These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Creating Applications for Converged Devices Like the iPhone: Start with a Vision,” presented by Hab Adkins, Manager of Programming and Support, and James Langford, Director of Web Integration and Programming, Abilene Christian University.

As an iPhone user and mobile computing fanatic, I wanted to hear how the ACU iPhone/iTouch deployment was going. This was a fantastic presentation, one of the more exciting of the conference for me. James started by saying that their ACU Mobile initiative was driven by academics, not simply the “coolness factor” of the iPhone. The development work prior to the fall 2008 launch could not utilize the SDK just released by Apple, so the developers used Apple dashcode to create web apps. When asked if they would use the SDK to migrate to native apps, Hab said they were looking into it and that some of the apps might benefit.

They reviewed a number of their applications:

  • Student profiles, including photo submission. Instructors see class rosters with photos and can launch a game that helps them learn students’ names, matching names with faces. They developed an  attendance tool using student photos and class rosters. Instructors see a graphic summary of attendance information at-a-glance and can identify at-risk students quickly.
  • Personalized Google Calendar feed and information about campus events. They have also established a Google Calendar for every course.
  • Point-to-point campus directions. A student developed the algorithm for finding the shortest distance, a great example of involving students in development.
  • Connection to Xythos that allows students to access personal and course-related files and deposit files into Xythos folders.
  • NANO (no advanced notice) polling tools. This was brilliant. We used one of the tools during the presentation. Polling results for multiple choice questions with one-word response options can be displayed as a tag cloud, where the size of the word indicates the number of times it was selected.
  • All services are also available via laptop/desktop from the ACU portal.

My main take away from this session was, if you want to know how to do this right, talk to ACU. Their vision was solid and aligned with campus strategic goals, their development work was inspired, and they accomplished a great deal in a short time.

After the session, I thought about the following:

  • Those of us with laptop mandates know that the portable media player, data storage, communication, and web functions provided by the iPhone are nothing new. However, we have struggled for years to integrate laptops into classrooms ill-suited for their use. We wrestle with weight, power, and other issues that discourage laptop mobility. Is the iPhone a device that competes with a laptop or are we reaching a point where both devices serve different, but symbiotic, academic functions?
  • ACU’s NANO tools illustrate the potential of the iPhone to engage students in class and the value of the iPhone as a media player is obvious. However, the benefits of the Xythos connection and accessing full-page content not intended for a handheld are not as clear. Apple designed the iPhone to provide access to full web pages and other documents, not mobile versions of them. Users then zoom in on the areas of the page they want to review. I think the jury is still out on whether this is a better user experience than accessing “moblized” verions of the same content.
  • I think ACU’s student profile, face-to-name game, and class attendance apps are absolutely fantastic and just scratch the surface of what’s possible in terms of using iPhone-like devices to improve student-faculty interactions both in and out of the classroom. If I am sitting in the cafeteria and I see a former student at the next table whose name I don’t recall, wouldn’t it be great if I could look that up on my iPhone and greet the student by name? Those are the things that students appreciate and remember.

Ken

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