Using web apps to enhance the student experience

Research and Development Manager Tom Inkelaar reports on a web app workshop devoted to improving student support
University of London staff taking part in the workshop
University of London staff taking part in the workshop

A recent Centre for Distance Education one-day workshop investigated how the use of relatively low-tech, cost effective e-learning resources can be used to support University of London programmes. The workshop gave attendees the chance to develop a mobile web app to support their work, most with a focus on improving student support.

Eighteen staff from the University of London, including various International Programmes departments, King’s College London, University College London and Birkbeck, spent a day developing their ideas with Appshed, one of a number of development platforms available. This article will have a closer look at the development process, including the applications that came out of the workshop.

The app world

There are currently around 900,000 apps on Apple’s App store1 and one million on the Google Play Android store2.  These are known as ‘native apps’, applications developed for specific platforms which can be downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet.  The apps developed at this workshop were web apps (i.e. applications accessible through a web browser), which can be made available via Android or Apple stores with some further development.  Around 10% of the apps in the Apple store are categorised for education3, which equates to nearly 100k individual applications (some paid and some free).  Along with similarly-focused Android and web apps available, there is clearly a great desire from app developers to make use of the technology for students and learning (be they institution-based or for-profit applications), and relative demand from consumers to download and use the apps themselves. In general terms smartphone and tablet use is increasing globally4, and worldwide app use is predicted to increase by nearly 30% a year up to 20175. As new teaching and learning technologies like MOOCs offer up the possibility of greater and greater student numbers, the need to offer additional virtual services to students – whether simple or complex  may become more vital.  

App development workshop

So what about the apps from our University of London workshop? Most of those produced (75%) were aimed at students at the developers’ own institutions; however a quarter of all applications could be used by any students. Apps were mainly designed either to offer help and support to users, or to share information. However, based on the categories of apps as listed in the Apple App Store, the functions were more varied: 50% were considered for education or for reference, a third were designed either for productivity or communication and 17% were considered multimedia apps. 

Regarding the development itself, developers generally found the design process easier than expected (69%). In addition, three quarters of developers stayed largely true to the ideas that they initially submitted in order to gain a place on the workshop. For those that did not, the main reasons for changing included reconsidering the audience needs, limitations of the technology, and adjustments and improvements made during the development of the application.

The proposed applications

Copyright and permissions guide
A quick reference guide/flow chart to allow users to identify what copyright permissions and attribution they need to be aware of before using their resources. Link to app:

Copyright guru app

Information literacy and research skills tutorials on the go
A central area for students to make use of information literacy tutorials on the go and learn research skills. Link to app:

Literacy and research skills app

Personal details update app
A simple app to guide a student through the process of updating their personal details (via Portal/SITS). It will help students to navigate to the correct screens to update personal details such as title, nationality and country. The app also illustrates how a student can modify their home/contact address and their address for the delivery of learning materials. Link to app:

change details app

Study planning and scheduling app
Organising time and workload require particular attention and may affect an individual’s potential for course success. This is a University of London-orientated study-planning app for students, with access to examination scheduling in the form of a personal diary.

Reading list and pdf sources
Students currently get hard copy or online PDF versions of essential and further reading lists for their courses or modules. This app would show interactive lists that will connect students to PDF sources on the VLE, would link to an online bookshop for readings and provide access to a student ‘forum’ section for sharing links, files or other information regarding readings/references.

Student planning and progress logging for personal and professional development
An app that would enable users to amend a development plan (e.g. post a quick update relating to progress they have made or a specific achievement of relevance) seamlessly and to keep a cumulative record of such entries.

English Language Centre app
A pre-arrival app for students who are about to start a course at the English Language Centre at King's. It will cover basic information about the course, introduction videos from staff and include maps and information about things to do in London.

Student committee member information
A companion app for student members on University of London International Programmes committees, containing briefings on the roles, background information, a calendar for meeting dates (with push notifications), committee papers/agendas, further useful resources and perhaps some contact/feedback/forum functionality. 

International Programmes teaching institutions information
An app based on International Programmes’ directory of institutions aimed at making access to information about teaching institutions simpler on the go.

Online tutorial support system
An app offering an online tutorial support system in which each of the Institute of Psychiatry’s taught MSc programmes could make available tutorial text messages and possibly short tutorial ‘talking head’ style video clips to users, helping to keep students (particularly those living far off campus) updated on course administrative matters (e.g. essay submission deadlines) as well as giving ‘bitesize’ nuggets of supplementary learning material to augment what they learn in lectures.

Other examples of University apps

  • Mobile Oxford – information on both the University and the City of Oxford.
  • Imperial Mobile – information and services for Imperial College students. 

Lessons from the development process

The development process for our workshop revealed a few useful considerations to bear in mind if you are thinking about your own mobile apps:

  • Try to focus on the user journey – you are not your user!
  • Keep it simple.
  • Devices, environment and connectivity are likely to be very varied across users – especially in a global distance learning context.
  • Size limitations – how much room do you have on the screen? On an ipad the various icons might look nice and big, but on a smartphone they might be too small to see or interact with.
  • How sophisticated is your content? Is the functionality you want the app to display achievable within the likely limitations of both the platform and the end user device?
  • How easy is it to navigate throughout the app? The time on individual mobile apps per session can be as little as a minute on average6 so it’s important to make sure users can make their way around as quickly and easily as possible.

For more information on any of the above please contact Visit for more information on the development platform, including online tutorials for setting up your own app. With thanks to Jonathan San Diego (King’s College London) and Torsten Stauch (Appshed).