Can the iPhone save higher education?

Texas university explores evaluates mobile, digital learning; 'ubiquity matters'

In the second year of its mobile learning project, Abilene Christian University is studying how the iPhone is changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

What happens when you give about 2,000 college students and their teachers Apple iPhones and iPod Touches and tell them "Go mobile, go digital?" No one knows. But that's what Abilene Christian University is trying to find out with its Mobile Learning project.

What ACU is trying to explore isn't whether the iPhone itself will transform teaching and learning, but whether always-on, always connected, personal digital devices and social networks do.

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Higher education computing programs now often mandate or provide wireless laptops, and support a campus-wide Wi-Fi network. The confluence of these technologies with the Web has created a sustained explosion of experimentation and research on campus aimed at new ways of teaching and learning. But many of these are ad hoc efforts, with more or less no funding.

By contrast, when ACU first gave 650 entering freshmen in 2008 a choice of iPhone or iPod Touch (essentially the iPhone with only a Wi-Fi radio), it was already putting in place a funded program to equip and encourage faculty to begin exploiting the handsets in the classroom, and a framework to evaluate the results. The launch included a mobile Web portal for the campus, and a set of custom apps for students and teachers, such as class attendance, online course information and class rosters, mobile content in the form of podcasts and videos, and real-time views of the student's balances in various campus accounts. The goal, in effect, was to eventually turn the entire campus into a laboratory for mobile learning research, experimentation and analysis.

Currently about 2,000 students, sophomores and current freshmen, along with about three-quarters of ACU's faculty, have university-issued handsets (other students are free to buy and use their own iPhone or Touch). "There's a lot of interest in accelerating our rollout [to the remaining students]," says CTO Kevin Roberts. "Based on the feedback we're getting, we're convinced it's working."

The feedback is a critical element in evaluating the teaching and learning projects. Some is about the ongoing technical challenges to achieve true true mobility. The original launch included help from iPhone carrier AT&T to set up 3G coverage on campus, coupled with a reliable, pervasive Wi-Fi network, with Alcatel-Lucent gear, blanketing the campus. "We're continuing to enhance it, adding greater depth of coverage in high-density traffic areas," says Roberts. One issue, for example, was tweaking the wireless LAN and back-end network so 200 to 300 students in a single lecture hall could log in and get secure connections at the start of class.

Students and teachers put mobility to the test

Two main groups are using the handsets, students and teachers. ACU is monitoring both to discover and study unplanned or unforeseen changes as well as to weigh the impact of new applications, curriculum elements, and teaching and learning tools, both inside and outside the classroom.

There's a fast-growing list of anecdotes and stories that together begin to form an impressionistic picture of the unwired digital life. The spouse of one employee runs a regional hospice center, where some ACU students work as interns. During one meeting, the center's board of directors had questions about some of the data, Roberts recalls. The two ACU interns  pulled out their iPhones and confirmed the information through quick Web searches. "You're able to move conversations forward," Roberts says. "Immediate access to information is very different, and it's interesting to watch how that's playing out."

Systematic data from surveys and other tools are fleshing out the picture. The school also does regular self-reporting surveys of students and teachers to assess their opinions and evaluations. And ACU invests money each year to fund "mobile learning fellows," who are faculty green-lighted to pursue and evaluate a mobile learning project. At the end of year one in 2009, much of the survey data was self-reported, meaning asking students about what they think about some part of the mobile program. The project team is working on new tools to begin to weigh outcomes, rather than personal opinions.

One survey found some teachers, with classes in which not all students had handsets, reluctant to make use of the devices. That result reinforced the idea that "ubiquity matters," says Scott Perkins, director of research and coordinator of mobile learning research at ACU. "Without 100% device saturation, we were limited in showing more significant academic use in some cases."

Another study found that "iPhone students were significantly more likely to say they would always bring their device to class, than were iPod Touch users," Perkins says. "They told us they might not take their Touch to the intramural field, where it might be stolen, but their phones they take everywhere."

Perkins says the findings suggest students have very different perceptions of the two devices, with iPhone scoring higher as a means of highly personal involvement with friends, family and campus life.

Some early data suggests that mobile students are more connected with teachers and teaching assistants. Marking a student "absent" in class, for example, generates an automatic e-mail to the student, who then responds with an explanation. "An interactive communication thread gets initiated," Perkins says. "Students report that the devices helped them to increase this mode of interaction."

