Over the last few years, higher education-oriented mobile applications have been booming. Corporations and student-led groups have been developing software to make students’ lives easier by combining useful campus information and other goodies pulled from web portals, and making it all instantly available at your fingertips.
Keeping McGill on your homescreen
McGill is no exception to this trend, having placed an order with Oohlala – a successful student startup that creates customized mobile apps for universities. In early September, Oohlala released the “McGill App” and it became the official McGill mobile app, available for free download on both Android and iOS devices. At around the same time, Appvelopers, a group of McGill student developers, released MyMartlet, which has no official affiliation to the University.
The apps have created a social media buzz over the past few months, but how do they compare, and more importantly, which one really deserves a spot on your phone?
Reviewing the two contenders
One intriguing aspect about the MyMartlet app is that it works directly with the MyMcGill portal. This implies that after you’ve provided your McGill email and password, it can pull every last bit of information from your detailed course schedule to your eBill history and push it to your screen. It’s evident that the developers really put a lot of effort into making the interface as user-friendly as possible, resulting in a simple-to-use piece of software that will get you where you want to be in a fraction of the time you’d spend on the official MyMcGill portal.
The app also features an efficient course registration system that allows you to swiftly search through the available courses and register, or add them to a “course wishlist” for later reference. Every search returns a list of course sections that includes the course identification number, the schedule, and the number of credits, which is a great upgrade from the sometimes messy search results obtained through Minerva. Also, note that the schedule system mimics Google Agenda, and includes information (such as the instructor’s name, the location, and a link to the Docuum page for the course) in each entry to save you the trouble of searching for it on Minerva or elsewhere.
While MyMartlet focused on seamless integration with the student portal, the McGill App went the social media route. No direct communication is ever made between the application and the University’s website; instead, your information is kept on the developer’s server as a profile. The app also serves as a 411 directory, with listings to different services and offices. The main perk of this approach is that you can chat and share your schedule with your friends if they use the app, but the inevitable price is that you have to enter your schedule manually. Moreover, Minerva or MyCourses data is only accessible through the classic desktop version of the MyMcGill login page inserted in the app’s window. In that respect, the McGill App is more of an attempt at building a social network than making the student portal more accessible. Usability is greatly reduced by this, as it really is a hybrid between Facebook and a regular agenda widget with a link to the University’s website. However, the app makes it easy to search for exam schedules, a feature currently not available on the MyMartlet app.
Unfortunately for the iOS users out there, MyMartlet is currently only available on Android, while the McGill app is present on both marketplaces. However, iOS and Windows Phone versions of the app are on the way.
Meeting the developers
While Oohlala did not respond to The Daily’s request for an interview, the team behind MyMartlet agreed to a face-to-face meeting to talk about their experience producing the app from the ground up.
Their project started out as a course project for a Software Engineering Practice class. At first, they recall, the features to be implemented were driven by one question: “what do students need?” Julien Guerinet, the “Android guru” of the group, said, “At the start of the semester, what do you want to know? You need access to your schedule because you are forgetting that constantly, and a map of campus with markers for the main buildings can help new students go around without getting lost. Then, access to eBills becomes handy and by the end of the semester, you want to keep an eye on your transcript.” Nearing the end of the spring semester, the developers had a basic version of MyMartlet that they thought would primarily be a tool for them to simplify their McGill lives.
Over the following eight months, they gathered information from their pool of beta-testers and from their growing user base to add more and more features, up until the moment where the app was ready to go public and be published on the Android app store.
Being a not-for-profit group, they had to synchronize their busy schedules, but managed to meet regularly to discuss the next fixes or features. Moreover, being unaffiliated with the McGill administration meant that they had one large challenge ahead of them from the very beginning: pulling data from the portal without having access to the official API (code which is used to build apps for websites). They worked on the MyMcGill portal tirelessly to figure out how it functioned, and ended up solving that problem without ever having to ask McGill for the keys to the kingdom. Anyone who knows about app development knows that is an extremely impressive feat to accomplish in such as short amount of time and, more importantly, with very limited resources.
From the team’s point of view, apps geared toward institutions are very important for the educational ecosystem. While mentioning social media-related features to be implemented in the future, they stressed the importance of building a solid community. Apps such as MyMartlet can contribute to the togetherness of a school by providing information about opportunities given to students and keeping everyone in the loop on what’s happening around campus. A club or student organization is gaining traction among students? Let’s notify everyone so that anyone interested can join up!
Tips for aspiring developers
Concluding the interview, the team came up with advice for aspiring developers out there. First, set yourself a goal. It may be small and only for your own benefit, “like an app that displays your Facebook pictures.” Through these sets of small goals, you learn the development process bit by bit, and, at some point, you can gather what you know and make something great. They also mentioned a thing or two about running into problems, the most valuable of which was, “if you have a problem, someone else probably had the same exact issue in the past.” That’s when development communities like StackOverflow come into play, as they provide tons of useful information. In the same spirit, Google is your best friend! Countless tutorials are available online to get you through the basics and even through some of the more complicated stuff.
The students of Appvelopers also hold regular office hours during which they work on the app, listen to feedback, and make their knowledge available to the curious. The location and schedule for these office hours are available through their Facebook page.
If you have to make the ultimate decision between the McGill App and MyMartlet, definitely go for MyMartlet. Not only is it extremely well-made, but it gathers all your data for you, allowing you to check information swiftly before moving on with your busy schedule. As students, we should really embrace these apps because, if anything, they have the potential to make our daily grind a thousand times simpler. Once they become popular and their user base grows, they could increase our connectivity as a community by improving campus communication and thus making sure that opportunities on campus will never go unnoticed. Finally, if anything, the success of MyMartlet should serve as a lesson to McGill: the community always produces the best initiatives because it knows more than anyone else what it needs.