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Good Things Come in Small Packages

We may not have the 'ultimate' small device yet, but at pioneering schools, ultra-mobile PCs and smart phones are changing teaching, learning, and collaboration.

LAST FALL ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Barack Obama's use of the phrase "lipstick on a pig" created a minor controversy in the media. It also allowed political science professors at Abilene Christian University (TX) to bring some immediacy to their classrooms. They asked students to use the web browsers on their iPhones to track down where the furor began, as well as previous uses of the phrase by politicians.

"It led to a conversation about the role of the blogosphere in the race," says Bill Rankin, director of mobile learning research and associate professor of English at Abilene Christian. "Students could immediately pull up examples that were only hours old."

Happily, everyone involved in the assignment had access to the Apple equipment: In an ambitious program launched in September, the university gave out 616 iPhones and 341 iPod Touches to incoming freshmen, and 169 devices to faculty members. (Students pay monthly service charges, so many of those locked into cell phone plans chose the iPods.) And faculty were right up to speed: Besides a basic introduction to the device, faculty members had attended sessions on mobile learning, including all the applications available to them. [Editor's note: Abilene Christian University won a 2008 Campus Technology Innovator award in the Mobile Learning category, for the school's iPhone pilot program.]

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Abilene Christian University is working with "clicker" specialist Turning Technologies to create a product that will allow more sophisticated polling, analysis, and fully electronic student exams using iPhones. Faculty "mobile learning fellows" are studying student usage patterns and impact on the classroom.

The class survey was a breeze. Abilene's IT staff had developed tools that allow for quick polling using the iPhones. For example, a history professor could ask students what they considered to be the three most important events of the 20th century. Studying the responses sent via iPhone might lead to discussions about student demographics and perceptions. "You could have done this previously with a paper quiz, but it might take a day to compile the answers and the immediacy would be lost," Rankin says. "This can be done on the fly."

The decision to use the Apple mobile devices was not serendipitous. All along, Abilene's instructional technologists had envisioned the iPhones as the next generation of student response systems (more commonly called clickers). Right now, in fact, the instructional technology team is working with student response systems specialist Turning Technologies, to create a product that will allow more sophisticated polling, analysis, and fully electronic student exams using iPhones.

It's too early to assess the impact of the iPhones on the classroom, but five faculty members have been designated "mobile learning fellows" and with the guidance of the director of academic research, they are studying student usage patterns and the impact on the classroom.

Moving Beyond Laptops

Like other universities across the country, Abilene Christian is responding to the proliferation of mobile computing devices such as ultra-mobile PCs and smart phones, by finding new ways to incorporate them into the academic setting.

According to a 2008 higher education technology report, "The combination of social networking and mobility lets students and colleagues collaborate from anywhere they happen to be. Add to that connectivity the multimedia capacities of phones (and the storage they offer for podcasts, videos, photos, PDF files, and even documents and spreadsheets), and it's not hard to see why phones are increasingly the portable tool of choice."

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At Duke University, musicology grad students found their "baby computers" with surprisingly clear screens easier to carry around than a laptop. They tote the ultra-portable minis to study manuscripts remotely, take quick photographs of sheet music or instruments, and more.

More and more, instructional technologists see the innovative use of mobile devices in the classroom and for fieldwork as key to student recruitment and retention. "The reason students are excited about this iPhone program is not because it's like getting a free toaster," Rankin maintains. Rather, "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."

In its mobility effort, Abilene Christian explored personal digital assistants (PDAs) and piloted projects with ubiquitous laptop computing, but eventually decided that the iPhone could leapfrog them both. Campus technologists didn't think the web browsers on PDAs were good enough. And, "When students open up laptops in class, it can create a physical barrier between themselves and the professor," notes George Saltsman, director of the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian. He adds that students often failed to bring their laptops to class. "But because this is their phone, they bring it," he says. "They keep it with them for the social aspect. They don't leave home without it!"

The Campus 'In the Hand'

Some mobile computing efforts are motivated by a desire to improve communications on campus more generally, before moving into the academic realm. Quinnipiac University (CT) developed the QU Mobile program after administrators noticed a change in student behavior. "They were simply on their cell phones at all times, text messaging," says Jim Trella, director of IT project management. It was clear that students were no longer using landline phones or the voice mailboxes assigned to them. To stay in touch, campus community members weren't referring to campus directories; they were devising their own lists of cell phone numbers.

Good Things Come in Small Packages

QUINNIPIAC'S QU MOBILE program provides students with mobile access to several campus-focused applications, including the broadcast alert of emergencies, real-time shuttle bus information, and group messaging.

