Just Like Starting Over: A Look Inside The KSU Kickoff App

By Jordan King
Oct. 19, 2018

When I think back to my first weekend as a Kent State freshman, I cringe a little bit.

Though it has been four years since I attended Kickoff (it was known as “Welcome Weekend” at the time), I can still remember how I felt walking around campus for the first time: attending convocation in the MAC; trying to remember the names of buildings; getting lost looking for my lecture halls; taking the esplanade all the way downtown and peaking into little shops; and anxiously meeting new people, wondering what we might have in common.

Most of all, I remember the uncertainty that surrounded those frantic couple days. What would my orientation week entail, and how could an incoming freshmen like myself adequately prepare for it?

Four years later, it is odd to think of Kent as being such a foreign land. In the vein of nostalgia, I asked some of my senior-status friends to sum up their Kickoff experience in just one word:

 

                       anxious                                                                      surprising                                                                     helpful

                      confusing                                                                   exploratory                                                                   uncertain

                      mind-blowing                                                            inviting                                                                         exhausting

                      insightful                                                                    jam-packed                                                                  exciting

 

These words echo a lot of my own feelings from orientation, which got me thinking: Kickoff is undoubtedly an excellent opportunity, as it provides students with a unique way to explore campus before the school year begins; but consequently, because there is so much to discover at Kent State, first-year orientation can be quite overwhelming for many students.

University’s Role

Kent State is well aware of this possibility, and as such, the university consistently seeks ways to improve the orientation experience.

Historically, Kickoff has not relied on a tech-specific component to help guide students through their first week.

But at Fall 2018’s Kickoff, that changed when Systems Development and Innovation teamed up with Student Success Programs to deliver an all-new Kickoff app that would radically transform the orientation experience. Designed exclusively for incoming freshmen, the app aims to ensure that students arriving at Kent for the first time can make the most of Kickoff.

Why a New App?

"The student experience is extremely diverse, with differing needs from one student to the next,” explains Josh Perkins, Assistant Director of Kent State’s Student Success Programs. “So, making the orientation experience as applicable and relevant to them as possible is our ultimate goal. We want students to walk away from orientation thinking, ‘That was a good use of my time.’”

Perkins tells me that, until now, much of the orientation information pertaining to campus maps and events taking place has not been centralized.

“Making the orientation experience as applicable and relevant to [students] as possible is our ultimate goal."

Indeed, at a campus as large as Kent State, physical documents outlining personalized student agendas simply might not be enough to keep incoming students ‘in the know’, as specific questions and concerns typically arise that cannot be answered in a “one size fits all” style brochure.

"So we wanted to create an effective way to minimize those questions and anxieties that incoming students have, and we wanted to do it all in one place.”

And because students in 2018 are engaging with applications on their phones more than any other format, Perkins shares that the idea to deliver an electronic way to experience campus “felt like the logical next step.”

Specifically, the app would serve as an immediate connection point that students can engage with, and in doing so, establish a better relationship between them and Kent State.

Of course, though building an app is exciting, it is by no means easy. As such, Perkins shares that he and his team had some reservations about the project during its initial conception.

"Once you commit to technology, there is an element of risk involved in that technology can be beautiful, but when it doesn’t work, it can be catastrophic,” Perkins says.

With this in mind, SSP knew that for a Kickoff app to be successful, it would have to be expertly engineered.

That’s where Information Services comes into play.

Building The App

"Student Success Services came to us with a need for a Kickoff app, and what followed was an eight week period of collaboration between his team and ours as we built it,” explains Michael Papania, Project Manager for Applications and Mobile Development within Systems Development, a branch of IS.

The eight week period Papania refers to was broken down into four sprint cycles that lasted two weeks each. Sprints are part of a project methodology which is a project timeline that is native to agile development.

During these weeks, Papania shares, SD&I worked closely with SSP to develop an app that would give students a comprehensive, easy to use digital experience. The development team met regularly with Perkins and his team to discuss the app’s development progress.