Most faculty reported the devices generally did not increase student effort. But in general, a majority thought the device somewhat increased student participation and involvement in class. And even more teachers said the devices definitely increased contact with students outside of class.

The iPhone has sparked as much excitement among teachers as students. Currently about 96% of teachers have one of the devices, three-quarters of them choosing the iPhone. Each device has about nine or 10 applications pre-installed, on one "page" of the iPhone screen. Today, about one third of teachers have two pages of apps, slightly more have three pages, and the remaining third have either four or five pages of apps. Perkins describes this as "wild experimentation."

"We're using this as a barometer for seeing how faculty are finding discipline-specific apps for class work," CTO Roberts says. One example is a periodic table of the elements. "I would never have a staff [programmer] far enough ahead in their work to say, 'hey, let's write an app for the periodic chart,'" Roberts says.

The data show that teachers and students are embracing "mobile learning" as increasingly essential to higher education, according to Perkins. "In the world where I went to school, you had an expert, the teacher, who disseminated information created by approved authors and texts. The challenge was finding the information," he says. "It's a very different world today. Finding information is not the problem: Google can give me thousands of references in seconds. The challenge is 'how do I evaluate all this information? What [references] are myths or old wives tales, versus authoritative sources? Is the information I'm reading reliable, valuable, 'good?'" In that world, students expect to be able to use video and collaborative learning strategies by communicating with friends."

The Mobile Learning Fellows are helping to uncover these changes, through a variety of in-class research projects. One study compared five groups, or sections, of a chemistry lab class. One group comprised students all of whom were equipped with iPhones or iPod touches for which the instructor, Cynthia Powell, prepared pre-recorded video lectures on lab instructions and safety protocols that students could access anytime, anywhere. The other four lab groups received the same information, but as an in-class lecture.

In terms of final class performance measured by grades in reports, quizzes, tests and so on, there is not much difference: the mobile students showed very slightly higher averages in each category. But there were some more pronounced differences in how the two groups approached their work, says William Rankin, associate professor of English and director of educational innovation.

Powell discovered that the iPhone students on average watched each video podcast five times, both inside and outside the class. That access and repetition had some intriguing results. "They contacted the teacher much less [than the non-phone students], and they showed clear evidence of being able to do more on their own, and intuit new things," Rankin says. Though limited in scope, Powell's study suggests that "translating" class content into mobile digital information doesn't hurt academic performance, even as it seems to encourage student initiative and mastery of lab techniques.

To Rankin, whose background is in medieval literature, these findings suggest a revival of a much earlier form of direct learning, one that existed before Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. To learn then, "students" became apprentices, living and working with master craftsmen, or sought direct personal experience in some area of life.

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Before Gutenberg, the problem was one of information access, Rankin says. But the printing press solved that problem: making it possible to replicate books relatively inexpensively, creating its own information explosion. The response was the creation of centralized libraries, usually where the earliest universities established themselves.

Handhelds, wireless connectivity and social networks in a sense are reversing this state of affairs. "Mobility allows learning to be contextual and situational," Rankin says. "I don't have to put myself in a room to be close to the information. I can now carry the library around in my pocket." And with that, the older role of mentor is being restored, in the person of the teacher, who becomes a helper, monitor, and connector of communities.

Rankin mentions a recent trip with his daughter, an ACU student, to the National Gallery In Washington, D.C.. Rankin says he expected that she would find an artwork and then use her iPhone to look up more information about it on the Web. But she did something completely unexpected to her father. She used the smartphone to take pictures of the art works, and of the information tags associated with each one. Then she used the phone's "notes" feature to quickly type a few words or a phrase condensing an idea or reaction that she noticed.

"I asked her 'why didn't you look stuff up?'" Rankin recalls. "She said 'why would I do that? It would rob me of the experience of seeing more.' She wasn't consuming knowledge; she was capturing it to the think about, and process and share later. "

ACU's mobile learning project is expanding. A recently formed consortium joins ACU with Birmingham City University and Oxford University, both in the United Kingdom, to work together on "converged learning." Drawing in other schools from around the world, the group will share data collection instruments and data results, and do longitudinal studies on a range of issues. The work in this entire area is increasing being related to issues of tenure, professional publication and professional development, Rankin says.

"The lecture-based teaching modality is something we've done a long time, and there's little room for improvement," Perkins says. "We're moving to a new modality where the sky's the limit. We're trading in a tired and nearly exhausted teaching strategy for one with limitless possibilities."

Follow John Cox on Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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