University arms students with free iPhones

A class of chatty college freshman sits in a large lecture hall at a small-town-Texas university, debating the merits of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms. The conversation becomes heated at times, defensive voices rise and fall, eyes roll and heads shake.

Though only half the class speaks up regularly, they’ll all be asked to participate in the final exercise, a vote on which of the arguments presented by debate participants was most convincing.

Such a debate scenario is a common one as fall classes commence, but there’s one obvious difference between the Abilene Christian University (ACU) freshmen and the thousands of gen-Y-ers filling colleges throughout the rest of the United States:

All of the ACU students carry university-issued Apple iPhones or iPod touch devices, as do their professors. Instead of a simple show of hands, which could be biased because students may be hesitant to go against popular opinion, votes on the debate could be collected and instantly displayed using ACU’s custom iPhone application and website.

That’s just one possibility of iPhone-enhanced learning at ACU, where professors and staff are using the Apple devices in innovative ways inside the classroom and out.

For the first time, all of ACU’s 2008 freshmen were given the choice between an iPhone 3G and an iPod touch—650 went with the 8GB iPhone while the remaining 300 chose 16GB iPod touches, says ACU’s CIO, Kevin Roberts. (They weren’t given a choice on storage capacity, and though the devices are paid for by the university, students are responsible for cellular plans.)

ACU Mobile on iPhone

The star app for the gadgets: the university’s in-house-developed, Web-based ACU Mobile application. Students use this app to check their university mail and calendars–both of which are Google Web-based services–look up course information, check student account balances, and even share files with classmates and professors. It’s as robust and unique as any software available in Apple’s App Store.

How Could iPhones Change A University?

In the late spring of 2007, roughly two months before Apple released the first generation iPhone, Roberts and a few members of his ACU IT team, along with various faculty members, gathered for a meeting to discuss the future of technology at ACU. At that time, rumors surrounding a possible iPod/cell phone hybrid from Apple were rampant, and the subject came up after the meeting. Roberts had read the rumors and blog himself, but the excitement from his fellow ACU staffers that day really grabbed his attention.

“That casual conversation drove us a little deeper. As we started unpacking that a little bit and reading more about it, we started coming to the conclusion that if even half of the rumors were true, [the iPhone was] going to be a pretty compelling device,” Roberts said.

Fortunately, one of the meeting attendees that day was an English professor who went on to write a 40-page white paper on what he and others thought a campus populated with students and faculty who all had iPhone-like-devices would look like. The paper was published a month later. (A video of the university’s collective vision was also eventually filmed.)

Another coincidence: A number of ACU representatives, include Roberts, were scheduled to meet with Apple for an executive briefing just a couple of weeks after the white paper was published. So the ACU folks decided to bring the paper with them, to see what Apple had to say. This was the real beginning of Mobile ACU, as Apple was equally excited about the possibilities, and the company’s confirmation of the ACU staffers’ ideas made the whole scenario seem more tangible, .

Shortly afterward, Apple released the iPhone and ACU immediately placed an order for 30 devices. Roberts and his team also issued a call for proposals to faculty members, requesting their specific ideas on what they would do with the devices in their classrooms.

“To be honest with you, I’d hoped we’d get 10 or 12 [proposals].” Roberts said. “We got close to 180 responses back. More than half of our faculty responded, and we knew we were on to something.”

Roberts and his team then distributed a number of iPhones to interested parties to collect initial responses and see whether or not the devices could meet the users’ high expectations. In late November and early October, the first reviews started coming in, and they couldn’t have been more positive: ACU faculty loved the iPhone.

Roberts took a cue from the early reviews, and selected about 30 projects from the proposals, which he and his team started working on immediately.

At that point, ACU’s tech team was feeling more and more confident that iPhone would become an important component of the university future technology strategy. Dr. James Langford, ACU’s director of Web integration and programming, along with his development team, started working on the beginnings of an iPhone-optimized mobile site and associated application.
“We’d thought about the idea of mobility for a number of years, everything from laptops to PDAs and BlackBerrys.

The tipping point on the iPhone for us was the fact that it has a truly, fully functional Web browser,” Roberts says.

“Obviously the Flash component is missing, but other than that it’s a fully functioning Web browser. That’s what made us go ahead and move forward with the iPhone.”

By February, just seven months after the iPhone hit the United States, the university was so impressed with Apple’s device that it committed to distributing iPhones and iPod touches to all incoming freshman in 2008.

The Custom iPhone App: Mobile ACU

The in-house developed iPhone App that students use, Mobile ACU, is a Web-based application (It doesn’t run natively on the iPhone.) The application has three main sections: ACU Mobile, simply an iPhone-optimized version of the university’s website; My Mobile, the real heart of the app, where students and faculty can log in to access ACU mail, course information, account balances, learning tools and more; and the ACU Pocket Guide, which provides a wide variety of information about local events, businesses and services in and around Abilene, Texas.

Anyone with an iPhone can access Mobile ACU (via the device’s Safari browser at m.acu.edu) to get information about the university, including locations of nearby organizations, upcoming events, news and maps of the area. Thus the publicly accessible Pocket Guide portion of Mobile ACU can help not only students but also travelers to the area.

But the most valuable–and unique–Mobile ACU features live in the My Mobile section of the application. To access My Mobile ACU, students and staffers click on a tab on the Mobile ACU home screen and enter their login information.

ACU My Mobile Home Screen

There are various student-oriented features within My Mobile, as well as faculty-centric functionality, and it’s accessible anywhere there’s cellular coverage or an available Wi-Fi network–though the iPod touch doesn’t have a cellular connection, it does have Wi-Fi support and the Safari browser.

