Mobile Learning | Feature

A Mobile Initiative That's More Than Just a Tablet Handout

Southern Illinois University's Mobile Dawg Tablet Initiative combines a tablet rollout with apps, digital content and services designed to directly impact student success.

Last fall, when Southern Illinois University, Carbondale distributed 3,000 tablet computers to students, faculty and staff, administrators had more in mind than a publicity stunt.

"We're going to great lengths to make sure the tablets aren't just a gimmick," explained David Crain, CIO at the university. "We've developed a fairly comprehensive and growing suite of mobile applications to integrate the tablet into the student's everyday life."

SIU is one of the first public research institutions to launch a campuswide digital initiative. Named after the school mascot (the Saluki, an Egyptian hunting dog), the Mobile Dawg project combines a tablet rollout with apps, e-books, multimedia content and student services designed to directly impact student success.

For the initiative's launch, recounted Crain, "We distributed over 3,000 Dell Latitude 10 tablets." A total of 2,700 tablets went to incoming freshmen; the remaining 300 were distributed to faculty and staff. "We're working hard to improve the university in two basic areas: recruitment and student success," Crain added. He noted that student success leads to higher retention and graduation rates.

According to Crain, SIU is ahead of the curve in preloading the tablets with course materials and other software, including a fairly comprehensive — and growing — suite of mobile applications. To integrate the tablet into the students' everyday life, each device is configured with Skype, Office 365 and Mobile Dawg (SIU's custom app), as well as electronic textbooks and labs (from Pearson, Cengage Learning and McGraw-Hill). "We're training both the students and the faculty in the use of the tablets and all of the applications used on the tablets," said Crain.

To train faculty, Crain and his team created the role of "Technology Mentor." Select faculty members from various departments across campus become technology champions and, hopefully, continue to increase faculty adoption. "We've seen a huge uptake in the number of faculty choosing electronic course materials," Crain said.

Before and After Mobile Dawg
When Crain came to SIU about two years ago, there was virtually no WiFi on campus. Only about 30 of the 130 campus buildings were on wireless — and even that was out-of-date. There were 35 different e-mail systems and no directory systems. Since then, there has been a total wireless install across campus, with an outdoor wireless network coming this summer. "We went from being way behind to being way ahead," said Crain, noting that SIU has greatly increased its Internet bandwidth to support the additional devices, and has added network redundancy and additional servers to its infrastructure.

Other challenges centered around SIU's student population. "One of our problems was that, as an access university, we have a lot of students who come from lower economic backgrounds," continued Crain. "We also have a large percent of students who are first-generation college students: 45 percent to 47 percent, depending on the year." Typically, a significant percentage of students could not afford to purchase course materials until late in the semester (if at all), which hurt their success rate, as well as SIU's retention and graduation rates.

As part of the Mobile Dawg initiative, SIU adopted electronic course materials for freshmen-level foundation courses, paid for by a course fee. "This not only saves hundreds of dollars for the student," explained Crain, "but the course fees are included in their financial aid, so they don't have to pay for the materials out of pocket." This academic year, the course fees saved $272 per student for the four foundation courses, which include English, speech, math and University College 101. "Now," he said, "on Day 1, students have electronic access, on their tablets, to their course materials for our foundation courses."

Cost has been one of the most challenging factors in building this program. "We had some reserves available," said Crain, but for now the institution is trying to be as cost-sensitive as possible. "We make it more affordable by adding small amounts to each fee. It's a combination of technology surcharge and course fee. The tablet costs the student as little as $100 to $125 per year, prorated over a four-year period."

Crain and his team chose the Windows 8 tablets based on such factors as total cost of ownership (including the price of the unit and its expected lifespan) and integration with the university's existing management infrastructure. The other deciding factor was the ability to run all of the applications needed, including Flash-based electronic course materials and Microsoft Office as the productivity suite. (For more on SIU's choice of tablet OS, see "Can Windows 8 Play With the Big Boys?")

Preliminary user feedback, however, revealed that most electronic course materials were not designed for the Latitude 10 touch interface. The university switched to Dell Venue Pro 11 tablets this spring (distributed to 150-200 new students). The Pro 11 has an optional soft-cover keyboard, and the system is twice as fast as the Latitude 10. Next fall, SIU plans to distribute the Venue Pro 11 tablet to all incoming freshmen. The following fall, both freshmen and transfer students will receive the device.

Now 48 classes, in addition to the foundation courses, are committed to using electronic course materials for the next academic year.

Mobile Dawg has justified itself many times over, according to Crain: Last fall's freshman class increased in size by 13 percent from the previous year — SIU's largest freshman class in 20 years. And fall-to-spring retention of the freshman class is up 3.6 percent. "That's a huge one-year jump," said Crain — although he recognizes that Mobile Dawg is one of many efforts to improve SIU's student success rate.

An Impact on Learning
Crain advised that any tablet program must be well thought out and comprehensive in order to impact student success.

"We've studied other programs that provide technology to students but don't incorporate that technology into a student's campus life," he said. "This type of project inevitably fails." If a school is going to launch a similar program, Crain cautioned, "Make sure it has a positive impact on student learning, and thus on the whole university.

"Our goal is to become the first research university to provide tablet technology and electronic course materials to all of our undergraduate students," concluded Crain, who intends to stay well ahead of the curve.

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