsylvania is an issue, so I don’t know when that might happen, but we are taking the steps to do that."

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.