Are iPhones and iPod Touches the Next "Must-Have" Campus Technologies?

For a number of years now, administrators at Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas had been considering the idea of mobility in education, called mLearning. “We believe that one of our jobs as educators is to prepare our students for the world they’re going to inherit,” said Kevin Roberts, ACU’s chief information officer. “When they leave our campus, they need to be prepared to move into the world they’re taking on, and it’s very clear to us that it’s a connected world. Students need to be able to work with mobility and connect in ways that still seem pretty magical to us but are not so magical to them.”

When laptops first arrived on the scene, ACU administrators believed they weren’t the way to mobility, as they were expensive, fragile, and clunky, and had an undesirable battery life. Palm Pilots and BlackBerrys were also considered as they were introduced to the market, but similarly tossed out.

Then came word of a new product in the making: the iPhone. “About one-and-a-half years before the iPhone was released,” said Roberts, “a group of administrators was literally talking on a sidewalk with some faculty members, wondering what the product would be like and what it would do. Our English professors researched it and wrote a 40-page white paper envisioning what it would look like at a university if everyone had a converged media device — a Web browser, PDA, and phone in your pocket.

“The paper was circulated at Apple even before the device was released,” continued Roberts. “Apple responded well. We bought several iPhones and seeded them to faculty last fall. The faculty gave great reviews. We made the decision this February to launch the product to the entire freshman class this fall.”

So, when classes kicked off on August 25, approximately 950 freshmen were armed for mobility and success with their new iPhones or iPod touches.

Similar Mobility in Maryland
Administrators at the University of Maryland (UM) in College Park unveiled a similar pilot this fall, called Mobility Project, to explore the use of mobile technology for teaching and learning. “The University is conducting this pilot to examine the role that mobile Internet access devices might have in the future of instruction, learning, and the social growth of students on campus,” explained Phyllis Johnson, director of Communications for UM’s Office of Information Technology. Specifically, 25 percent of the incoming freshmen class — 133 scholarship students — received their choice of either an iPhone or iPod touch.

UM’s specific goals are to enhance the classroom learning experience, promote interaction between faculty and students, provide students with a tool to help them manage their time and navigate the physical and administrative environments on campus, enhance students’ personal safety, and promote the University's world-class status through innovation and technology.

At ACU, the iPhones are loaded with a suite of classroom applications. Here’s an example. The campus uses Google Apps for its calendar and e-mail. A professor who wants to create a class calendar can do so through Google Apps and have it interfaced to the iPhones. The level of detail of information is up to the professor: the first screen can say “Beowulf paper due.” If a student taps on that, a second layer of information can come up that reads, “by 5 p.m. via e-mail.”

Soliciting Feedback
Another manner in which the iPhones are being used is through a tool that is similar to a clicker system, where a professor can conduct live polling to assess if students understand what was just taught. The polling can be conducted in a number of ways, including true/false and multiple choice. Professors have immediate feedback, which allows them to double back and re-teach a difficult subject or move forward with new information. “This feature,” said Roberts, “allows participation from students who don’t feel comfortable speaking out.”

The iPhone is loaded with additional features that provide for mLearning. For instance, there’s a 3D interactive mapping program that draws out a path on the campus map to guide the user from one point to another. Students can tap on a professor’s name and get a map of his office, call him, or send him an e-mail. They can check their food-service account balance, use the directory to look up a campus phone number, and take a picture. There are links to Abilene city services and a spot where they can find things to do in Abilene, which is updated regularly.

In preparing for the launch, administrators spent time with students in focus groups, asking what administrative data they wanted to know in an instant. “We heavily thought through what students would want to do from their iPhones,” said Roberts. For instance, it might be helpful to retrieve the name of your financial aid counselor, but it would be more valuable to receive homework alerts.

“The iPhone is a powerful tool,” Roberts observed. “We have invested heavily in making sure they’re useful.” To that end, ACU administrators believe that students will find them beneficial and that, next year, they’ll again give them to the incoming freshman class so that, four years down the road, everyone will have one.

“Still,” Roberts cautioned, “we’ve been very careful to call this a pilot. While we believe it will be successful, we don’t want to so blind ourselves that we ignore data that shows it isn’t working. We don’t want to force it to work no matter what.”

Finding Funding
The pilot is funded with operational dollars. “In the grand scheme of things,” Roberts said, “a laptop is $2,000. The iPhone is $399. It’s a much more manageable cost point.” Students are responsible for paying the cost of the monthly phone service.

Funding for UM’s program is sponsored by the Office of the Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, and the Office of Information Technology, said Johnson.

Assessment of ACU’s pilot is taking place in two ways. The first, as you might well imagine, is simply via daily anecdotal conversations, combined with surveys to students and faculty. The second is via funded research lead by faculty, complete with five iPhone Fellows, under the guidance of ACU’s research board.

Similarly, UM’s pilot participants are being requested to take part in a small number of pilot group meetings during the fall semester to share feedback. “There may also be focus group interviews and/or the opportunity to work on projects designed to develop tools and applications for the units,” added Johnson.

Just the Beginning
With the program just weeks old, ACU administrators note that one thing they’ve already learned is that they’ve just scratched the surface of how usable the iPhones are. They’ve also discovered that they’re incredibly engaging devices: More than half of ACU’s 150 faculty members are using the devices in their classrooms. “We’re proud of them for that,” said Roberts. “In addition, the students are enjoying being engaged.”

If mLearning is what administrators want, mLearning is what they’ll get. And it appears as though the iPhone and iPod touch devices are proving themselves as versatile and efficient means of integrating mobile technology into students’ academic and social lives.