The research lab in your pocket: apps and the academy

Apps created by and for the academy could turn smartphones into essential academic tools for everything from teaching and citations to social-science fieldwork. Sarah Cunnane reports

July 28, 2011

Credit: Bruno Mallart/Getty

When George MacKerron set out to investigate how people's happiness is affected by their environment, he hit upon the idea of using mobile phones. What if an application could be developed to ask study participants - at regular intervals - how they were feeling, where they were and who they were with?

The research project Mappiness does just that via an app that beeps phone owners once or more a day to enquire about their state of mind while simultaneously taking a noise measurement and tracking the participant's location with global positioning system technology. Richard Layard, the British economist and Labour peer known for his research on well-being, has described the project as "a revolutionary research idea", but for MacKerron, the concept was obvious.

"The technology was there: it seemed a no-brainer," says the PhD researcher at the London School of Economics.

What took MacKerron by surprise was the scale of the response. At the start of the project, he and his supervisor Susana Mourato had a "crazy pipe dream" that it might be possible to get as many as 3,000 people to volunteer to participate in the project. Instead, to date nearly 43,000 people have experienced "the warm glow of helping increase the sum of human knowledge", in the words of the Mappiness website.

It is now nearly four years since Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive of Apple, announced that his company would be allowing third-party mobile apps to be developed for its newly released iPhone.

At the time, he predicted the move would lead to "hundreds of new applications" for iPhone owners, but this too proved to be something of an underestimate: today, almost 500,000 different apps are available for download on iTunes.

Thanks to apps, it is now possible to play Sonic the Hedgehog or read Times Higher Education on your mobile device. You can even turn your phone into a virtual pint of beer or a Star Wars lightsabre if that is what your heart desires.

As apps have grown in popularity, there has been an increase in the use and discussion of such software within the academy. As well as research, apps are being used by academics to help with teaching and administration, and as a new way to engage with the public. Rob Spence, associate head of the department of English and history at Edge Hill University, has discovered a series of apps that help him manage his busy week.

One, called Evernote, allows him to keep track of notes and interesting titbits that he picks up throughout the day.

"I was forever scribbling down notes on bits of A4 paper and then losing them and thinking: 'I'm sure I wrote something down about that,'" he says.

Evernote allows users to take "notes" in the form of sounds, pictures, text, websites or even handwritten sentences that can then be sorted into folders, tagged and edited.

The benefit, Spence finds, is being able to keep on top of things that may prove relevant at a time when people are being "bombarded with education".

"It's a question of filtering and organising, and this is a good way of doing it," he says.

Another app that has proved useful for academics is Dropbox, which Spence says is currently "flavour of the month".

Dropbox uses cloud computing to allow file synchronisation. Put more simply, it allows users to save a file to a folder that can then be accessed at any other computer with Dropbox installed. This provides a secure and accessible way to store files without relying on a physical (and easily lost) USB (universal serial bus) stick, or the need constantly to email oneself updated versions of the same documents.

"It's great - just on the very simple level of being able to save your precious documents in a remote place you can access at any point," Spence enthuses.

Steve Greer, lecturer in drama, theatre and performance at Aberystwyth University, also uses Dropbox, and says that the app is helping to make him more productive.

"It is particularly useful being able to save things I want to read into my folder and synchronise before I go anywhere," he explains. "It means I can catch up on reading on, say, a train. It makes me far more productive on my journeys."

Greer has also found value in using an app called Quick Cite when writing papers. Quick Cite allows users to take pictures of books' barcodes. An email is then sent with the book's citation, which can be recorded in American Psychological Association, Modern Languages Association, Chicago or Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers styles.

"I now scan books I read automatically, so I've got a subfolder in my email when I go to write a journal paper or organise my teaching," Greer says. "It's like my own personal archive."

Despite this, Greer feels that academics do not always appreciate the opportunities offered by apps, even if they own smartphones.

"I think there are a lot of people walking around with these phones in their pockets who don't understand what they are capable of doing," he says.

Even if scholars are not using the technology, they still need to be aware of the culture shift caused by the use of advances such as apps and smartphones, argues Alec Hosterman, senior lecturer in communication arts at Indiana University South Bend.

"The nature of technology is such that something will come along in five years or so and we will forget about apps. However, I think that what these apps are doing is changing our cultural perception of the interface between user and device."

Peter Abrahams, professor of clinical anatomy at the University of Warwick, understands the potential of apps without feeling the need to use them himself. Abrahams is the star of Aspects of Anatomy, an iPhone and iPad reference app that combines videos, quizzes and written information on the chest and upper limbs.

The app came about when Abrahams was looking for a way to preserve plastinated specimens that he had bought from the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens with a £500,000 grant.

