When almost 1,000 students showed up at Abilene Christian University (ACU) on August 16, they got something more than the usual medical release forms, parking permits and welcomingT-shirts.
They got a choice of a brand-spanking-new Apple iPhone 3G or iPod Touch, plus a package of ACU-written web applications to use on them.
The hardware is part of the Texas university's pilot mobile learning project, which has been gestating for over a year. About 650 first-year students chose the iPhone, and about 300 the iPod Touch, which is a very similar device but without the 3G radio (both devices incorporate an 802.11g Wi-Fi adapter). ACU pays for the hardware, the student (or their parents) select and pay for a monthly service plan.
After just six weeks, the freshmen seem fully mobilised.
"I use it in four of my five classes," says Halie Davis, a teenager from west Texas, who chose the iPhone. "If your teacher says 'get out your iPhone and look up a word' you can do a Google search or check Wikipedia on the internet. It's really fast."
With their devices, students also get read-only mobile access to files of all kinds stored on the campus Xythos Software online document management system. Since deploying Xythos in the spring of 2008, ACU has been building applications on top of it, including a class-folder system: for each class, teachers can add a syllabus, a spreadsheet, pdf files, video clips, podcasts, all accessible by iPhone from anywhere there is wireless access.
ACU created a bundle of web-based mobile applications, rather than make use of Apple's software developers kit. That gives the school the option of making use of other devices in the future, possibly a touch-based Android phone, running a full mobile web browser such as Firefox for Mobile, now in development. These new mobile applications, and others such as Google Apps for Education, a suite of email and other cloud-based services, are all accessible as soon as users complete their login authentication.
One group of ACU applications heavily used by Davis during her first week or so on campus is called mymobile "You click on the tab and it tells you the classes you're enroled in, where they are, the professor's name, and [gives you] a 3D map of the campus," she says. "That was really, really helpful to find your way around."
Part of mymobile is what ACU calls NANO tools, for "no advanced notice". These are a set of interactive quizzes, polls and other programs for class uses. Davis says her Bible class professor is constantly doing in-class, online polls of the students, who select answers via the device's Safari web browser. "It's really neat: you can see the results changing," she says.
A second tab is ACUmobile, with campus calendars, events and photos taken by students. A third tab, pocketguide, contains information about the city of Abilene: places to eat, bands, coffee shops and the like.
The devices are constantly in use not just in class but across the campus, apparently making it easier and faster for students to find and develop their own place in the campus community. One of the first applications Davis downloaded from Apple's App Store was the store's Facebook application, where she has her own profile and networks of family, friends and classmates. "I'm always logged in, and it's just like being on my computer," she says.
And she keeps in touch with nearly all of them, sending and receiving anywhere from 200 to 300 text messages a day. And that was one of the two problems she encountered with her iPhone: shifting from being a texting speedfreak with her old Samsung Wafer phone on Alltel's network to the iPhone's virtual keyboard. "I'm as fast as I used to be, but now I do have to look at the keypad," Davis says.
The other problem was draining her iPhone battery, which happened almost daily to start with, until she shut off the 3G connection while on campus, and relied on ACU's just-upgraded Alcatel-Lucent Wi-Fi network (the company OEMs the Aruba WLAN equipment). When it learned of the school’s plans, AT&T, the iPhone's sole US carrier, upgraded the campus area with 3G base stations. ACU says 3G performance is consistently about 900Kbit/s compared with AT&T’s EDGE network at 300Kbit/s to 400Kbit/s.
"If I didn't have my iPhone, I would feel like I was out of the loop," Davis says.