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iPhones go to front of the class at Texas university

Apple devices at heart of Abilene Christian mobile learning project

By , Network World
October 13, 2008 12:01 AM ET

Network World - When almost 1,000 freshman students showed up at Abilene Christian University on Aug. 16, they got something more than the usual medical release forms, parking permits and Welcome Week t-shirts.

*See a slideshow on ACU's The "one iPhone per student" project
*Watch ACU's video on how students stay connected to social and academic life

They got a choice of a brand-spanking-new Apple iPhone 3G or iPod Touch, plus a package of ACU-written Web applications to use on them. (Watch a slideshow of the coolest iPhone apps.)

The hardware is part of the Texas university's pilot mobile learning project, which has been gestating for over a year. About 650 first-year students chose the iPhone, and about 300 the iPod Touch, which is a very similar device but without the 3G radio (both devices incorporate an 802.11g Wi-Fi adapter). ACU pays for the hardware, student (or their parents) select and pay for their monthly AT&T service plan.

After just six weeks, the freshmen seem fully mobilized.

Mobilized students

"I use it in four of my five classes," says Halie Davis, a teenager from Rankin, in west Texas, who chose the iPhone. "If your teacher says 'get out your iPhone and look up a word' you can do a Google search or check Wikipedia on the Internet. It's really fast."

With their Apple devices, students also get read-only mobile access to files of all kinds stored on the campus Xythos Software online document management system. Since deploying Xythos in the spring of 2008, ACU has been building applications on top of it, including a class-folder system: for each class, teachers can add a syllabus, a spreadsheet, pdf files, video clips, podcasts, all accessible by iPhone from anywhere there is wireless access.

ACU created a bundle of Web-based mobile applications, rather than make use of Apple's software developers kit. That gives the school the option of making use of other devices in the future, possibly a touch-based Android phone, running a full mobile Web browser such as Firefox for Mobile, now in development. These new mobile applications, and others such as Google Apps for Education, a suite of e-mail and other cloud-based services, are all accessible as soon as users complete their login authentication.

One group of ACU applications heavily used by Davis during her first week or so on campus is called mymobile "You click on the tab and it tells you the classes you're enrolled in, where they are, the professor's name, and [gives you] a 3-D map of the campus," she says. "That was really, really helpful to find your way around."

Part of mymobile is what ACU calls NANO tools, for "no advanced notice." These are a set of interactive quizzes, polls and other programs for class uses. Davis says her Bible class professor is constantly doing in-class, online polls of the students, who select answers via the device's Safari Web browser. "It's really neat: you can see the results changing," she says.

A second tab is ACUmobile, with campus calendars, events and photos taken by students. A third tab, pocketguide, contains information about the city of Abilene: places to eat, bands, coffee shops and the like.

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