Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Portable Tech Use Seen as Top Priority in Higher Ed.

By Katie Ash — March 16, 2010 7 min read
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At Abilene Christian University in Texas, students are using iPhones and iPod touches to take quizzes and look up information during class, and representatives from the university are working with nearby school districts to launch mobile-learning initiatives.

At Seton Hall University in New Jersey, students use Nokia smartphones to create content for classes and collaborate with their peers.

Meanwhile, at Central Michigan University, students in the teacher education program are using iPod touches and iPhones to take part in class surveys and listen to podcast lectures from their professors.

Abilene Christian, Seton Hall, and Central Michigan are seeking to use mobile technologies to improve student learning, an approach that is gaining momentum in higher education much faster than at the K-12 level. Measuring the impact of such approaches is the next step in determining how much faster colleges and universities should move to embrace the devices.

“We think of ourselves as a 200-acre petri dish,” says George Saltsman, the director of technology for the Adams Center for Teaching and Learning at Abilene Christian University. “We’re looking at our data, looking at our trends, and trying to figure out, ‘What does this look like in the future?’ ”

‘Getting Students Connected’

The 4,800-student university handed out iPhones or iPod touches to each of its freshmen starting in 2008. Today, all freshmen and sophomores, as well as most faculty members, have iPhones or iPod touches.

Students are encouraged to use the devices during class to look up information and interact with their professors and peers, as well as outside of a formal class setting, when they can use the tools to collaborate, create content, and discuss topics.

“By using mobile learning, we’re able to expand the classroom beyond the 45 minutes you have with them that day,” says Billie J. McConnell, a professor of teacher education at ACU. “We’re getting students connected to think, collaborate, and discuss ideas outside of the classroom.”

Rich Tanner, a senior studying information technology at the university, says that when used properly, the devices have immense educational value.

“I have often used my iPhone to look up a term or a phrase that was presented in class that I did not immediately understand,” he says. “Such use helps the student to have a clear grasp of the material being presented and better prepares them to contribute to class conversations.”

Tanner believes that encouraging students to be proactive in finding answers to their questions also helps them become better researchers.

Brittany R. Kight, a junior studying information technology, says that using mobile technologies in class can help encourage students who may not normally take part in discussions feel comfortable.

“The iPhone enables the class to be more interactive,” she says.

However, it can be difficult to get teachers to use them. “Some professors prefer the traditional method of lecture and use the blackboard,” says Kight.

After a full year of using the devices, ACU published a report on its findings, which concluded that the university’s faculty and students felt positive about the program, that the ubiquity of the devices and the wireless network was essential to the success of the program, that iPhones and iPod touches are an attractive learning platform for students, and that learning activities can be successfully transferred to mobile devices.

But some professors feel that mobile devices can be more distracting than educational.

Cynthia M. Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communication at the University of Missouri’s school of journalism in Columbia, Mo., doesn’t allow her students to bring laptops to class in her large lectures.

“The computer doesn’t help them in any form or fashion learn the content,” she says. Hand-written notes and textbooks work just as well, she says, and since banning laptops in her classes, she has noticed an increase in comprehension and test scores.

Lessons for K-12

Abilene Christian University is also working with K-12 schools, as well as with other colleges and universities, that are interested in its findings and how they could apply elsewhere.

McConnell, the teacher-educator, for instance, serves as a liaison between the university and schools that are curious about mobile learning.

One district McConnell works with is the 1,015-student Jim Ned Consolidated Independent School District in Tuscola, Texas.

Teachers in the 330-student high school there received MacBook Pros as well as iPod touches or iPhones at the beginning of the school year, and students received iPod touches in February.

“The world is changing faster than I can keep up with it, and I want my kids to walk out of our educational environment into a world that they’re ready for,” says Brant Myers, the superintendent of the district, who spearheaded the initiative. The district set aside federal aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for the devices as well as for upgrades to the wireless network, says Myers.

The devices are school-owned, he says, so students are required to turn them in at the end of the year, like a textbook.

The iPod touches distributed to high school students in the Jim Ned school district will be equipped with an application that will filter Web searches both at school and at home, Myers says.

Controlling what students can access on the devices is one of the biggest differences between mobile devices at the higher education and K-12 levels, says McConnell. Beyond the legal and ethical considerations of working with minors, being able to limit what students can and cannot do on the devices helps get teacher buy-in, he says.

“Teachers need to feel comfortable with what their students are doing with the technology,” McConnell says. Having the support of teachers is essential to a successful program, he says, because teachers won’t embrace mobile devices unless they believe using them is in the best interest of the students.

Having the infrastructure in place to support the devices is also crucial to getting teachers on board, he says.

“If [teachers] spend hours creating a new lesson plan, walk into the classroom, and can’t implement it [because of technical reasons], it’s over,” McConnell says. “It’s hard to get them to try again.”

At Seton Hall, in South Orange, N.J., students in the business school as well as the college of arts and sciences received Nokia smartphones to use both in and outside of class. The program debuted in June 2008 during freshman orientation, when students completed a scavenger hunt that involved touching their phones to “smart posters” around campus to familiarize themselves with the university and get information about the resources available to them.

“Mobile permeates every aspect of our lives,” says David W. Middleton, the assistant vice president for finance and technology. “It’s a perfect vehicle for expanding teaching and learning beyond the classroom walls in a way that is personalized and empowering.”

Over the past year, students at Seton Hall have used their phones to create content for classes. For example, they use the phones to record audio, take pictures, geotag images—which embeds the images with geographical data—and take notes.

They also use the phones to collaborate outside of class by contributing to discussion boards and wikis, says Middleton.

In one class, students created a digital map of a nearby river that included pictures and video taken on the phones. Students used geotags to integrate the multimedia elements into the map. In another course, students used the phones’ camera and video capabilities to produce short “digital ethnographies” about what it means for a product to be “green.”

Leveraging Technology

Mobile learning is not suited for every academic scenario, but teachers should ask themselves how it can enhance what is already going on in the class, Middleton says.

After a full year using the devices,the university has launched a more focused research effort, headed by the newly created Center for Mobile Research and Social Change.

Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, Mich., has distributed iPhones or iPod touches to students in the teacher education program. Professors use the devices to poll students, and students can send questions to the professor to be addressed during lectures, says Brian A. Roberts, an imaging and Web developer for the university.

Many professors there also use the devices to record lectures and upload them as podcasts, which can be downloaded by students through iTunes U, Roberts says. A service within the iTunes music-management program, iTunes U allows schools to manage, distribute, and control access to educational podcasts created by their teachers.

At the K-12 level, incorporating mobile devices into learning is gaining traction for two reasons, says McConnell, from Abilene Christian University. One is simply that “students already have the technology,” he says. Teachers are eager to take advantage of the technology that is part of students’ lives.

The second reason is that the lower cost of mobile devices versus personal computers can be a major advantage for school districts, says McConnell. “Implementing a 1-to-1 laptop program is very expensive,” he says, “and this offers an alternative that doesn’t take as large an investment.”

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