"If you handle the specimens too much they deteriorate over time quicker than if you do not," he says. "These specimens have got to last a long time because we're not going to get another half a million from anyone in the next 10 years, that's for sure."

Abrahams made a series of video podcasts of the specimens. This in turn led to the development of an app that has become a hit with time-starved medical students. The portable format and short videos and quizzes allow them to study on the move or in coffee breaks.

Abrahams believes that the success of his app shows there is scope for academics in other fields to develop something similar. But he adds a caveat: "They need to think about how they do it. In anatomy, a lot of the apps have just been people taking pictures of flashcards and sticking them up. It's pathetic. These types of app are not using the medium at all."

He also advises those thinking of building an app to have their material fully prepared before they go to see an app developer. This, he says, will enable academics to ensure that their vision for the app is realised.

"I have had total control over the app and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had that, because it's me and my reputation on the line."

Abrahams has ensured that any profit made from the app will directly benefit his surgical training suite, showing that a successful app could also become a new source of funding for academics or departments.

Abrahams' app cost somewhere in the region of £20,000 to develop. Ken Punter, digital and online communications manager at Warwick, says that the university has learned from this experience, and has now moved to building apps in-house because it is more cost-effective.

Warwick Writers, an app that contains more than 40 years' worth of audio recordings of authors reading from and discussing their work, has become the first product to come out of the university's in-house app-building team, and is designed to be a resource for students, academics and the public. Punter says that app building at Warwick will continue to bridge teaching and public engagement in the same way.

"At the moment in higher education there is no hard and fast approach to how to use apps. Our approach has been that on one hand we can supplement our teaching; on the other, we can use apps to build brand awareness of Warwick," he says.

Building awareness of an institution and a course was also the reason behind the development of an app at Coventry University that allows members of the public to participate in a second-year module in photography called Picturing the Body.

The app, called #picbod, integrates tweets, photographs and podcasts, and allows people who are interested to follow the course in "real time" or at their own convenience.

Matt Johnston, teaching assistant in photography at Coventry, explains that the module has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, as well as its own website, but adds that the app has the ability to pull all this disparate information together.

"Sometimes you think there's all this great content but it's dotted around in slightly different places. We had all this great stuff going on and all of that information comes to one space in the app - it's a hub."

The added benefit of reaching out to more people through an app, Johnston says, is that it allows the 25 to 30 students on the course to gain experience and knowledge from some of the thousands of people who choose to interact with the module.

"Having that pool of knowledge is just great," he says.

The department plans to run the module again, beginning in February 2012, and plans have already been made for the development of another module - Photography and Narrative, or #phonar - in app form.

Johnston advises that good content is essential to making an app successful and for getting people involved.

"You can't just plonk everything online and hope it will automatically work, which I think is what some people do. There are quite a few open classes where the content going online just isn't good enough," he argues.

MacKerron's Mappiness app is part of the doctoral research being carried out at the LSE's department of geography and environment.

One of the reasons the numbers using the app far exceeded MacKerron's expectations was the fact that Mappiness was featured in the App Store, which exposed it to a far wider audience than would ordinarily have seen it. However, MacKerron warns that people wishing to launch an app should not bank on getting featured status, as Apple's criteria for bestowing this much sought-after visibility are "very opaque".

And while he is confident that more research may be done in the future through apps, the benefit gained through a boost in participant numbers is tempered by the fact that it is possible to recruit only iPhone users to the Mappiness project.

Research in 2010 by Yankee Group, an independent technology research and consulting firm, showed that the average age of a mobile phone user was 40. In contrast, the average age of a smartphone user was 34 when all such devices were taken into account, but this went down to 32 for iPhone users in isolation. In addition, a 2010 study of iPad users by digital marketing analysts comScore found that the largest demographic group was aged 25-34.

"I don't think there is a way of reaching a more varied cross section of society at the moment," MacKerron explains. "iPhone users tend to be younger and richer, on average, than the average member of society. You can see that in our datasets: 95 per cent of our respondents are under 55."

All those who have been involved in developing apps agree that academics and administrators alike should also take into account the amount of time a good app takes to build.

Abrahams estimates that his work on his app took up to 500 hours, including filming, editing and creating quizzes. Creating Mappiness, meanwhile, took up nearly half a year of MacKerron's time, from the beginning of development to its eventual launch in mid-2010.

Nevertheless, Johnston says that if there is passion behind the idea, the time frame should not deter those wishing to build a new app.

"It's absolutely fantastic to engage with some new people and I guess that's what I'd say to them: it works. It certainly has for us."

And MacKerron hopes that one day it will be possible for researchers to access data from existing apps. Apps built by commercial developers often collect a large amount of data. He cites the example of Sleep Cycle, an app that collects information on individual users' sleep patterns and sets an alarm to wake them when they are sleeping at their lightest.

