Build It Yourself

Lynn U., halfway through dropping its learning management system for iTunes U, develops its own software where Apple's falls short.

September 24, 2014
Lynn University
A mockup of Lynn U.'s attendance tracker.

When Lynn University couldn’t find a suitable gradebook and attendance-tracking application to fit its tablet-first campus, the institution decided to build one itself.

Lynn is now two years removed from hosting the third presidential debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, an event that prompted a major renovation of the university’s networking infrastructure. Since then, Lynn has gradually replaced textbooks with iPad minis, using content produced by its own faculty members hosted on Apple’s course management platform, iTunes U.

The move to a tablet-centric model has not been without its growing pains. This winter, Lynn announced it would drop its learning management system, Blackboard Learn, and replace it with iTunes U -- even though that platform doesn’t offer a way to track attendance or grades.

Discussion of State of the LMS

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Apple remains an enigma to schools and universities that want to go all-in with its products. If the company wanted a larger slice of the education market, the hard work is already done. Its smartphones, computers and tablets are a staple in virtually every lecture hall, and the devices are supported by the largest mobile app ecosystem. Yet as Google inches toward what could become a viable learning management system, Apple appears firmly uninterested in that segment of the ed-tech software market.

While faculty members and students would like to see more customization options in their learning management systems, Apple’s software is defined by the company’s “walled garden” approach -- Apple determines how its software should be used, and users sign on to those restrictions.

Lynn therefore had to look to other providers. The university considered a number of replacements to plug the hole in its suite of administrative software. It looked at software from Jenzabar, which provides the university’s student information system; Canvas, Instructure’s learning management system; even apps in the K-12 space, such as Edmodo.

“We really didn’t find any enterprise-ready solution that would work the way we envisioned it working for us,” said Chris Boniforti, Lynn’s chief information officer. “We decided late in the spring that we ought to just go and try to build this ourselves.”

A Lynn spokeswoman said the homegrown app will save the university $15,000 a year on licensing costs. A new system would have cost twice what the university paid to develop the app, she added.

The beta product, created in partnership with the local web development firm Vconnex, shows the university picked the bare essentials over bolt-on software. The HTML5 web application was designed for iPad minis, but can be accessed on any device with an internet connection. It speaks to the university’s databases, meaning it automatically populates classes with rosters pulled from the student information system, and registers grades and attendance once faculty members input the information -- in other words, no need to enter grades into the learning management system and the student information system.

It is, simply put, an attendance and gradebook application. It doesn’t even have its own name. (University president Kevin M. Ross has suggested “Merlin” -- or perhaps “MerLynn” -- a complement to the institution’s nickname, the Fighting Knights. The name has yet to catch on.)

“Frankly, if it’s a grading and attendance app, then it’s doing really well,” said Joseph Ingles, assistant professor of business management. Ingles is one of eight faculty members piloting the app this fall.

On a typical day of class, Ingles said he has the app open on his tablet as students file into the room. He marks the students as present, absent or excused with a few taps. Since the app is also tied to Lynn’s card access system, faculty members can see pictures of students in their classes (or at least what they looked like as freshmen). At the end of the day, Ingles said he double-checks how he marked students in case some walked in late or were excused.

Boniforti said Lynn and Vconnex wanted to copy Apple’s flat design language, but the app still gains a splash of color from a feature that resembles an early warning system. As faculty members log grades and absences, the information turns red, yellow or green depending on students’ performance. After a student misses three classes in a row, the app sends a notification to the student, the instructor and an adviser.

“I know for a fact that if I had a kid who’s going from yellow to red, that’s a kid who’s in a little bit of trouble,” Ingles said. “From a teacher’s standpoint, one of the things that happens if you have five-six classes with 40 kids in each class [is] it’s really easy to let those things slide through the cracks. This app makes it so you can’t, because you’re looking at the iPad and it’s throwing up a big red flag saying ‘This kid’s falling behind -- pay attention.’ ”

Should the pilot prove successful, Lynn will use the app in all its undergraduate courses next spring. Beyond that, the university may choose to license the app to other institutions.

“I think we’re open to it,” Boniforti said. “There might be opportunities for other institutions that want to have a mobile-first environment.”


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