Educators assess iPhones for instruction

Techies and trendsetters, Apple fans and cell-phone enthusiasts have all been buzzing about Apple’s new iPhone. Many educators, too, are intrigued by this new technology and are weighing its potential impact in schools.

While some educators applaud the iPhone’s revolutionary interface and its access to more than 300 applications, others say its high cost and lack of certain key features-such as a video camera-will keep them from investing in the device for their classrooms, at least for now.

Fueling schools’ interest in the iPhone is the emergence of education-specific applications for the device.

In June, Apple announced that the iPhone would support third-party Web 2.0 applications. Soon thereafter, Software MacKiev-a maker of software for the Macintosh platform, such as World Book, HyperStudio, and 3-D Weather Globe and Atlas-became one of the first companies to develop an educational application for the iPhone, releasing This Day in History. The software tool is based on the widget by the same name included with the 2007 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia, and it lists historical events that correspond to each day’s calendar date. Best of all, it’s available free of charge for iPhone users.

Software MacKiev reportedly plans to offer other iPhone applications, too. These will include a companion application to its 3-D Weather Globe and Atlas, which displays accurate weather conditions for locations around the world, and a trivia challenge based on facts from its World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia.

The introduction of such educational applications, coupled with the iPhone’s original design and the surge in the use of cell phones and iPods in classrooms, has led educators to explore whether iPhones can be effective classroom tools.

In a recent blog post, Helen Barrett, an Apple Distinguished Educator and recent retiree from the faculty of the College of Education at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said she believes “online simulations, games, learning objects, widgets, blogs, and built-in-camera features … could [make] the iPhone the next one-to-one platform for learning.”

Jeff VanDrimmelen, an academic computing expert at the University of North Carolina and author of the EduTechie blog, says the iPhone’s multi-touch display, widgets, and easily browsable internet service could be the three features that make it compatible with education.

“Imagine harnessing the power of a multi-touch display in a test, allowing students to more naturally interact and manipulate the test and then send it back to you over the air, anywhere,” VanDrimmelen says.

Richard Anderson, of the U.K.’s Wolverhampton City Learning Centre, says the iPhone’s technology will let students use their fingers to “rotate, pan, and zoom around 3-D models of buildings, geographical features, or chemical molecules and … interact with photographs, maps, text, video, and audio.” However, Anderson acknowledges that the iPhone, in its current form, “is unlikely to be appropriate for large-scale use in education. It is both expensive and limited-no cut-and-paste, no video camera.”

VanDrimmelen adds: “Right now, [the iPhone] costs $499 for a 4-gigabyte and $599 for an 8-gigabyte model. That is awfully pricey for an educational tool, and it’s certainly going to be a long time before most of us educators get our hands on one, let alone enough students to design lesson plans around having one.”

Putting cost-related concerns aside, some schools have started testing the iPhone’s potential for classroom use.

Jeff Billings, director of information technology for Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District, says his district has deactivated the device’s cell-phone service and is using it as a more sophisticated, wireless version of the video iPod.

“We have [text messaging] working on our iChat server, allowing synchronous chat, [and we’re] streaming QuickTime videos through the browser over Wi-Fi, taking online assessments through our portal, and much more,” says Billings. “We’re very encouraged. We’re not sure on the legality yet of deactivating the phone service, but we’re in exploration mode now.”

The University of California-Davis even has an iPhone research program, sponsored by Peter M. Sigel, vice provost for information and educational technology, and Patricia Turner, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

The program launched July 16 and invites faculty and staff who frequently use or develop educational technology to think about how the iPhone might enhance teaching. Participants are asked to submit a brief proposal that outlines a direction of inquiry they would like to explore. The research could involve testing the iPhone with an application for use in class, interfacing the iPhone with an educational technology currently available at UC Davis, or learning how to use various iPhone technologies and documenting how they might enhance teaching and learning.

UC Davis is one of several campuses working with Apple’s University Education Forum to investigate how the iPhone might be used in postsecondary education. Others include the University of California at Los Angeles, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Stanford, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Sacramento State, and Foothill-De Anza Community Colleges.

Though schools might not purchase iPhones on a widespread basis for some time, “some of the features of the iPhone, whether in future versions … or in other devices using similar technology, may drive mobile learning to the next level,” says Anderson.


Apple’s iPhone

Software MacKiev

Helen Barrett’s blog


Wolverhampton City Learning Centre

UC Davis iPhone Research Program

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