Responding to the iPhone’s popularity among students, many universities now are rolling out initiatives that aim to take advantage of its potential as a converged, mobile learning device.

The timing is good for such initiatives, because earlier this month, Apple Inc. moved to expand the use of its iPhone by unveiling software intended to allow third-party developers to build new iPhone applications.

On March 14, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., released a version of its web site’s home page specially designed for the iPhone.

“More and more of our students, faculty, and staff are using the iPhone to access the internet,” said Melanie Moran, assistant director of the Vanderbilt News Service. “We created a version of the Vanderbilt web site that takes advantage of the iPhone’s powerful software and intuitive multi-touch interface.”

The specially designed web page will make it easier for iPhone users to access the web site’s content, such as eMail and the online directory.

In February, Texas-based Abilene Christian University (ACU) announced plans to give free iPhones or iPod touches to more than 900 incoming freshman this fall. The university plans to study the devices’ efficacy as a learning tool.

Unlike many earlier cell phones, the iPhone is designed to allow for full web surfing. Before, some cell phones could access only those web sites specifically created for mobile phones. And even with those phones that could access regular web sites, such as the Windows-equipped Palm Treo series, the process could be imperfect.

The iPhone and iPod touch come with Safari, Apple’s fully functioning web browser, built in. Users can switch between landscape or portrait view and use a touch-screen keyboard to search and zoom in and out on web content.

Besides full web surfing, the iPhone also lets users talk on the phone, send text messages, check eMail, take pictures, listen to music and podcasts, download documents, watch movies, and more via Wi-Fi access.

“I heard the buzz about the iPhone and thought, ‘If half of these things are true, then this is a really compelling device,’” said Kevin Roberts, ACU’s chief information officer.

ACU’s first-of-its-kind iPhone initiative is part of a larger, six-year study the university is doing on mobile computing in education.

ACU already has piloted laptops, Palm handhelds, and Blackberries on a wide scale. Each was a bust, Roberts said.

Laptops have limited battery life, and when flipped open, the screen creates an immediate barrier between the teacher and student in a classroom setting, he said. University officials found the Palm handhelds had connectivity problems, and Blackberries were best for eMail only.

Although every student likely would enjoy getting an iPhone or iPod touch for free, the university is limiting deployment to incoming freshmen.

“It makes sense that we start this with a cohort,” Roberts said. The freshman class is ideal for studying, because the students take general classes together and are required to live on campus for the first two years, he said.

ACU held a town-hall-style meeting and ran newspaper articles to address concerns about only freshmen receiving the free iPhones.

“The lead issue is that this is a learning initiative,” Roberts said, adding that it would be irresponsible financially—and to the university’s network—to deploy the iPhone initiative to the entire student body at the same time.

Students will choose whether they want to receive a free iPhone or an iPod touch. The university plans to provide web access free of charge to students. Students who want phone service will have to make their own arrangements with AT&T, Roberts said.

To help faculty and students prepare for the initiative, the university created a concept video to answer the questions: What would a campus look like with a converged media device such as the iPhone? How would education and learning change?

The video suggests that students will use the iPhones to receive text messages from their professors, navigate the campus via a three-dimensional map, order pizza, download a course syllabus, change course enrollments, listen to lecture podcasts, participate in online discussion forums, and more.

Roberts understands that the iPhone won’t be used as a learning tool every minute and in every class, but he says, “This has some pretty interesting potential.”

Faculty and staff submitted more than 130 research proposals to study the affects of the iPhone on classroom learning, social integration, and residence life. The university is proceeding with 32 of the proposals, Roberts said. One study, for example, will determine if students who use Greek flashcards on their iPhone do better than those without this study aid.

An additional benefit of using iPhones for learning is that the devices will help prepare students for the workforce, according to Roberts: “This idea of a converged media device is going to be the way you do business in the future.”

Apple’s release of an iPhone Software Development Kit March 6 is not critical to ACU’s plans for the iPhone, Roberts said. ACU is using Google Apps Education Edition to create web-based applications for students to use with the iPhone, rather than developing device-dependent software.

But for other schools, the development kit could hasten the emergence of education-specfic applications for the iPhone.

For added security, ACU students’ data will be stored on the web and not on the device itself, Roberts said. Some 14 applications have been created so far, including iPhone-friendly eMail, a quiz program, and an attendance taker.

“We are interested in what the marketplace is going to develop for the iPhone,” Roberts said. Add-on applications such as a scientific calculator would be handy, he added.

Links:

Vanderbilt University’s iPhone home page

ACU Connected

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Mobile Computing resource center. Giving each student access to a laptop computer or other mobile computing device is having a profound effect in schools from coast to coast. As the number of mobile computing options for schools continues to multiply, the body of knowledge about which approaches work best (and which don’t work at all) also continues to grow. This resource will help you make the best possible decision for your students as you consider mobile computing in your own schools. Go to: Mobile Computing