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Mobile Learning on Campus: Balancing on the Cutting Edge

Universities that roll out campuswide mobile initiatives say they are sending a message that they are unafraid to experiment with technology.

As soon as the Illinois Institute of Technology announced last May that it would be giving all 400 incoming freshmen Apple iPads, a lively debate broke out online at (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) between people who saw it as a marketing gimmick to attract students and others who believed it was an honest attempt to implement a new and useful educational technology.

Mike Gosz, IIT’s vice provost for undergraduate affairs, has heard sarcastic comments about the project, and he readily admits that the desire to be seen as an innovative campus played a role in the decision. “We are the Illinois Institute of Technology,” he points out. “We need to be at the forefront of technological development. That message needs to be made clear to prospective students, and that was part of the decision.”

Yvonne Belanger, head of assessment and planning for Perkins Library and the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University (NC), says her school’s distribution of iPods to more than 1,600 entering first-year students in 2004 was also done, in part, to demonstrate that the university is willing to take risks and experiment with new technologies.

So she is sympathetic to academic officials who are criticized for rapid deployment of new tech tools. “We had people say the iPod rollout was a gimmick too,” she recalls. “People actually asked if our admissions went up because of it—as if people were going to make a $40,000-a-year educational investment based on a $150 iPod.”

Bill Rankin, of Abilene Christian University (TX), agrees with Belanger that students are less interested in the hardware giveaway than in what a mobile initiative says about the school’s willingness to experiment.

Rankin is in a position to know about these things. As director of mobile learning at ACU, he oversees the campus’s much-touted initiative that gave iPhones and iPod Touches to incoming freshmen and faculty members. (The program won a 2008 Campus Technology Innovators award;

“The reason students are excited about this iPhone program is not because it’s like getting a free toaster,” Rankin told CT last year. “They like it that we are actually thinking about the future of education. We’re saying to them, ‘Come study with us and help define the future of education.’ They like being active participants in that discovery.”4

Relevant to the Future

With Title III grants from the Department of Education, Seton Hill University (PA) has been working on infusing the latest technology into the classroom for several years, including creating labs for faculty to explore emerging technologies and experiment with Second Life, as well as investing in ubiquitous WiFi. In the same vein, the Griffin Technology Advantage program, Seton Hill’s campuswide iPad initiative launched this fall, provides incoming students with an iPad and a MacBook Pro that students will take with them upon graduation. Students pay a $500-per-semester technology fee, which also helps pay for an on-campus Apple Certified Service Center and a completely wireless campus.

These kinds of efforts have brought Seton Hill notice, including making the IvyWise (a college-admissions counseling service) top five list of schools that leverage the power of mobile devices. Yet Seton Hill President JoAnne Boyle is emphatic that marketing and recruitment were not strong motivators behind the program. “Our number one motivation was the potential to address individual students’ ability to acquire knowledge and think,” she says.

In Duke’s case, Belanger notes that the school “didn’t have any specific academic goals” for its iPod initiative, but rather “wanted to see what interesting uses of the technology would develop.” That effort has, in fact, evolved into the Duke Digital Initiative, a multiyear program that allows faculty to experiment with new and emerging technologies.

This past fall, when George Fox University (OR) offered students a choice between receiving a MacBook or an iPad, the program was motivated by twin desires: to be future-oriented and to bolster the school’s ongoing major technology initiative.

For the last few years, George Fox administrators have been getting pressure from some parents and other constituents to downsize or eliminate the school’s Connected Across Campus initiative, which has expanded the campus’s WiFi infrastructure and put a MacBook in each student’s hands since 2008. (Previously it had offered a PC or an Apple laptop for several years; the all-Apple environment has proven much easier to provide consistent tech support.)

As CIO Greg Smith explains, the program is included in the school’s tuition costs, yet the laptop has increasingly become a commodity that most students bring to campus with them. “People ask, why spend money on it that could be spent on something else.”

Throwing an iPad into the mix might seem counterintuitive, but Smith thinks the addition of the device moves the Connected Across Campus program forward. “I pushed for including the iPad option as a step that might be a transition away from the laptop program, and one that is more relevant to the future college student.”

Not Without Challenges

Parental grumbling notwithstanding, Smith has found that the Connected Across Campus program has been an effective recruiting tool for prospective students. But leveraging the iPad initiative in recruitment meant making the decision last February, before the iPad was formally introduced. “We hadn’t done any hands-on with it,” he admits. That early decision had an impact on student adoption: Students had to announce their choice by July 15, and only 8 percent opted for the iPad over the MacBook.

