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Mobile Initiatives 'Breaking Down the Walls of the Classroom' at Abilene Christian U

Small private college Abilene Christian University has entered the fourth academic year of its mobile education initiatives, and the program's momentum and influence is still growing. The Texas institution, which has added the Apple iPad to its list of devices made available to students and faculty, along with the iPhone and iPod touch, recently hosted a Connected Open House, with attendance by people from dozens of other schools. The university is also running numerous mobile-oriented research projects among its faculty and recently opened three new mobile research centers sponsored by a sizeable grant from AT&T.

A common theme is emerging from Abilene Christian's multiple programs, said Director of Educational Innovation Bill Rankin. "Our efforts are increasingly breaking down the walls of the classroom, removing barriers so teachers and students can engage more fully with and take their learning more easily into the world around them." Likewise, he added, "We're discovering that the power of mobility comes not only from the ability to access information, but also from the ability to create it, and the creative opportunities during this third year of our initiative have been staggering."

The university this month issued a 36-page annual report online that documents its research projects, shares response from members of the campus community, and divulges results from multiple student and faculty surveys regarding the mobility work.

According to the results of a fall 2010 survey of 149 faculty members, referenced in the report, 89 percent of faculty members bring mobile devices to class; 84 percent regularly use the devices in class; and half of faculty report using the devices in every class. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of students responded that mobility device usage has improved collaboration in their academic experience, improved communication with teachers, and provided them with increased control of their learning environment.

Three of the school's first "mobile-learning graduates" are profiled in the report, including Colter Hettich, former editor of ACU's student-run newspaper, The Optimist. As editor, Hettich participated in the development of the iPad app for The Optimist, and, after he graduated, he landed a job at The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper. "My mobile-learning experience at [Abilene Christian U] had everything to do with me getting this job," Hettich stated in his profile. "As editor of The Optimist newspaper ... I managed people, made decisions on the fly, and was forced to collaborate. Combine that experience with developing the iPad app when a developer's kit did not exist; no one had done that before. We had grand ideas and then were forced to make it happen. It's exactly what I am doing now, but on a much bigger scale, so it has not been a hard transition."

This year will be characterized by a heightened focus on how the increasing use of digital textbooks will influence education. Among the current research projects underway at the university, an undergraduate microeconomics class compared usage patterns of iPads to laptop computers using only a digital version of the course textbook. Those students using laptops accessed course content primarily during the class meeting time. Students on an iPad tended to access course content in a much broader timeframe--before, during, and after the course. In a heat map comparison published in the annual report, the research authors concluded, "iPad usage is more diffused over more hours of each day, indicating mobility in use."

"There's no doubt in my mind that textbooks are going digital," said George Saltsman, director of educational technology. "The question is, now that we've removed the constraints of paper, what should a textbook be? We've been doing a lot of exploration and trying to understand how students engage information that's presented digitally. How does that work?"

In turn, added Rankin, the digital nature of information could lead to a conversion of classroom space as well. "I think we're going to see the classroom space becoming less and less about the place where people discover information and more and more a space for collaboration for stuff I've discovered or made elsewhere. The elsewhere--the real world experiences--become my primary classrooms, which is going to have massive implications on how we design spaces, how much space we decide we need, and on what we do on scheduling and courses. Education used to be seen as a class--it was something that took place at this time, from 8 to 8:50 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in room 103. That's where that class was. What we've seen is that that will totally change. Class is with me everywhere I go. I'm always connected with my classmates, with my teacher, with my learning content. I'm always engaged in that conversation."

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