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Network World - 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.
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.
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."