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Pioneering Mobile Learning

Midway through its second year, Abilene Christian University's mobile learning initiative expands to include classroom management and blogging, with mobile podcasting on the way.

Long before most universities would come to see mobile phones as teaching and learning tools, Abilene Christian University in Abilene, TX, distributed Apple iPhones and iPods to its incoming freshmen class. It was the fall of 2008, and the words "app" and "app store" had yet to become a common part of the English language.

"We launched our mobile learning initiative before the app store even existed, so we had to build our own mobilized version of a single sign-on Web portal," recalled William Rankin, director of education and innovation, and an associate professor of English. Prior to development, he said the university's IT staff researched other schools that were using laptop and other mobile learning programs, but "wanted something more."

Rankin said the IT staff and administrators spent 10 months researching the university's options, with some of that work focused on the Horizon Report, an effort of the New Media Consortium to identify emerging technologies that impact higher education.

The 2008 report concluded that, "As new devices are released that make content almost as easy to access and view on a mobile device as on a computer, the demand for mobile content will continue to grow. This is more than merely an expectation to provide content: this is an opportunity for higher education to reach its constituents wherever they may be."

That message resonated with Abilene Christian University's technology and teaching team, which comprised faculty, administration, and IT professionals. "We got together and discussed future directions in education, what was coming next, and basic technology as it related to teaching and learning," recalled Rankin. "As part of that exercise, we recognized that students were increasingly relying on media and learning from it."

Rankin said the technology team also looked at student data, which at the time indicated a high demand for mobility. "They were carrying technology with them everywhere and interacting with it through social networking sites and other means," said Rankin. "We watched as laptops exceeded desktops on campus, and decided to find a way to leverage that increasing mobility."

Already using iTunes U, a service that offers management and distribution of educational content for specific colleges and across the Web, Abilene Christian University was already sold on Apple's education-oriented stance. "When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, we said, 'That's it. That's what we need to be using,'" said Rankin.

By developing its own Web-based application for iPhones and iPods, Abilene Christian University became the first university in the nation to provide such media devices to its freshman class. Early on, the idea was for those students to use the handheld gadgets to receive homework alerts, find out where professors' offices were, check cafeteria account balances, and participate in classroom surveys developed by their instructors.

The initiative has since grown to include even more capabilities. "We've been adding both tools and information to our mobile application, which is now in its second version," explained Rankin. Half the student body is currently using the mobile devices, which continue to be distributed to incoming freshmen students.

"We're working toward delivering to the whole campus," said Rankin. As part of the initiative, the university also had to reconfigure its WiFi capabilities to ensure that students would be able to use their devices across the campus. "We had to deal with technical hurdles," he said, "but we took the whole implementation slowly, and worked through everything."

One of those hurdles involved the Internal Revenue Service tax code, which considers mobile phone voice and data plans "executive perks." As a result, the university isn't able to fund that aspect of the mobile learning initiative. To make the program available to all students, regardless of financial status, the school offers iPhones to recipients who can afford their own plans, and iPod touches to those who cannot.

Over the last two years, the mobile initiative has grown to include classroom management tools that reside on the mobile portal and allow faculty to take attendance, learn student names, and post assignments. Abilene's Christian University's IT team also built a series of "nano" (which stands for "no advanced notice") tools that let faculty members do quick multiple choice and true or false student polling.

"A professor can ask all freshman essay writers to provide their topic sentences via the iPhone," said Rankin, "and then broadcast those sentences to a list of recipients who discuss the content, brainstorm and/or vote on them."

In 2009, the IT team added Wordpress blog capabilities to its mobile lineup. Students use the utility to spread information, share YouTube videos and comment on each other's blogs. "That area has really taken off," said Rankin.

Another mobile app being used on campus is SketchBook, which allows students to draw on their devices, upload the work to an online portal like Facebook, and then critique one another's work. "Everyone is benefiting from this initiative, which is sort of discipline agnostic," said Rankin, "and useful across all departments."

This year, Rankin said, the university will introduce a few new IT initiatives that are focused on student participation and engagement. Mobile podcasting, for example, is on the "list," although none of the projects have been announced yet. "We'll continue to look for ways to use technology to bring students' voices into the classroom," stated Rankin.

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