Build vs. buy: Why Morris chose to build

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The University of Minnesota, Morris is located in a small 5,000-person town, and its 1,200 residential students often rely on university-sponsored activities for entertainment. To fully engage students in on-campus life, in 2012, Morris’ IT director Jim Hall decided to develop an app that alerts students to the university’s events and on-campus programming. “The thing that helped us was to think like a student,” explains Hall. “We realized this generation doesn’t want to look for information, so we created a mobile app to bring the information directly to students’ phones.”

Universities like Morris choose from a range of development options when deploying an app on campus. They can build their own app, partner with IT providers like AT&T or Cisco to customize a product to fit the university’s specific needs, or buy a premade app from a vendor. For Morris, designing the app in-house made the most sense. “Morris is a small school; given our resources, we decided to build the app ourselves,” says Hall.

The decision to build the app in-house was primarily driven by budget concerns. “We have a tiny budget here at Morris,” explains Hall. He was familiar with the vended app market and knew that he would not able to secure the thousands of dollars in new funding to neccesary to purchase an app. “When we were considering our options, we knew we needed to be very careful about how we spent both our time and money,” he says. Budget constraints also limited the functionality of the app. “We restricted ourselves to just advertising the events around campus,” explains Morris. “We knew that wouldn’t take long to develop.”

In the end, the university’s existing IT infrastructure made building the app in-house the most efficient option. “We took all these different feeds we’d already designed for campus events, lectures, and programs, and routed them into one place,” explains Hall. He knew he could develop the app without straining his staff. “There wasn’t that much to it,” Hall says. “One developer put together the app and wrote the code working half time in just two weeks.”

Morris rolled out the app in Spring 2013, and Hall is already working on updating the system. While the current app operates exclusively in a web browser optimized for smartphones, Hall hopes to develop a native app for both tablets and smartphones by the end of the year.