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How we created an app for our district—and why you should, too June 18, 2013

By Steve Young

Parents, teachers, and students are going mobile. Don't let your district get left behind.

Creating an app for his school district was simple and cost-effective, Young writes.

We've all heard the news and seen the numbers. Mobile technology is everywhere, connecting billions of people through smart phones, apps, and tablets—and the industry is growing exponentially. The education sector is mirroring this trend, with tablets replacing textbooks and smart phones appearing in the backpacks of students as early as elementary school.

My school district, Judson ISD in San Antonio, is no exception. When we discovered that more than 10 percent of our website traffic came directly from mobile devices, we decided it was time to go mobile. I got together with a couple of staff members and, in no time, we created a custom Judson ISD Connect mobile app to give students, parents, and teachers a way to stay in touch and access our site's information from anywhere, at any time.

Why an app?

People are increasingly consuming the web through their smart phones, and mobile apps offer more convenience when navigating the web through a mobile device. The app we created makes it easy for members of our school community to access all the information they need about our district—school events, news, photos, etc.—wherever they may be at the moment. Creating the app was simple and cost-effective, which we all know is a major factor considering school budgets and limited resources.

How do you create one?

The decision to create an app is an easy one—and thanks to many of the tools readily available on the web, developing it doesn't have to be difficult, either. With app-creation tools like Conduit Mobile, School Connect, or Apps Builder, any district can replicate our process at Judson to reach an increasingly mobile constituency.

Of course, if your school has the staff and resources, it's possible to develop a mobile app from scratch. But there are several advantages to using a web-based tool. After looking into the options out there, we chose to go with Conduit Mobile, which didn't require us to hire a programmer to develop the app or IT personnel to maintain it. Conduit Mobile's platform and similar tools allow you to make changes to your app quickly, so you don't need any prior knowledge of coding every time you'd like to edit or add new features. They also sync to existing content, so you can easily transfer and link information from your district's Facebook Page, Twitter, RSS feeds, and other content. When you update any of these social media sites, your app will automatically reflect that information, keeping the content fresh at all times.

Once you've created the app, the final step before it can be downloaded is to publish to the app stores: the Apple App Store for iPhones and iPads, and Google Play for Android devices. This process can be slightly confusing (especially for Apple) and does have a fee to open an account ($99 for Apple and $25 for Google).To save ourselves the time and hassle of dealing with the stores ourselves, we chose to use Conduit Mobile's app submission service. We just had to open a developer's account for each store, and their team did the rest of the paperwork for us. As soon as you get the approval, which can take up to two weeks for Apple, your app is on the market and available for download—but your journey doesn't stop there.

Engaging your district—and beyond

An app on its own is just a tool. An app that your district will want to download, use, and continue to access daily depends on maintaining relevant information and regular updates that align with new developments happening at your schools. The Judson ISD Connect app includes features that share fresh content, including our events calendars and sports schedules, providing an extra incentive for downloading it and using it frequently. We can also send push notifications to remind parents and students about field trips, special projects, and upcoming events.

As the popularity of our app grew, we continued adding new features based on feedback from students, parents, and teachers. One of the favorites is the Parent Center, where parents and students can check grades, attendance, meal balances, library books, discipline data, and transportation information. Another valuable feature is the bully reporting system, which allows students and teachers to anonymously report instances of bullying from their phones. These features added a lot of value to our app and they have won us awards for their ingenuity.

The Judson ISD Connect app is comprehensive, but every district has different needs. When you create a custom app, you decide what features are right for your school community. Perhaps it makes more sense for you to create a distinct app for the various school programs or extracurricular activities, like athletics, music, or the school paper. The possibilities are only limited by your creativity and imagination. As long as you have new information to share with your community, keeping your app users engaged is quite easy.

Get started

Recent reports claim that by the end of 2013, smart phones, tablets, laptops and other internet-capable mobile devices will exceed the number of humans on earth. Educators continuously face the challenge of keeping parents and the greater school community involved and informed, so it's crucial for schools to have the ability to connect with parents and students where they are most accessible—which is on their phones. Creating an app is a simple, inexpensive, and most of all, an effective way to communicate all the hard work, activity, and achievements happening at schools today.

Steve Young is the Chief Technology Officer at Judson Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. His app, Judson ISD Connect, was created using the Conduit Mobile platform and has won several accolades, including a Webby Award, Lovie Award, and Horizon Interactive Award.

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