Thursday, December 31, 2009

ACU, iPhones, and Wired

My sister, an ACU alumnus, emailed me a few weeks ago an article on Wired.com about her alma mater: How the iPhone Could Reboot Education. This is the second time Wired has written about ACU's iPhone/iPod initiative; ACU was the first university to give all incoming freshmen an iPhone or iPod Touch in an experiment to see how useful the devices could be in an academic setting.

ACU is one of the schools that Harding competes with for students, so you could imagine that some of us here at Harding are a little skeptical of the PR ACU's program has generated. Some think it's just a gimmick to attract new students.

One of Harding's admission officers told me recently that we regularly have prospective students ask, "Since ACU is offering me a free iPhone, what is Harding going to give me?" Of course ACU is not giving anything away to students for "free"; the article states that the dorm computer labs were shut down, and other expenses are likely paid for by increases in tuition or technology fees. But many 18 year-olds are unlikely to see the correlation between tuition costs and freebies.

I do, however, think having all your students fitted with the same mobile device presents some interesting opportunities. Some ACU professors quizzed students to see if they understood the lesson, and students could respond using their iPhones anonymously. (Some Harding professors are doing the same thing with specialized handsets.) Another ACU professor has students look up information in class, and they discuss how accurate or trustworthy the information is. I sometimes do something similar with my students who often have a computer that is sitting in front of them.

So far, ACU reports that their Mobile Learning initiative is paying off. A quote from the ACU website:
The majority of students in specific courses where mobile devices have been routinely used rate themselves as having improved their academic performance (grades and organization) and engagement (active learning, contact with professors and teaching assistants, involvement and attention).
This quote is interesting in that the students themselves have said they do better and are more engaged in classes that use iPhones. Whether they are actually learning more is anyone's guess, but any time you can make a student think they are doing better in class is usually a good thing. (Of course, one wonders if students report that they like using their iPhones in class because a negative assessment might be mean their iPhones are yanked away in the future. wink)

As an instructor who has experience teaching students in a computer lab where students are allowed to use their computer in class for taking notes and class activities, the biggest obstacle I've faced is getting students to pay attention to what's happening in the classroom and off of Facebook, Google, games, etc. This is surely the temptation also faced by students when using iPhones in the classroom; the potential for distraction is very real. (See student comment #4.)

You're not likely to see Harding give iPhones to every incoming freshman anytime soon, but some point in the near future I think it's likely that all freshmen will have some smart mobile device with them. Universities will need to be creative in using this personal accessory to their advantage.

P.S. Congratulations to my friend and former colleague Autumn Sutherland who was named a 2009-2010 Mobile Learning Fellow at ACU.