"It was a phenomenal experience working alongside SD&I,” recalls Perkins. “I was included in weekly meetings, which allowed me to be a part of the concept and its development, and they have been very inclusive throughout this whole process.”

In mid July, I got the chance to sit in on one of these meetings between SD&I and SSP.

Effectively, I got to see agile development in action:

  • SD&I was transparent in both its process and progress, showcasing mockups for the Kickoff app that had been developed since the previous week’s meeting
  • Perkins was able to ask questions and voice any concerns
  • The team answered questions and discussed logistical ways to approach these concerns through the app’s design.
  • Papania invited Perkins to stop back in or call during the week, should he have any more questions or new suggestions.

All of these elements allowed for a consistent communication channel was maintained between Perkins, the product owner, and the development team during this project.

Just three short weeks later, the KSU Kickoff was complete.

App Features

Intended to serve as a first impression of the digital KSU experience, the official Kent State Kickoff app provides incoming freshmen with access to exclusive information during orientation week.

Students are encouraged to download the app when they arrive for check-in on Sunday. From there, they can continue to engage with the app throughout their first week, helping them adjust to life at KSU.

In this way, the Kickoff app is similar to KSUMobile, yet it is specialized to coincide with orientation.

While KSUMobile is designed to be used for the duration of students’ time on campus, the Kickoff app helps students connect the proverbial dots of KSU one week before classes begin. In the process, students can become acquainted with KSUMobile’s interface before diving into the application headfirst.

Specifically, the app is geared toward event information, with features that include:

  • A list of all events that are taking place (including Blastoff, convocation, and other opportunities to become involved)
  • A customizable agenda based on what events each student is interested in attending. Options for notification reminders are available
  • Campus walking maps, which include building and parking space information
  • A Live Bus Tracker
  • A list of downtown businesses and available attractions

The Kickoff app also includes additional features specifically designed to assist incoming freshmen:

  • KSU ID information
  • A page linking to One-Stop, including financial resources and information that are available
  • Dining information (including dining hall locations and hours
  • First Year Experience room location information
  • Important numbers to university departments students may need to contact, including Campus Safety
  • A Help tab that allows freshmen to call or text questions; rings directly to Josh or one of the members of SSP who are available to provide immediate, real-time assistance 24/7

As Perkins and Papania express to me, respectively, all of the resources provided in the app are designed to be student-serving.

Perkins iterates, “We never want there to be a barrier for a student feeling like they can’t be successful at Kent State.”

Though each student has unique needs, there are places for them to find help on campus, the Kickoff app being a primary example.

Usage and Results

When the Kickoff app went live on Sunday, August 16th and students settled into campus for orientation, usage metrics, as shown below, reflected the necessity of building this app.

  • Total installs: 4,616
  • 87% of the incoming freshman population used the app
  • Between 8/18 - 8/21, an average of 3,235 active users each day
  • Total sessions: 83,294
  • 5.5% of sessions utilized the Support  feature, which included hundreds of calls and texts that were personally answered by SSP
  • 29% of sessions utilized the Profile  feature
  • 54% of sessions utilized the CampusMaps  feature
  • The Events  feature was utilized an average of 16, 383 times per day-- consistently averaging 18 times per minute across the 8-day period

What to Expect Next

Now that the app has successfully been launched and Kickoff 2018 has come to pass, freshmen are encouraged to use the KSUMobile app for the duration of their time on campus.

As for SD&I, Papania says he and his team are discussing the possibility of building off this project to enhance next year’s Destination Kent State program.

For SSP, Perkins emphasizes user choice as an area he hopes to expand upon in the app, which would allow the app to provide a more personalized experience for each user.

Perkins expresses that the Kickoff app will help inform Kent State in thinking of new and creative ways to offer programming to students.

With SD&I collaborating with various university departments to deliver cutting-edge products year-round, the possibilities are, to put it shortly, endless.