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Creating a university app: Imperial College case study

21 September 2012

Increasing numbers of universities are either building apps for their students from scratch or customising existing apps made by specialist companies. This case study examines the experiences of Imperial College, whose ICT and Communications experts opted for the latter option a year ago.

iPad with app icons spelling out 'The future is mobile'

The product

  • The ‘template’ app is called iCU, built by CampusM, and it works on iPhone, Android and Blackberry.
  • Examples of features: live campus PC availability, course timetable, library book renewal, Moodle connectivity, university radio station, friend finder (on a permission-only basis using GPS), static reference material.
  • The first time the app runs, the user will see an introduction demonstrating how to use the key features. This can be tailored by the university.
  • Students can download information when it suits them – for example they can wait until they have wifi, download a document and then read it when offline. The app also caches each time it connects so students can use it even when they don’t have any reception, particularly useful for London tube users.
  • The app enables universities to reach students via push notifications. This is a good way of grabbing students’ attention and is arguably more difficult to ignore than an email.
  • Detailed usage statistics are available through the analytics tool.
  • Making changes to the app is relatively easy and you don’t have to republish through the app store every time you edit something.
  • The app is licensed on an annual subscription basis plus there’s a one-off set-up fee. David Stephenson, CampusM’s Commercial Director, estimates that it will cost a university between £10,000 and £50,000 per year, depending on the level of functionality.

The case study

Imperial College staff were given the go-ahead to create Imperial Mobile, a university-specific version of iCU, in April 2011. There were just 12 weeks between the date the contract was signed and the launch in September 2011.

A team comprising staff from IT Services and Communications decided that location information and a pocket guide containing static data were ‘musts’; everything else went into ‘could’ and ‘should’ categories with as many supplementary features as possible being added in the time available.

Why mobile apps matter

  • At the end of 2010, smartphones outsold PCs for the first time
  • 468 million smartphones were sold in 2011, a figure which will grow to around 630 million by 2015
  • Globally there are 1 billion app downloads per month
  • There will have been 77 billion app downloads by 2014
  • "It's no longer for a luxury for a university to have a mobile presence - if you want to be a leader, it's essential." (Torsten Stauch, Appshed)

Each element of the app, from the ‘friend finder’ function to the welcome week page, was one team member’s responsibility. Saul Batzofin, ICT Programme Manager at Imperial College, reports that this system of individual accountability worked well. The team sat together for the duration of the project and convened once a day to discuss ideas, making decisions based on popular consensus; there was also a more formal, 15-minute weekly meeting at which a rolling action/issues list was discussed and where attendance was optional.

A group of five testers was recruited and each person was given a mobile device which they were allowed to keep afterwards, provided they participated fully in all the testing exercises, the last of which involved a formal session where everyone sat in the same room and tested things together.

The app went live at the start of the Autumn 2011 term, and it focused on three main areas:

  1. Location-based services, including live PC availability and a friend finder tool (this was opt-in only).
  2. Essential information, including pocket guides, welcome week, library catalogue and a staff contact details directory.
  3. Dynamic feeds, including an announcements blog from the Students’ Union, Twitter and news feeds.


The app was targeted at new students only, and was heavily promoted via online ads on the Students’ Union webpage, departmental homepages (this was up to individual departments), the university homepage (this generated 40,000 hits, though Batzofin is puzzled as to who these people were seeing as Imperial has just 14,000 students), social media (the app was particularly popular with Facebook users), a stall at the Freshers’ Fair, and mentions from senior staff in induction speeches.

Thirty per cent of first-year students registered, with 70% using iPhones, 20% android and 10% using the web app. The map service and PC availability were the most popular features, closely followed by the friend finder.

While detailed analytics figures for usage patterns over the year are unavailable, Batzofin strongly suspects that usage dropped off after the first month. The aim for the academic year 2012-2013 is to make the app more ‘sticky’ – in other words, something that students will want/need to use throughout their time at university.

A key change for the new 2012 version is that students will be able to complete course and staff evaluation forms on the app, a move that will hopefully increase response rates. There will also be transport info, including bus departures, underground status updates and Boris bike availability. In the future, Batzofin and his colleagues hope to be able to create audience-specific versions of the app.

Alternative options

  • AppShed allows you to build your own app online without having to get into any coding. It uses HTML5 so is compatible with both Android and iOS. It’s free to use but the company will charge a few hundred pounds if you want to provide your product via an app store.
  • GoMo by Epic is the only app-authoring tool in the world that allows you to design once but deliver to multiple platforms. Clients include Visa, BA and Burberry from the private sector and Oxford, Birmingham and Leicester universities. The NHS has used GoMo to provide staff training packages and pharmaceutical guidance with great success and some students are even charging for their apps, creating a useful revenue stream.

This information was gathered at the ‘Mobile Apps and E-Readers Showcase’, hosted by the Centre for Distance Education and held at Senate House on September 20th 2012.

By Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 21 sep 12 15:36


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