So, in fall 2005, Quinnipiac administrators decided the university would become, in essence, a cell phone service provider. In partnership with Rave Wireless and Sprint, the institution began offering students smart phone deals that provided mobile access to several campus-focused applications, including the broadcast alert of emergencies and weather closures, real-time shuttle bus information, and group messaging.

Today, students use QU Mobile to set up texting groups to stay in touch with, for instance, other members of the chess club or lacrosse team. But faculty members have started using it, too. Trella, for one, teaches a computer science course on IT project management and puts his students into a texting group. This allows him to quickly text them about which materials to bring to class, or to communicate changes to the course schedule.

The Quinnipiac physician assistant graduate program was the first academic unit to take full advantage of the smart phones. Program participants had already been using PDAs for two years, but administrators and instructors wanted to transition to smart phones. In spring 2007 the program launched a pilot project, working with IT and the library system to move 50 students from PDAs to Palm Treo 700wx smart phones with the Windows Mobile operating system, and three key applications: the Merck Manual; Essential Evidence Plus, a diagnostic tool and dosage calculator; and Lexi-Comp, an electronic clinical reference and decision support tool.

It took some time to work through the challenges of installing and registering the applications, and determining who on campus would be responsible for which aspect of support, Trella says, but today all 110 students in the program are required to use the smart phones, and other academic units are studying their use.

Richard Ferguson, vice president and chief information and technology officer, explains, "We're still in our infancy with this, but others in the health sciences, such as nursing and physical therapy, are looking at the physician assistant program with interest."

The university is developing an offsite, 60-acre marine park and science center, and Trella reports the biology department wants to develop applications so that students can do field research using handheld devices' GPS and cameras for data collection.

He adds that the library also is quite engaged in working on how to deliver information on handheld devices. The students are clearly committed to using the devices, Ferguson notes. "We could see it as intrusive or as a problem, and push back against it, but we realized we needed to embrace it. We did that at the laptop level and reaped benefits. Now we are reaching down to the handheld level, and the effort is helping with a fundamental shift from a focus on teaching, to a focus on learning-- outside the classroom as well as in it."

Tablets for the 'Edge'

Besides smart phones, some schools have been experimenting with tablet PCs to boost classroom interaction. Professors at Virginia Tech believe the 2006 shift from a laptop to a tablet PC requirement for incoming freshman engineering students has increased collaboration among students and altered classroom dynamics. In 2008, with the policy in its third year, all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors were routinely bringing their Fujitsu LifeBook T4000 convertible tablet PCs to class with them.

According to Joe Tront, professor of electrical and computer engineering, in making the change, Virginia Tech first identified several pedagogical goals including: more active presentations, better note-taking, and greater student collaboration. And to make presentations more active, professors are utilizing applications such as the University of Washington's Classroom Presenter and DyKnow Vision. Tront, for instance, teaches integrated circuit design and has to portray mask layers and parts of transistors. Because colors are very important to the presentation, representation was something he couldn't achieve well on a whiteboard. Using Classroom Presenter while talking, however, he can easily draw in varying shades and widths with a stylus.

In his Engineering Design and Economics course, mechanical engineering instructor Dewey Spangler uses Vision in class, three or four times a semester. He has students spend 40 minutes working in groups on a concept; then he asks one team to submit its drawings, which then appear on a panel on all the tablets in class. "There's no need to run a projector at all," Spangler says. At that point, he can make notes on the presentation or turn it over to another team, to annotate the drawings. The use of Vision with the tablets "creates an electronic forum," Spangler maintains.

Outside of class, Spangler's students use the tablets to collaborate using Microsoft OneNote (a note-taking and information management program), and happily exploit the program whether they are in the same room or across campus from each other. Three-person groups create an IP address for their team and hold remote sessions in which whatever one student writes on her tablet shows up on the tablets of the other two. "They used to write these things out by hand and store them in a paper log book," Spangler says. "Then they had to meet face-to-face and make paper copies of everything." The instructor believes his students are now more focused and motivated, because they know their work might be displayed to the class in 40 minutes, not just in a log book that their professor will examine five weeks hence. He also claims the perception of his course is much improved. "Because it's electronic and they like using the tablets, they are taking it more seriously," he insists.

As for Tront, he believes the move to tablets affords a true competitive edge, and continues a long-standing Virginia Tech tradition of being aggressive about new technology. "When I was the associate dean in charge of the requirement program in the 1990s, parents would call to tell us how they shopped around to identify where they wanted to send their children; they said that one of the big factors in choosing Virginia Tech was its progressiveness in using educational technology to teach and to prepare students for typical real-world working situations."

Will Netbooks Find a Niche?

