Increase Student Enrollment with Smartphone Delivered Degrees:

with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Frank Rojas | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 071

Table of Contents

Increase Student Enrollment with Smartphone Delivered Degrees

Offering smartphone delivered degrees in higher education is no longer just nice to have; it’s going to increase student enrollment and student success, rendering it a must-have.

Higher education online courses are under pressure to meet student needs through increasing online access, inclusion, and engagement. A study by Wiley and Education Dynamics published in June 2020 found that 74% of students in online programs wanted to use their mobile devices to engage in coursework. However, only 13% had done so. To meet this need, Los Angeles Pacific University (LAPU) has created its myLAPU app, a human-centered design effort built in partnership with Ready Education that allows students to complete their full degree on their smartphone.

Student-Centered Approach to Smartphone Delivered Degrees

LAPU prides itself on creating student access to education. To embrace and honor that mission, the university wanted to think differently about how students take courses. Leaders initiated myLAPU as a human-centered design project to remove the need for students to be connected to the internet via desktop or laptop to do their classwork. University leaders believed this new approach of smartphone delivered degrees would create a platform that would meet students both where they are at and when they are online so they can complete their coursework.

While this decision was in part a response to COVID-19, the pandemic also put a magnifying glass on what students want. LAPU serves adult learners, who had very full lives even before the pandemic. As COVID-19 emerged, these adults had the opportunity to work from home, but also faced numerous additional family responsibilities. The demands on students’ time continued to multiply.  This app gives adult learners an opportunity to engage in their coursework when and where they can, instead of having to fit their education into a set schedule.

Smartphone Degrees Grounded in Market Research

The creation of myLAPU was highlighted by an ideation process that focused on preparing and equipping students to undertake and complete their degree program—whether at the undergraduate or graduate level—from a mobile device. 

LAPU began the design process with market research to understand what students wanted and needed, as well as how they interfaced and interacted with their learning environment. In addition to researching students’ perspectives, project leaders assessed how to use smartphone technology in a meaningful way through utilizing good methodology and leveraging andragogy research on how adults learn.

The Creation Process for Smartphone Delivered Education

The real work to develop myLAPU was done upfront in determining the interface with students. Most learning management systems have smartphone capability. However, on a stand-alone, these systems do not solve for access, connectivity, presence, or community.

Using a 12-month exploratory process, LAPU put together a cross-functional project team that answered the question, “If we were stranded on a desert island with only a smartphone and Wi-Fi connectivity, could our students engage in our university’s ecosystem in a meaningful way?”

The university knew that this was possible in a technical way. However, to determine how to do this in a meaningful way, the university had faculty, staff and students analyze data collected from students. Through a process of data collection, analysis and refinement, the university was able to understand what was important for students to know, when they wanted to know and how they wanted to interface with the app. Four pillars emerged: accessibility, connectivity, presence, and community. The university began to identify how to integrate these four pillars into myLAPU.

Once data was collected, the technical side was the most straightforward part of creating the app. LAPU started to build the technology in-house and looked at other institutions that have initiated similar efforts to learn how to extend the work.

The myLAPU app integrates multiple information systems, including various student service functions as well as the institution’s learning management system. In addition to student service activities such as registering for courses, buying books, viewing, and paying student bills, learners can access their coursework, submit assignments and make discussion posts through the app. This is important because some students do not own laptops or desktop computers or have access to the internet through other platforms other than their smartphones.

In addition, the university has built community groups for students and is finding other ways to encourage interaction across the university system. LAPU leaders believe this approach will improve not only access but also enrich the learning experience through enhanced opportunities to engage when they can.

The myLAPU app went live in January 2021 and has been well-accepted. LAPU is continually refining the platform by gathering more data daily from students on what is meaningful for them, and they expect that it will help them to increase enrollment.

Managing Assessments for Smartphone Based Education

Accreditors require continuous improvement through a mix of formative and summative assessments, but the app has not changed the way that faculty do assessments for smartphone based education. Students take the same quizzes and tests, make the same posts, and are assigned the same papers. The app is essentially replicating the assessments that students do on their computer but instead allows them to use their mobile device.