Even schools that launched their programs after the iPad’s release still felt overwhelmed entering into such new territory. IIT’s Gosz remembers the excitement on his campus last May when administrators announced the iPad program. “It was like jumping out of an airplane and then figuring out how your parachute works,” he says.

Smith concedes that there are iPad mobile support issues for the George Fox IT team. For instance, iPads work off WiFi, so for freshmen who have an iPad only, wireless access can be an issue in some of the older dorms on campus. In those cases, IT helps students set up their own WiFi networks under its guidelines, as it continues to expand WiFi coverage.

Also, unlike MacBooks, which the university owns, the iPads belong to George Fox students. “We have no control over their software usage,” Smith says. “The only thing we do is give them an iTunes gift card and encourage them to buy iWorks, but the students will be responsible for all other iPad applications.”

Duke’s Belanger says the university’s 2004 iPod initiative taught her the need to carefully assess the hands-on IT support such a rollout requires. “We hadn’t anticipated how much training the students would need,” she recalls. “We thought they would automatically know how to use it, but we had to hold workshops and training sessions.”

There were other unexpected challenges. Duke preloaded iPods with information about the campus and a recorded greeting from provost. As soon as students turned on their iPods and synced them to their computers, many accidentally erased all that content. “It was disheartening, but kind of amusing,” Belanger says wryly.

Improving the Academic Experience

Technological glitches aside, the administrators who ventured into these campuswide mobile initiatives have both high and realistic hopes for their impact on both students’ and faculty’s academic experiences.

The IIT project, for example, evolved from an earlier plan to improve customer service for students. Surveys had indicated students wanted better tools to navigate their way around the campus and its administrative systems. IIT was planning to create a campus-specific app and give iPods to all incoming freshmen and transfer students. But after seeing a demo of the iPad, and its price point relative to the iPod Touch, campus executives switched gears and gave all 450 first-year students iPads instead. The IIT app provides students with access to news, events, maps, and course listings. It will also enable the university to push emergency alerts directly to iPod, iPhone, and iPad devices.

Gosz, who is leading the implementation, says the iPads are already changing things at IIT. In the summer, 20 faculty members who work with freshmen received iPads and attended workshops put on by Apple. Faculty members have set up a social networking group for discussions on how to use iPads in class. In one discussion, a civil engineering professor described how students could use the iPad as a GPS device to map the campus. A graphic design professor is exploring 3D modeling capabilities. The school is adopting Blackboard Mobile Learn and Wolfram’s Mathematica for the iPad.

At George Fox, the iPad thus far has been embraced more by liberal arts faculty than those teaching science and engineering courses, which might require Windows capabilities, Smith reports. The devices are already in use by a juniors abroad program in Paris. Two professors described to Smith sitting on the banks of the Seine waiting to take students to the Louvre. One was giving a talk about what they were going to see. The other was pulling up art images on the iPad and passing it around for the students to view. “The device is great in that type of social setting,” he says.

Smith acknowledges that the iPad’s potential as an e-reader was an early selling point but because textbook publishers’ business plans are still developing, “this is essentially a pilot project.” He adds, “It is a tremendous opportunity to study how [the iPads] might impact teaching and learning.”

Seton Hill’s Boyle is equally sanguine about the school’s mobile initiative. “We think 20 percent of courses will be affected by iPads this year,” she says. She envisions students downloading books to their iPads and using Evernote, a note-taking program that syncs notes, photos, and voice memos with their computers. “But we are just beginning. We will have more stories to tell later.”

And Boyle bristles when she hears the iPad referred to as a gadget. “Nothing drives me crazier,” she says. “We think of it as a critical learning tool that will complement other tools that students use. We wouldn’t have made this type of investment in a gadget.”

But she insists she is not starry-eyed about the iPad. “We have said to Apple we will drop you in a minute if something better comes along,” Boyle says. “We are not wed to the iPad forever. We are wed to the idea of using the best technology we can find.”

Duke’s Belanger would approve such sentiment and offers a bit of cautionary guidance. “We don’t always know which direction to go to keep pushing the envelope,” she says. “But these schools that are taking the leap now with iPads need to know that faculty and students will expect them to keep it up and stay on the cutting edge.”

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