If the ethical and legal barriers could be cleared, MacKerron suggests, data such as those collected by Sleep Cycle could be used for academic research. "If we could partner other apps, it could create a very interesting research project."

Before any of this, however, Greer believes that there is another hurdle to overcome: apps suffer from an image problem and can be seen as frivolous by academics.

"I think that there is a job to be done by people to explain how apps can make things easier and add value to teaching rather than just add to the distractions," he says.

Not by app alone: mobile phone-friendly websites are essential

It may be trendy to develop an app, but universities should not rush to do so before getting the basics right.

That is the view of Michael Fienen, director of web marketing at Pittsburg State University in Kansas, who argues that universities must ensure they have mobile phone-friendly websites before they even think about developing an app.

A website is likely to be the first port of call for students, but many institutions have yet to develop mobile versions.

Writing on the .eduGuru blog, Fienen says of developing apps: "If you have the resources, then go for it, but only if you feel you have done everything with a mobile website that you can."

Fienen warns that ignoring the advent of smartphones will not work.

"We can no more stop (the internet's) move to our handheld devices...than we can stop a landslide," he says.

"We cannot complain about the workload. We cannot whine about resources. We have to address it, and we have to nurture it, or we will eventually become a victim of it."

Describing the idea of a university without a website as "unimaginable", he says that society is just "a stone's throw away" from thinking the same about institutions without mobile websites.

Michael Fienen's top academic mobile sites

Virginia Tech

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

University of Oxford

Ohio State University

West Virginia University

Core business: Apple leads the market in app sales

Of the major mobile operating systems offering a platform for app downloads, Apple has far and away the biggest share of the market.

The App Store, launched in 2008, has facilitated more than 15 billion downloads of almost 500,000 apps and dominates the market, with an 82.7 per cent share in 2010.

However, there are alternative providers. Google Android has more than 200,000 apps and is favoured by some because its proportion of free apps is so high: nearly two-thirds are free to download, compared with only about a third of Apple's.

Although official figures put the number of Android apps at 200,000, other estimates have placed it closer to 400,000, with experts confidently predicting that the number available on Android will eclipse Apple in the next month or two.

BlackBerry's App World has the lowest number of apps of the four major retailers, but it boasts the largest revenue per app.

Nokia's Ovi Store is currently in the process of a rebrand to join the main Nokia brand. The Ovi Store facilitates about six million downloads a day.

Each platform charges third-party app developers a host fee. In most cases, this is a one-off, but Apple charges $99 (£62) a year.

All of the platforms also take a share of the revenue per app - currently 30 per cent, with the other 70 per cent going directly to the developer.

Where are you and what are you studying? Top scholarly tools

UK HE Stats

This app from the Higher Education Statistics Agency features a wealth of data about the UK academy from the 2008-09 and 2009-10 academic years. Information on staff and students can be broken down by country and university. (Free)


Building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare programme, which makes teaching material used in MIT's undergraduate and postgraduate courses freely available, this app aims to provide a "multidimensional" online experience. It provides access to a forum where visitors can leave ratings and reviews of the material. It also allows visitors to download videos for offline viewing - and to take notes and conduct web searches while watching. (Free)


Layar uses "augmented reality" to help people find out more about their surroundings using the cameras on their mobile phones. Several universities use the software in and around their campuses, including the University of Exeter, Edge Hill University, the University of Toronto, Aalborg University and Tilburg University. (Free)

ImageVis3D Mobile

One of a number of apps created by researchers at the University of Utah, this app uses images from Utah's Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute. Users can display, rotate and otherwise manipulate three-dimensional images of medical computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans, plus a range of scientific images. (Free)


The most popular of the apps that draw on's application-programming interface, this is billed as the "first fully functional free flashcard" app. It allows smartphone owners to create their own sets of electronic flashcards, and also gives students the option of downloading user-created quizzes in a range of subjects, including US college admissions tests. (Free)


Attendance does exactly what its name suggests: it is designed to help teachers take and keep attendance records. As well as allowing users to add and customise registers for different courses, it also offers a variety of ways to mark attendance beyond the basic absent/present option. (£2.99)

THE World University Rankings

This app from Times Higher Education gives easy access to the 200 universities listed in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, as well as indicative data on a further 200 institutions. In addition to ranked lists, there are individual datasets for each university. Users can search for institutions by using keywords or filters. (69p)


Originally launched as a desktop tool to help researchers index and organise papers, Mendeley launched its first iPhone app last year. The app allows iPhone owners to download papers for offline reading and to share citations. However, reviews suggest that the app does not yet have as many functions as the desktop version. (Free)

All prices are as on the App Store.

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