The print version of this article, which appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue of In Trust, contained several editing mistakes. The following is the corrected version. The editors regret the errors.

Kyle Lockhart has been using the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) mobile app “right from the beginning” of his studies in the seminary’s hybrid master of divinity program. He calls himself a “fan.”

One thing he particularly likes is that RTS Mobile allows him to be a better steward of his time. “In our day and age, most things that are not vocational are done in bite-sized chunks,” he says. “I read a book for 30 minutes, put it down, and come back to it two days later. I start a paper and then four days later add another paragraph or two.”

Lockhart is senior pastor at Manhattan Bible Church in Montana, about 100 miles from Yellowstone National Park. He lives three-quarters of a mile from work. “I walk here in the morning, walk home again for lunch. So I have about an hour of walking a day,” he says. “This app allows me to use that time wisely. I can engage with learning and with other people in the learning community at times when I wouldn’t otherwise be able to. I don’t have to be at my desk. I appreciate that.”

Lockhart is not alone in his appreciation. Since 2014, when RTS launched its mobile app — which distributes content from across the school’s eight campuses — more than 130,000 users have downloaded it to their smartphones. At the touch of a button, people around the world can learn about, connect to, and interact with the seminary.

RTS Mobile offers practical information, convenience, and opportunities for learning for students. It also offers multiple ways for the seminary to educate and inspire.

Some of the things users can do on the RTS Mobile app:

  • Explore course and degree offerings
  • Research tuition, fees, and financial aid options
  • Apply for admission and interact with admissions staff
  • Review course syllabi
  • Listen to lectures and chapel messages
  • Read and subscribe to the seminary’s magazine and academic journal
  • Access the RTS blog and social media accounts
  • Read institutional news and learn about events
  • Use the library, including searching holdings, conducting course research, and accessing online resources
  • Search the job board
  • Update contact information, read about alumni, and make donations

According to recent data from Pew Research Center, as of 2019, 81 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and the statistics are similar in Canada. Mobile devices are now the preferred way to access the internet, and average users spend up to five hours per day on their phones. The increase in mobile adoption and usage is inspiring companies to pursue mobile-first strategies before focusing on websites that are designed primarily for bigger desktop screens.

Why and how RTS developed its app

RTS is not only an early adopter of mobile app technology — it has been running its app for five years now — but it’s also one of the few theological schools to recognize the value of having an app at all.

Kyle Lockhart uses the Reformed Theological Seminary mobile app while he walks from home to the church that he leads in Manhattan, Montana.

Credit: Jennifer Lockhart

“It’s been a really nice tool for our institution,” says David John, executive director of global and distance education at the seminary. He says students love it, and analytics reveal it is growing in popularity. The app began as something of an experiment, but it has been such a success that it will soon go through a third round of redevelopment to keep it current with the institution’s recently redesigned website. “Just like with a website, you constantly have to be looking at ways to keep content fresh and be sure the app is intuitive and user friendly,” John says.

To develop the app, RTS worked with Subsplash, a church app developer. “The whole first semester that we had the app could be considered a first round of the development process,” says John. “We saw it as an opportunity to get our course content to students on a greater variety of mobile devices.”

The second round took place during the academic year of 2015–16, when John and his colleagues realized how quickly the app was being adopted — adopted “not only by our students, but also by the general public, because we put all of our course lectures out there for free,” John says.

It was during this second round of redevelopment that RTS decided to invest more heavily in the app by creating custom icons, branding the app and the layout of pages, and integrating more components from the seminary website.

Advancing the seminary’s mission

While John says that RTS has always looked to Subsplash to help determine which functionalities to include, their ultimate decisions were guided “first and foremost by what would be beneficial to our students.” The next audience they prioritized was prospective students, and finally, the general public.

A search for seminary apps reveals slim pickings. Of those that do exist, many are not free and accessible to the public. John says that while he can understand why institutions would limit access, making the RTS content widely available for free through the app just made good missional sense to the seminary’s decision makers. “It helps people continue their theological education,” he says. “As our chancellor often says, people need more biblical and theological knowledge today, not less. We get emails all the time from folks who really appreciate our content being out there for free.” He also cites stories of people who listened to lectures dating back years and subsequently chose to attend RTS as students.

Lockhart, the RTS student and Montana pastor, says the app is intuitive and simple to navigate. “I’m not super technologically savvy,” he says. “That’s just not my world. I use this because it’s easy. Just touch it with your thumb and it’s there.” He has also shared lectures on the app with a group of men in his church who are interested in pursuing ministry. “I tell them to [use the app to] ‘access this class on systematic theology.’ Now we have common ground to talk about these issues.”

John advises others considering a mobile app to do their homework. “Don’t go it alone — undertaking the development of an app on your own has a lot of inherent risks,” he says. “Especially if you’re new to it, I would recommend researching companies . . . that have mobile platforms that would provide guidance, support, and development of the app well into the future. This will help ensure the functionality and compliance of your app with the platforms it is designed to run on.”

John declined to provide details on the cost of developing and operating the RTS Mobile app. Subsplash reports that it offers custom packages with a wide variety of options and pricing.

Benefits of a mobile seminary app

  • When a mobile app is installed on a smartphone, users do not need to remember a website address or search for the name of the school. Depending on the app’s functionality, it may be used without an internet connection.
  • Having an app is advertising for a school. It can be used in conjunction with marketing efforts — for example, it can include sections for news, photos, and press releases.
  • An app gives a school the ability to glean feedback and info about students, prospective students, alumni, and the public. This information can be analyzed — developers can see where users go on the app, how long they spend there, and which functions are most or least used, but they may also be able to analyze where users are physically located and gain other demographic information. User feedback can also be solicited through poll and surveys.
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