University deploys iPhones to freshmen in mobile learning experiment

Shamus McGillicuddy

This fall, Abilene Christian University will give every incoming freshman student an iPhone or iPod Touch as part of a mobile learning experiment.

"We started thinking about this 10 years ago," said Kevin Roberts, CIO of the Abilene, Texas-based school. "It's been this long-standing idea on campus, this idea of mobility. We looked at things like one-to-one laptop programs several years ago, but for a number of reasons – battery life, the size of the device, the expense – we decided against it. We looked at Treos and other phones, but none of the devices were quite there."

Then the iPhone came along. Roberts said the tipping point for him was the iPhone's fully functional Web browser, which could allow students to have "the Internet in your pocket."

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All of the school's 950 freshman students were offered a free iPhone as school opened this month. Since students are responsible for the phones' service contract with AT&T, the school has also offered the iPod Touch as an alternative for students who don't want to assume that liability.

The core focus of the initial deployment of the Apple devices will be on the school's Alcatel-Lucent wireless LAN network. The school is developing dozens of Web-based applications designed for mobile learning. Students and staff can access those mobile applications through the school's website, which will naturally put a burden on the school's WLAN network.

Prior to this project, the school's wireless LAN network consisted of 176 Alcatel-Lucent OmniAccess AP65 access points with dual 802.11a/g radios. Arthur Brant, the school's director of networking services, said the WLAN coverage was focused on residence halls and common areas such as the library and the campus center.

"With this announcement, we recognized the fact that we needed to accelerate our plan to roll out wireless and re-evaluate how we roll it out," Brant said. The school had traditionally focused on filling out its WLAN footprint, but the volume of new traffic represented by the iPhones required him to think about capacity. This meant a higher-density deployment of access points.

"Over the summer, we installed 330 additional access points, focusing on the freshmen residence halls, the library, the campus center and all academic spaces," Brant said.

Freshmen get connected
To see how Abilene Christian University plans to use the iPhone

With that network in place, the school was free to concentrate on delivering Web-based applications. For instance, it created an interactive map of the campus to help students navigate the school and find professors' offices and classrooms.

Roberts said he asked the school's faculty for suggestions on applications to enhance classroom learning. He said he expected about 20 responses but received more than 180, representing more than two-thirds of the faculty.

One Web-based application he created based on this feedback is dubbed the "No Advanced Notice" or "Nano." This flexible application allows professors to ask on-the-fly questions or take polls in the classroom. Students answer via their iPhones, and then the professor can share the results instantaneously and play around with the data.

"A professor can ask students: 'Who are the three most influential Americans in history?' " Roberts said. "As the names come in to the professor, he can deploy them back out to the students. The screen becomes a list of all the names. Students can type out the one they think is most influential, and the names become larger or smaller based on the responses. This creates a word cloud. It's a powerful tool that allows students in a classroom to brainstorm and get concepts out quickly. It also allows them to ask questions without raising their hands."

The school has also created applications that help faculty users of the iPhone. "We created a little application that allows a professor to take a roll call," Roberts said. "The application shows pictures of all the students and shows them present, tardy, absent and excused, so the professor can learn names quicker."

Roberts said the iPhones will also help the university deal with the changes in the nature of education brought on by the age of the Internet.

"Our faculty members are no longer able to disseminate information as a sole source," he said. "Those days are gone. Now, one of the things the professor has to do is teach students how to evaluate sources of information. It relates to the idea of the Internet in our pocket. The professor can tell students: 'I want each of you to find [on your iPhone] five different websites that have different views on macroeconomics, and then we'll discuss the merits of each.' "

Next steps for the deployment include tapping the iPhones into the school's PBX phone system and Web conferencing technology, which will require some engineering and some upgrades to the wireless LAN from 802.11g to 802.11n.

"We recently signed a contract with Alcatel-Lucent to explore what that … means," Brant said. "We've had a lot of conversations between our two organizations about it."

Brant said the school sees the value in having technologies such as click-to-call and call conferencing hosted by the school's systems, but it will take some time to determine the best way to make that happen.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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