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ACU's iPhone initiative: a year later


In February of last year I did a two-paragraph writeup on an interesting development in higher education, noting that Abilene Christian University was doling out iPhones and iPod touches to incoming first-year students. I didn't, at the time, have many details on the goals of the program or its implementation, I just gathered that there was a good deal of planning and thought behind the initiative. Little did I know that, over a year later, I'd be talking to the minds behind the program and finding out exactly how it went.

I recently got a chance to follow up with 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. We talked for well over an hour, and their intensity and enthusiasm never dwindled. I got a great look at what they planned, how they did it, and how it turned out after the first year. Read on to see how the iPhone (and the iPod touch) has played a role in creating a new model for higher education at ACU.


We knew the "what" already: ACU handed 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.

There is a multi-dimensional appeal to the iPhone, and that's what these three and their compatriots hung their hopes on: it's innately sexy, thanks in no small part to some great marketing by Apple, it's extremely useful and, most importantly, it has the potential to become an integral part of students' social lives. Bill explains that a "significant amount of their value has to do with their use as a social device, or as an entertainment device ... if my students need this device as part of their social network, then it guarantees that it's in the classroom with them." George adds that "it's a part of the way they behave socially, it becomes a tool to help them with their lives. That dynamic is very important in education -- we don't have to teach them about this device, they're going to learn it on their own. It's just one small [step] to be able to use that device for education and intellectual inquiry."

After listening to the conversation for a while, it became clear that there was a driving philosophy behind this, and one which made it all work. First, the devices were the students', their use of them as social and entertainment devices was unrestricted. They let the iPhone do something it does quite well: become an integral part of a student's daily life. Second, nothing was mandated. Acceptance and use by anyone, student, faculty or staff, was entirely voluntary.

This is an interesting counterpoint to one of the lessons they learned along the way: ubiquity is key. A curriculum which incorporates the iPhone needs to be inclusive -- everyone has to have a device -- and materials and resources have to be universally accessible for a plan like this to work. In the end, they told me, the biggest challenge was not convincing people to get on board, it was simply meeting the demand.

The 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. This is in large part due to the fact that the school, for several reasons, was unable to provide any contract with the iPhone, and many students had existing cell phone contracts which would result in a significant enough penalty to discourage starting an AT&T plan. Even among those, though, there were some iPhone switchers willing to pay the price.

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. Bill explained that this greatly increased student-instructor communication, and resulted in fewer absences.

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. It's examples like that which have me convinced that this initiative has some well-planned ways of reaching lofty goals.

Paradigm shift

One of those goals was to move the typical lecture room ideology into this century, and beyond. The heyday of gathering resources from library books and microfiche is waning; it's becoming increasingly important to teach students to critically process an information overload rather than just teaching information-gathering techniques. Tools will change over time, but the ability to sift through the vast amount of information today's students have access to is a skill which will serve students well. "Ultimately," says Bill, " I'm just sort of cribbing from Marshall McLuhan ... McLuhan's idea about the way that new media can sort of recover things from the the past but obsolesce things from the present. We're certainly seeing some of that happen."

The "Lipstick on a Pig" story that broke during the last election was an example of this new paradigm in practice. The morning that the story hit the blogs and the political controversy began, students were asked to pull out their iPhones and start Googling right away. The goal was to find the needle of fact in the haystack of biased political commentary and political fringe blogs. The original sources needed to be traced and examined. It was quite a far cry from researching Lewis and Clark in dusty books (I got an "A" in that class, for the record).

The results

The ACU iPhone initiative would be a gimmick if research wasn't done in post to determine its results. 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. George tells me that, in a post-semester survey, 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 research also revealed that faculty were using the devices to students' benefit, even when the students in their class didn't have them. All in all, a positive response from the faculty and staff, and a desire for further training and continued app development.

George, Bill and Scott all agree that the iPhone and devices like it represent the future of education ... "like it or not." 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. The results of the first year's experiment are positive enough that future institutional investment can be justified to provide the necessary ubiquity. The resources required are significant, but they offer a very good return. 500 devices have already been handed out for the next year, and Bill, George and Scott are speaking at conferences around the globe about the program and its results. It's clear that the readiness of today's students to face the future depends on programs like this, and the "culture of innovation" that seems to drive ACU.

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