The number of mobile apps continues to soar and they’re quickly becoming a big part of how we communicate and get stuff done. Whether you are planning your weekend using the Weather Channel app or looking up deals on the Cartwheel app, we’ve grown to depend on mobile apps to make our lives easier.
You’ve all but decided your school or district is green-lighting a mobile app because you know it’s going to improve communication, and you know a school mobile app can help you reach more parents. You have a website, emergency notifications, emails and other means of sending information, so what features do you need on your app? Is the mobile app simply the latest shiny object to make parents happy because they asked for it?
You need to make sure your mobile app works for your school. The goals for a mobile app can vary from school to school, but access to school info and one-to-one engagement are what it's all about. For example:
- Registering for a school event
- Checking a lunch menu
- Reminding parents to vote for a levy
- Promoting a fundraiser
- Checking and syncing the school calendar with your personal calendar
Public or private, urban or suburban, large or small, there are core features that every school should have in their mobile app.
As with a school website, a notification system, or any tech-dependent product, not all mobile apps are created equal. A mobile app might have many features, but – like a school website full of design mistakes – if it does not provide the primary features you need effectively, it is just another overrated and underutilized tool in your school’s communications chest. If a mobile app is done right, it can be your biggest asset for communication and become a self-serve portal for everyone.
Before I drill down into the top features you should be looking for, keep in mind the overall goal here is to help streamline communication to parents, students and the community.
Here are seven must-have school mobile app features you should insist on from your mobile app provider:
1. Tight integration
Yes, integration is a feature and potentially the most important one. Integration is what makes it possible to provide targeted information to your parents, students, faculty and staff. You should have the ability to send info that’s specific to various audience segments (e.g., a school-by-school basis, grade-level, etc.) so that the info the recipients get applies to them.
Integration can also make it easy for you to manage how information is shared. Integration can vary in terms of how tightly it is tied into your other channels – such as your school website. If done correctly, such website-mobile app integration can keep you from managing information from multiple fronts, or worse yet, having duplicate information that can be a liability.
From a user perspective, it is beneficial to have a your website pages easily accessible from the mobile app. This will require the website to be in responsive design format which will make it easy for the user to stay within the mobile app to find what they are looking for. A good school mobile app will allow the user to pretty much get to any page on the website through the mobile phone.
2. Very useful calendar
Do you use your phone to check your calendar? A mobile device has calendar written all over it, and what better place to have your calendar than in your hands. A calendar can be the most popular feature on your mobile app. Parents, students, faculty and staff can easily add events right to their calendar using their mobile device.
When looking at mobile apps for your school, make sure the calendar feature is solid and user friendly. Simple things like big buttons and showing the correct calendars can be very important. Imagine if you had seven schools and a district and you have two kids in an elementary school. You don’t want to force your visitors to sift through all the schools and their respective events to find the info about their school.
Also make sure it looks and works like a native calendar on your mobile device. For example, if you look at iPhone’s built-in calendar, it is simple, touch friendly and easy to navigate. Your school mobile app calendar will need to provide an easy way for someone to click a button on an event and add it to the calendar. They need to work hand and hand.
3. Easy-to-use directory
Just like the calendar, a directory is a hot spot and a feature that needs to work well. If you are on a phone, the directory feature should allow you to quickly search for an individual and click a phone number or an email button to automatically reach that person. Again, it is nice if you can display the contacts that are relevant to the mobile app user instead of loads of unrelated faculty and staff.
In addition to the ease of use to the users, the information for all of the contacts should pull from your school's centralized data. While a lot of apps may allow you to upload a CSV file, what happens when faculty and staff contact info changes? In order to have this done effectively, you will need to integrate the directory with your school system.
4. Access to grades
We all agree that parent involvement is critical to improving your school. Involvement can start with parents being in tune with their child’s grades. Beyond grades and test scores, checking in on homework assignments is a great functionality for a mobile app.
A mobile app may or may not provide a perfect integration to this because of several SIS factors, but at a minimum you need to provide a link to your school’s grade system. In a perfect scenario, you have integration with the grade system and you have a single sign on with the mobile app. There are so many systems that it is difficult if 100 percent integration is achievable, but a grade portal with responsive design will certainly help.
5. Targeted push notification
It is safe to say no one wants to install a mobile app that sends a bunch of one-size-fits-all messages. They want an app that keeps them engaged with relevant information. This requires settings to be predetermined based on an app login or the ability for the parent or student to adjust their settings. This needs to be intuitive for the user, and it is important to communicate this when downloading and installing.
On the other side of the app, you need the ability to segment your messages. Depending on your school or district, if you can empower various people to send push notifications to their related schools members, that is a big plus. Some systems even have the luxury of workflows and approval processes.
6. Latest news, photos and videos
This sounds obvious, but this is an opportunity to promote the latest happenings through words, pictures and videos. This needs to fit into all other forms of your communication. In a perfect world, you can promote your message from a single spot and it will be shared in all of the channels. For example, imagine you need volunteers for a school carnival. You create a page on your website, broadcast a message, and everything will also be available on your mobile app. You can even include a form for parents to fill out directly on the mobile app.
Photos and videos are great ways to spread the word for engagement. Video consumption on mobile devices is way up, and will continue to soar. If photos and videos are or will be part of your school’s communication, make sure your mobile app can accommodate them.
7. Social media connections
Schools are quickly embracing social media and using it to engage their school families and the community at large. While a majority of people have dedicated social media mobile apps on their phones, the benefit of a mobile app is to make it easier for users to access these accounts. You might have a school Instagram account, or a school Youtube channel, both of which can be linked to your mobile app.
An important factor for the mobile app is its ability to recognize your type of phone and directly link to the actual social media app such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Many mobile apps will launch a browser instead of the mobile app.
With everyone’s increasing dependence on mobile apps, it’s high time your school start giving serious consideration to one. It’s an important part of your web communications mix, for, if integrated the right way, can enhance the impact of your website, social media, and other online communications.
Regardless of the size or type of your school, I suggest that before your begin your search, keep in mind the features you’ll need the most, and find a mobile app provider who can deliver those.
Your school needs to be on your parents’ phones. Just make sure you do it right.
For related articles:
- Responsive Web Design or Mobile App for My School
- 3 Keys to Consider before Selecting a School Mobile App
- How a School Mobile App Can Help Reach Parents
As co-founder of Campus Suite, Steve believes behind every great school is great communication. His tech savvy and passion for design fuel his desire to help administrators understand, embrace and seize the power of web communications.