Good Things Come in Small PackagesEDUCATORS CONTINUE TO search for a computing device that offers students the portability of a smart phone and the computing power and keyboard of a laptop. Could the recent slew of "netbooks" be the answer? Netbooks are clamshell-style PCs with a 7- to 10-inch screen that retail for less than $500. In the last year, most laptop vendors have rolled out netbook offerings, and while they are seeing strong interest from the K-12 market, they say it's too early to determine how big an impact the devices will have on college campuses.

"We absolutely believe the netbook is relevant to the higher education market because of its ultra-mobility. It could be used in both traditional undergraduate and grad school settings as a secondary or companion PC," says Michael Schmedlen, director of worldwide education marketing for Lenovo, which has introduced the IdeaPad S10 netbook. Because of the form factor and attractive pricing, he adds, it also could be used as a primary PC for those in community colleges, or for non-traditional students involved in distance learning.

John Mullen, vice president of sales for Dell's higher education sector, says the initial market for its netbooks will be the K-12 classroom, but he sees them as fitting into a continuum of devices college students may soon own. "The smart phone tends to be for a three-minute web experience, and the full-featured laptop or desktop is for a three-hour content-creation experience," he says. The netbook falls somewhere in between. Most students leave their laptops in their dorm rooms, so these mini-notebooks could be for the 30-minute web experience and for classroom note-taking, he suggests, and adds that some resellers are asking Dell to offer bundled deals of netbooks and laptops.

Bob O'Donnell, IDC VP for clients and displays, notes that the market research firm initially projected that higher education might be a substantial part of the netbook market, but "I don't see a whole lot of universities buying these for their students," he says. "They're not that much cheaper than full-featured notebooks anymore, and I don't think most college students are likely to buy two notebook PCs."

George Saltsman, director of the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian University (TX), sees netbooks as "misfit" devices. "They are slightly too small to be used for extended periods of writing or design work like a full-powered laptop, yet they are slightly too big to be ultra-portable like a cell phone," he says. "Ultimately, I think they would end up being left at the home or office most of the time, and that leaves the promise of ultra-mobile computing largely unfulfilled."

But because college students don't tend to bring their laptops to class with them every day, the netbook or a similar device could be of interest, insists Amy Campbell, assistant director and head of faculty services at the Center for Instructional Technology at Duke University (NC). The fact of the matter is, "The laptops tend to sit in the dorm room," she says, "so I could see the potential for these smaller devices as a secondary computer-- if the price point stays where it is."

'Baby' Boom, and Other Little Things

Brenda Neece, an adjunct assistant professor of music at Duke University (NC), is always experimenting with new ways technology can help her and her students in the classroom and in the field. She relies on the university's 10-year-old Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) for guidance on new devices to test. In the fall of 2007, for instance, Neece was looking for a device that would allow her graduate musicology students to perform research outside the classroom. She wanted a portable yet full-featured device that the students could tote to libraries, cathedrals, or museums-- anywhere they might encounter ancient music. CIT staff recommended the students try out the Sony Vaio UX Series Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC). The small tablet PC has a stylus that can be used to create sketches, and a built-in webcam and digital still/video camera. The music department provided licenses for Sibelius music-notation software for use during the project.

"We called them baby computers," Neece laughs. But when the grad students were studying manuscripts, the UMPC "babies" were indeed easier to carry around than laptops. At research locations, students used the built-in cameras to capture quick images of sheet music or instruments for later reference. "The device has a surprisingly clear screen," Neece says. "It's perfect for students to take to conferences. I'd like to get them in the hands of our undergraduates, too."

With the CIT's support, Neece is just one of many Duke faculty members experimenting with mobile technology. Amy Campbell, CIT assistant director and head of faculty services, says there is interest among many faculty for devices that are smaller and can do multiple things. In fact, it is a CIT mission to make cutting-edge technology available to faculty, for experimentation. "Instead of faculty just getting 25 devices from the start," Campbell says, "we encourage them to borrow something, understand how it could be used, and then make a plan."

One current project involves a professor of the Hindi language, who has students using iPod Touches to locate internet videos of people speaking Hindi. Then the professor plugs their iPods into a projector and plays what they have found, to generate class discussions. In another pilot project, a nursing professor is experimenting with the use of Asus netbooks in a distance-learning program, to increase collaboration between working professionals. (See "Will Netbooks Find a Niche?")

Campbell believes that faculty interest in smaller computing devices will continue to grow. "They feel the perfect device for them doesn't exist yet," she admits. "Some faculty members have described a device that sounds like a cross between a cell phone and a computer, but with a more usable keypad. We're still looking for the sweet spot."

[Editor's note: Don’t miss "Space Savers," our roundup of the latest in size-conscious hardware.]

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