Sunday, July 12, 2015

It doesn't take a tech-goddess to build an app these days

With some gentle coaxing from "The Technician" and a "sit down let's do this" ISTE binge session with a fellow "Tech Twin" from my district,  I made an app for the library.  

Actually, I made three apps for the library.  Just saying that makes me feel like a tech-goddess (or someone with too much time on her hands...not sure which).  The reality of it isn't that cosmically enchanting.  Anyone - I mean ANYONE - can make an app these days thanks to some excellent web based tools.

This is the part where I take all the mystery out of app making and show you I'm not really a tech-goddess (even if I feel like one saying I have an app).

First, I didn't make what's called a "Native" app.  A "Native app is an app that you find in the app store of your device.  You have to be a genius to make those.  Instead, I made an HTML5 web based app, which, for me, is essentially a device friendly website with a bunch of links on it.  Users I share my app with, will save link to the library "app" as a shortcut on their devices home screens for instant access to useful library links and information.

I chose to go with the HTML5 web app format because I am not an app developer; my knowledge of coding is limited to making a cat meow in Scratch and some basic copying and pasting of HTML embed code. Because of my limited experience, I had to keep the app simple.  In short: if it's not drag and drop simple, I don't have the expertise to make it happen. And, let's face it, as an elementary school librarian, I don't have $100+ a year to invest in app development and licensing fees for the iOS platform, although I'd probably pay the Android fee of $25, if I was able to develop something really good.

Now you're probably thinking: Why should I even have an HTML5 app if users can just create a link on their home screen for my library webpage?  

The HTML5 app makers use custom sizing for smartphones/tablets, that way the page isn't distorted on the screen, and I can spotlight the important content, which may be spread out across the web, through easy to use buttons on the home screen of the app so that the kids can get to what they need faster than even scanning a QR code.  Students just press to open the app, and press the link they need. 

You can also use student feedback to determine the content that is the most important to access quickly and give them what they need at their fingertips to help save them time.

It was kind of a challenge to find a service and information that would help me make an app.  Through some searching during the "binge session" the "Tech Twin" and I happened on this blog entry from Apps in Education "App Building Tools for Teachers and Students" and "5 Simple Tools for Teachers to Create and Publish Apps of their Own" from Te@chThought.

From looking at those articles I settled on four app making services to give some additional attention.  My criteria was that whatever I ultimately worked with had to be free (or super cheap), easy to navigate, provide freedom to make changes.

My choices:

    Screen shot of the iBuildApp work
  • iBuildApp - this site features lots of templates that can be used as a starting point for building an app - no coding required.  From one of the articles I had read, it appeared that iBuildApp was free, and I didn't think to check the pricing, I just jumped in and started building using one of the templates.  As I was working, I started to realize that the builder was a bit "clunky".  I was having hard time figuring out how to customize things, and started to wonder what it would look like on my phone.  The site gave me the ability to test the app on my device using a QR code or link, so I checked it out.  It looked ok, but I wasn't sure about the publishing process.  When I clicked publish to see what would happen, I was confronted with the real cost: $5.99 a month.  No thanks. Time to move on.
iBuildApp Building View
  • Appypie - allows you to sign up for free, and is a "cloud based DIY Mobile App Builder".  Before signing up, I clicked around a little, and they claimed it was easy, and it looked easy, but I was deterred to proceed after clicking on "Pricing Plans".  The "Free" version would have ads and no app editing.  To upgrade to no ads and the ability to edit, it would cost $7 a month, and for something that is in the experimental stages, I didn't want to spend a lot of time and money to get something that would really work. I know I want to have some editing power and be able to change out links as need changes. So I actually stopped and went to the next site.
  • Appsbar - My "Tech Twin" started with this one, and while I was messing around with other sites, she had made some decent progress on an app for her kindergarten class. Appsbar claimed what the others did, that it was easy to use and required no coding.  There were a number of how to videos that looked promising and an FAQ page that insisted that it was totally free, all I would have to do was wait for a review process from the site.  I was skeptical of all the free talk, but after looking over "Tech Twin's" shoulder, I knew I had to jump in and begin building. I found myself with something usable in about 10 minutes. 
Working view of the Appsbar App builder

