Monday, July 27, 2009

Update on ACU's Mobile Learning Initiative

I wrote a blog post last December on Abilene Christian University's Mobile Learning Initiative and more recently on their iPhone Programming course. Brett Terpstra from The Unofficial Apple Weblog interviewed three of the ACU staff leading the initiative. The results from the year one pilot are encouraging. So much so, that the University is handing out another 500 devices this year.

ACU's iPhone initiative: a year later

Terpstra was able to follow up with three of the project leaders:
... George Saltsman (Faculty Development), Scott Perkins (Director of Research) and William (Bill) Rankin (Director of Educational Innovation), meeting up for a multiparty video chat which revealed the excitement these guys have for what they are seeing become the platform for education: the iPhone.
I wonder how many schools have a designated "Director of Innovation?"

A rough assessment of the conversation from Terpstra concludes that "... the iPhone (and the iPod touch) has played a role in creating a new model for higher education at ACU."

The implementation included handing out
957 devices to incoming freshmen, as well as 169 to faculty and another 182 to staff. It wasn't a blind move, or a gimmick; it was the result of much research, planning, and even a faculty contest to submit ideas for implementing technology -- namely, the iPhone -- into the curriculum in ways which would be beneficial, non-distracting and begin to chip away at the age-old paradigms of the lecture hall. [Emphasis added - MQ]
The iPhone requires a two-year plan from AT&T, therefore
... incoming freshmen were given a choice between an iPhone, an iPod touch, or neither. Unsurprisingly, every incoming student accepted one or the other, with about 36% choosing a iPod touch over an iPhone.
A wide variety of web-based activities were built around the devices. These activities were carefully constructed to leverage the existing infrastructure and its' security and to ensure that students without the devices could still access the materials.
In addition to podcasts, class polls and various communication channels made possible by iPhone ubiquity, the school also provides a web portal -- one that can be accessed through either an iPhone or any standard web browser on a desktop or laptop computer. It offers everything from curriculum overviews and syllabi to account information and Google Calendars, and provides an information center for all students. Making this web-based meant existing security measures stayed in place, and students without iPhones/iPod touches had equal access. Additionally, iPhone specific tools were created to enhance the educational experience. One such application was an attendance tool which automatically contacts absent students via an email they can reply directly to.
Taking attendance and remembering the names and faces of the many students I encounter every semester is an ongoing challenge. In my twelve years of teaching I've gotten a lot better at remembering names and faces, but the staff at ACU even have a fun, innovative solution to this arduous tasks.
Programmers at ACU went an extra step and added a game to the attendance tool, offering professors a memory challenge matching up faces with names. It might sound a little corny, but it went over well and, as a result, improved the instructors' relationships and interactivity with the students.
The results of the pilot are very encouraging:
Several surveys were taken (with an unusually large percentage of respondents), and information was compiled. One of the questions asked was about the distraction level the iPhones and iPod touches generated in the classroom.

... 90% of the faculty and staff stated that the devices "were not a distraction in class." Students reported that they were bringing their devices to class, and that their performance, grades and class work all benefited. The studies also revealed that 82% of the students had used the web portal at least once per week during the Fall semester, 49% said they were given at least one assignment that required device usage outside of class, and 60% of students said they had regular opportunities to use the device for at least one class.
On the faculty side, about 65% of the 167 iPhone/touch-using faculty and staff members responded to survey questions on topics such as demographic and experience factors, personal and classroom usage, and perceived impact on student engagement and performance. An overwhelming majority of the respondents deemed the program a success, said that there was adequate communication and that the device was easy to use and implement. 70% responded positively about the course calender, 83% were in favor of online course documents, 63% for podcasts, 74% were happy about in-class internet searches, 76% responded favorably to the devices' role in taking attendance, and a whopping 87% stated that they felt comfortable about using the devices for required course activities. 
The goals of the project included inducing a paradigm shift, moving "... the typical lecture room ideology into this century, and beyond. In conclusion, ... all agree that the iPhone and devices like it represent the future of education ... "like it or not." Finally, some keys to the success of the project were identified.
The success of such programs depends both on the ubiquity and availability of the devices, as well as acceptance by the staff and students. The purely voluntary method of distribution and the freedom to use the device as a social and entertainment tool offered as part of the package both went a long way toward furthering the latter. [Emphasis added - MQ]

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