The My Mobile home screen presents users with a variety of timely personalized information, such as assignments due on that particular day and later in the week. Students can also find information on how many campus events are happening that day and week. A “Classes” section helps students retrieve course materials and assignments and check personal calendars.
Professors have a different set of features, based on permissions assigned to them by IT administrators.

Specifically, professors can click on the “Classes” section of My ACU to see a course roster, which can be used to collect and track attendance. In fact, the roster function includes images of all students–where available–next to a color-coded square with the letters “P” for present, “T” for tardy, “E” for excused and “A” for absent. Professors need only tap the appropriate letter to take attendance.

ACU My Mobile Student Attendance Tool

The attendance screen also helps professors memorize the names of new students: professors can choose to remove the names from below the images of students and then jumble the photos to see if they can recall the correct names. Professors can also choose to view attendance over time as a sort of color-coded bar graph below each student’s image.

Both student and faculty members have access to a function called “Nano Tools”–Langford jokingly says the name was inspired by the fact that the currently available tools are only one billionth of what professors will eventually want; the real name means “No Advanced Notice.” Nano Tools provide professors and students with components for creating and participating in iPhone-based learning activities on the fly.

In other words, teachers can create polls almost instantly, to save time in class. Professors can also ask multiple choice questions of students, collect responses instantly via iPhone and then display the consensus answers in word cloud format.

Another noteworthy feature of My Mobile: students and faculty members can access shared drives via iPhone. Powered and secured by document management and collaboration firm Xythos, the Files section of My Mobile gives each student and faculty member access to personal drives. Here they can store various class files, as well as course-specific folders for dropping off and picking up assignments or revisions.

Developing Mobile ACU

What does it take to develop such an iPhone application in house? In ACU’s case, Langford and his team did all the programming work, beginning last October and finishing up in August. Because ACU’s website is a large part of the Mobile ACU app, many tweaks and enhancements to the site carry over to Mobile ACU.

So the application constantly gains additions and improvements, Langford says. And since the team wasn’t creating an entirely new native app to run on the iPhone–it was largely optimizing the university’s existing website for a mobile device–development was relatively painless.

Along the way, Roberts, Langford and the ACU team drummed up quite a bit of publicity from bloggers and gadget websites for being the first university to distribute iPhones to its students and faculty.

ACU My Mobile Account Balances

The Web-based Mobile ACU application was developed initially using Apple’s Dashcode on the front end, Langford says–and it’s accessed by physically typing m.acu.edu into the iPhone’s Safari browser. Users can easily create a home page shortcut, though, via Safari. (Tip for iPhone users: iPhone shortcuts are created by clicking the + sign in the bottom Safari dock and selecting Add to Home Screen.)

The application also integrates with various Google services, including Google mail, calendar and apps, as well as a document management and collaboration system from Xythos. (Langford says ACU became one of the first four U.S. universities to deploy Google Web services campus-wide in April 2007, meaning the university now uses Google Apps, Gmail and Calendar as its sole document, Web-mail and calendar offerings.)

Though Langford and his team did the vast majority of programming, ACU alumni Chad Martin, a designer with WebFireCracker.com, did the Mobile ACU interface work.

Lessons Learned

From an application perspective, Roberts says the preparation by both his and Langford’s teams led to a smooth launch without any major surprises.

One lesson that Roberts and Langford can pass on from their experiences with Mobile ACU: proper preparation and planning on both the technical- and student sides is absolutely essential.

Roberts and his team worked hand and hand with Alcatel, ACU’s wireless network infrastructure provider, throughout the year to ensure that the campus learning areas were blanketed with Wi-Fi.

Until this point, ACU’s IT team had concentrated more on “breadth” as opposed to “depth,” Roberts says.

Though there was Wi-Fi in the vast majority of the university’s lecture halls, laboratories and libraries when the freshman arrived, it didn’t take much to overload the network. This became a problem, because even though ACU’s classes tend to be rather small–with 20 to 30 students–there’s one freshman professor who’s extremely popular, and his classes average 300 or so students at a given time.

While ACU’s Wi-Fi coverage was suitable for the smaller classes, the network was “brought to its knees” when all 300 students attempted to access it simultaneously, Roberts said. So the team called Alcatel back in and eventually installed an additional 243 wireless access points to address coverage issues.

Langford credits the technology team’s efforts in preparing and distributing the phones to students and faculty as key to the project’s success. For example, the phones were distributed to users during a four-day freshman-arrival period, during which some 23 Apple support representatives were on campus to help students with any issues they encountered. IT support reps literally roamed the corridors of residence halls looking for student in need of assistance. And iPhone-specific help guides were also distributed to new users along with their devices.

“You can’t put too much attention to detail on the distribution of these things,” Langford said. Preparation aside, Roberts also learned something about the future of IT, he says.

“In today’s world, new technologies come on at a pace that is so fast, the time between introduction and saturation happens in the blink of an eye,” he says. “One of the things that was scariest for me as a CIO about this entire process was that we had to make some decisions on launch, well before we had all the details worked out, well before we knew whether or not the platform was going to work the way we wanted.”

Proper preparation helps to mitigate the risks associated with new or untested technologies, but there’s always going to be a certain level of uncertainly with initiatives like ACU’s iPhone program, Roberts says.

“One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that this is going to be the world that we’re going to live in in a lot of ways from now on,” he said. “The days of being able to ponder on new tech for months and months and months and evaluate, I think those days are slipping away from us. That’s exciting and scary at the same time.”

Other stories by Al Sacco © 2008 CXO Media Inc.

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