    • Pros:
    • Screenshot of the draft Appsbar
      app on my phone
      • The site is very user friendly with education templates, and easy to add, drop and drag style content. 
      • I could easily customize the number of links
      • It connected right to my library Facebook account and pulled in photos with and the location information for the library with one touch.  
      • It has lots of options for built in calendars, forms, coupons and you can even create a game for your app
      • When I ran a test link on my phone by scanning a QR code generated on the site, it prompted me to save the link to my home screen on my device and made the icon I uploaded the "app" icon on my device
    • Cons:
      • It's really personal preference for me, but I don't like how the longer names on the icons scroll instead of wrap and I'm not a fan of the way it looks.
      • I published my test app about 7 days ago and still don't have access to it unless I revoke it from publishing (despite the claim that they'll be published in 3-5 days).
      • I'm still waiting to find out how easy it will be to run updates on the app and if they will take place immediately
      • I'm also interested to see what ads will look like on the app and if there are any "hidden" fees
      • I think for the schedule and forms to be useful you will have to be committed to learning and making use of the Appsbar service
    • I think this app could be a winner, if it's ever published, and I'm interested to see how easy it is to edit and update.
  • Appmakr - When I began to see that Appsbar was going to take some time to publish, I decided to mess around with another app builder.  I had seen Appmakr come up in some searches, so I thought I'd give it a shot.  This one, although I think once free, now requires a $12 a year publishing fee to avoid ads.  With the idea in mind that $12 a year isn't terrible, I began playing with the features, and found that I really liked what I was seeing.
Working view of the Appmakr app builder
    • Pros:
    • Screen shot of the draft
      version of the Appmakr App
      • You don't have to wait to publish it. You can publish instantly and updates are also instant.
      • You can edit it and update it as often as you want.
      • The standard icons you can choose from for content pages provide you with decent choice, or you can upload your own
      • You can customize pretty much everything from splash screens to icons to headers with your own logos
      • For visual learners, you can watch the how to video that comes along with each feature
      • The calendar feature tells you what to look for on your school calendar so that you can link your active calendar to the app - I had no idea you could share a calendar this way, and it saves you from having to enter things two times in work calendar and an app calendar - especially if you're already using Google calendars to help manage your library
      • There is an option to include a "live chat" feature. I imagine you could use this as a back channel discussion board, or maybe a book chat.
    • Cons:
      • It took me awhile to figure out how the editor worked.  (You choose your content on the left, drag and drop it to the preview in the center, and edit the content on the right.)
      • It's $12 a year to publish.  With that being said, I paid the $12 because I really wanted to see how it worked, and it was worth it to me to have no ads.  Plus they have a 30 day money back guarantee, so if the Appsbar app ever gets published before my 30 days is up, and I decide I'd rather use that one, I can get my money back.
      • I don't think there's an option to have push notifications, which could be a really useful PR tool.
      • It doesn't prompt the user to save the app to the home screen, so you would have to include directions to your library patrons/parents when you share the link or QR code.
      • It looks like the most you can add to the home screen of the app would be 12 icons.  This may be a pro though because it forces you to be selective for your audience.
      • I'm having a hard time getting the Facebook link to work in the app, which may just mean I need to take it off, even though I had hoped it would be helpful for parents.
      • Every time you update the app, you have to walk back through a number of steps to update, including an area where they try to sell you additional services.  This can be annoying, especially if you're needing to make updates regularly.

App Content

As a test of content, I sent the AppMakr link out to a number of parents to have their students go over it, and got some excellent feedback about links the kids wanted to have on there for quick access.  Having that student input was, I think, a helpful piece of information, and as I roll the app out for real, I will for sure be asking students what they would like to see added or removed.

After some deliberating, drafting, testing and editing, this is what I currently have on my app as far as links go:
  • Link to Catalog
  • Library web page, with individual links to each class page
  • A Google Form Reading Log - this may change depending on whether or not we do challenges this year
  • An iCal link for our Google calendar where parents and students will be able to check out upcoming events, and if I can figure it out, register for maker events
  • Contact direct email form
  • A link to our YouTube playlists
  • Twitter feed
  • Facebook (this I may have to take off)
  • Quick links that include AR info, student email, PebbleGO 
The possibilities of what I could use the app for are endless, and I have a feeling that things could change as kids (and parents) hopefully use it and give me feedback.

Still Waiting to Roll it Out

Because I'm waiting to see how the Appsbar app turns out, I haven't made a final decision as to which app I'm going to share out with my families and request to be pushed out to all school iPads. I can honestly say, though, that I am heavily leaning towards using the AppMakr app because I really do like the way it is looking and the ease of editing.

From some tinkering and play (#KyGoPlay!) I have learned a TON about the different types of apps.  For my budget and needs I really think the HTML5 web app is a good alternative to those native apps, and I'm glad my tech friends lit a fire under me to try things out.  

I have a few more weeks before I need to make my final decision, but I fully plan on handing out cards on our back to school night with the QR code and directions to download.

How could/do you use a teacher designed app in your library or classroom?





5 comments:

  1. Awesome post Heidi! Thank you for the complete yet concise info and confidence to try it out! Bummed we didn't get to meet at ISTE!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Maybe we'll get to both go to ISTE next year?! Then it would be a priority!

      Delete
  2. Thanks for test driving these and sharing all the helpful insight. Please do an update after your AppsBar app publishes.

    ReplyDelete
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