In what is becoming a growing trend, campus technology officials expect most college course material soon will be accessible on mobile devices — but IT departments first must make all course web sites readable on the iPhone, Blackberry, and other smart phones prevalent among students.
Louisiana Community & Technical College System and Ball State University were two of the first American institutions to offer courses via cell phone, although not every course was made accessible. Campuses of every size are considering the move to cell-phone-enabled classes, but some IT administrators see the variety of different smart-phone interfaces–from Windows to Google Android, along with others–as a looming roadblock to making cell-phone courses ubiquitous.
"Until things get a little more standardized, it’s a real big pain," said Matt Cooper, instructional technology specialist at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., where he developed the Mobile Learning Initiative, which lets students in 20 classes complete course work on mobile devices, even without an internet connection. "There’s too much to plan for. … [Creating online courses that fit every cell-phone interface] is a pretty high standard to strive for."
Thomas Edison State College already uses a program called Mobile Option e-Pack that allows online students to download quizzes and test-preparation material. But a new campus program, called FlashTrack, lets students complete class work on a two-gigabyte flash drive–no web access necessary. Students can finish the course at their own pace and turn in the flash drive before a proctored exam, Cooper said.
"It is relatively simple to create a list of assignments, papers, tests, and textbook readings for a student, but it can be very difficult to create a stimulating learning experience, especially when the student is working in isolation," he said. "FlashTrack lays the framework for a meaningful educational experience for our students in atypical situations."
Jim Twetten, Iowa State University’s director of academic technologies, said the school’s IT department is in the early stages of developing courses for internet-enabled phones. He said creating a cell-phone course that’s readable on every mobile device is paramount before a campus-wide system can be launched.
Any student who has tried to access a web page that wasn’t formatted for mobile devices, Twetten said, has seen that the online material can "be difficult, if not impossible, to read."
"We need to make all pages smart-phone accessible," he said. "[But] you don’t want to have to develop one [platform] that’s made for students using the Blackberry, another … for iPhone users, and another one suited for other cell phones."
Larry Johnson, CEO of the nonprofit New Media Consortium, an organization that tracks the use and development of education technology, said higher-education officials shouldn’t focus on making classes accessible on every kind of smart phone, but instead use internet-enabled phones to enrich the lecture hall experience.
"The main thing we have to think about is what the phone can bring back into the learning environment," