How Stony Brook U. launched a successful mobile app for student engagement
More than 60 percent of freshmen walking the Stony Brook University campus in New York this fall downloaded the new Guide app onto their smartphones — a type of personal college advisor in their pockets. But Stony Brook isn't the first institution to take up this trend.
Maximizing student outreach by researching, testing and choosing the right application
Actually, it's one of 50 schools throughout the U.S. to be an early adopter of Guide, which helps students choose the right major, navigate requirements from financial aid to course registration, make advising appointments and stay on top of important dates and deadlines. About 5,100 Stony Brook students — half of which were new and the other continuing students or upperclassmen — downloaded the free app.
College staff spent about six months developing the app, which allows students to choose different paths and personalize the experience, whether the users are incoming freshmen, seniors approaching graduation, international students or transfer students.
Assistant Provost Stefan Hyman worked for years to boost digital recruitment and communications efforts, and says he believes an umbrella app was the way to go.
“We had a dozen different apps around the university with information about everything from transportation or the best place to do laundry,” he said. “What we lacked was an app that tied together all aspects of the student experience.”
School administrators first became aware that EAB, or the Education Advisory Board company, was looking for schools to serve as early adopters of the Guide app in 2016. Stony Brook launched Guide through an EAB grant at no cost to the school. Today, the app is most popular with new students, less so with upper-level student who may think they already know all they need to.
Once students download the app, they take a personal survey which asks, among other things, about their goals and whether they are new or returning students. They see different information based on their replies.
“That’s unfortunate,” Hyman said. “We’d really like to get more upper division students on board [...] we built a lot of information into the app."
Tapping into features that make student academic and personal life easier
So far, one of the most popular features of the app is a major explorer, which includes a survey on subjects they are most interested in and then suggests a list of majors, as well as potential jobs, hiring demands in those fields, and transferable skills to consider.
Another popular feature links students to existing software to schedule advisor appointments, so users can avoid long lines in advisement offices. Students also can download their class schedules into their phones each semester, Hyman said. Guide’s academic calendar feature also integrates with a student’s smartphone to keep track of everything from class registration to fun events, such as a concert or Earthstock, the Earth Day celebration.
Of course, there’s a ton of campus information that could easily overload students, Hyman notes, so app creators were careful about the info they included and how it was displayed.
“This is a mobile app,” he said. “No one wants to read dense paragraphs. And if you send out a ‘push’ notification every five minutes, students will be turned off.”
To make the app student-centric, Hyman created a committee made up of staff and students to make recommendations, and eventually reached out to other university stakeholders as well.
“You need to think about what your goals with the app are,” he said. “You have to control the content, and not include stuff that isn’t of interest to students. Don’t put in content just because one department thinks it’s important.”
“We were strategic about using the app to help students reach their academic goals and to reach graduation in four years,” he continued. “We also wanted to include other facets of student life and student activities.”
Marketing to ensure widespread engagement
School administrators also did rigorous outreach and marketing to make students aware of the Guide app. And, the effort paid off, says Hyman. Stony Brook has the highest number of page views among early adopters, despite being a smaller-sized school. It also has the highest monthly retention rate.
“We really believe the app gives students better access to all we have to offer, which makes students more engaged in their education, which is great for the school,” Hyman said. “The app also allows advisors to have a more personal connection to students.”
For example, a recent student survey asked whether they had used an advanced sign-up for classes for the spring semester. If a student indicated they were having trouble registering, the information was shared with an advisor who could reach out.
“That happened just the other day,” Hyman said. “And even though this student was studying abroad and that was the reason they hadn’t yet registered, they were really grateful someone had reached out to them. At a large university, students may feel like they are just a number. The app helps drive home the concept that we are really here for them.”