As LAPU continues to improve the app, faculty and staff will look at assessments to determine how to enhance them. For now, students have the same experience when they are on a laptop, computer, and mobile device, but at some point, the institution will try to build assessments specifically designed for use on mobile devices that can still be supported on the laptop.

Faculty Response to Smartphone Delivered Coursework 

When the institution started myLAPU, the design focused on the student experience first to build out how that group of stakeholders wanted to interface with the technology and platform for smartphone delivered coursework.

MyLAPU is parallelly being built out to serve faculty and staff, using the same human-centered design approach that was used with students. This phase of the design process started with inquiring what was important to the faculty and staff.

The app allows faculty to have the same opportunity to interact with their students from a mobile device as from a desktop computer or laptop. They also can interface and replicate what they are doing using their mobile device and expected to lead to greater engagement by faculty with their students.

Faculty have not had any resistance to the app because they realize that this effort is about implementing good learning practices and methodologies and then applying them to the app. In many ways, LAPU is creating a system and platform that is a more convenient way for faculty to engage with students. This often does not happen in an asynchronous environment; however, myLAPU allows faculty to have a different level of presence with students and faculty have responded favorably.

Board Feedback on Smartphone Delivered Degrees

The board initially did not understand what the development of myLAPU would mean educationally for students. While there was a lot of initial optimism and enthusiasm, the board had a learning curve to understand the implications of the app for smartphone delivered degrees and how it would increase student enrollment.

The board soon realized that LAPU’s education is built on access, but if students do not have access to a computer or internet connectivity, they cannot have access to the education. The board was pleased that the institution is honoring its mission of being an accessible institution through myLAPU and supportive of the practical implications for both students and the institution.

Accreditation Standards for Smartphone Facilitated Education

This breakthrough technology is not affecting the institution’s accreditation. While LAPU has alerted WSCUC that smartphone facilitated education technology is being used, there is no change in how the institution is facilitating courses, student work, or the curriculum, and hence there is no need for undergoing the substantive change process. However, as the institution plans new programs, those efforts are being made with an eye to having those programs be 100% on mobile technology so accreditors will be kept in the loop.

myLAPU’s Future

Post-pandemic, this project will have increasing importance. The university is a faith-based institution that has identified caring as one of its biggest values. The app will enhance how the institution can care for students through real-time connectivity and presence.

In asynchronous learning, presence is often the gap. However, myLAPU offers more community engagement, which allows students to interface with each other and others beyond the entire institution. This also is increasing the university’s presence.

As a direct result of feedback from students, myLAPU now offers an opportunity for students as well as alumni and other stakeholders to engage and connect. For example, there is a general community group within the app where students can offer motivational ideas and tips. There also are groups for students who are in the military as well as discipline-specific programs, such as students enrolled in the MBA program. Another group is for moms who have children enrolled at LAPU.

University leaders also believe that myLAPU will become a differentiator for prospective students. Already, the project team is ideating how myLAPU can change interactions with prospective students. They are considering how the technology can be used from the time a prospective student starts thinking about attending the university and begins their research and then will continue through the admission process until the day they start classes.

LAPU’s leaders stress that myLAPU is not a technology project. LAPU focuses on students who are adult learners or post-traditional learners; these individuals have specific needs and ways that they want to engage. LAPU has listened and honored that feedback—and will continue to listen and incorporate students’ feedback into the future development of myLAPU.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

Takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Adult learners and post-traditional learners have specific needs. As the face of higher education continues to change and this group becomes a larger portion of enrollments, pay attention to what these learners are looking for. Many have post-secondary education experience and are committed to completing their coursework. Be prepared to hear what they are saying and meet them on their terms.
  • Cast a wide net when gathering data. Listen to what students say and then validate that with data. Be intentional in strategic initiatives through using a data-gathering process and then selecting who will bring initiatives to life.
  • Focus on human-centered design. People are at the core of these efforts and need to remain central for an institution to hit the mark with new projects and/or curriculum.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides distance and online education consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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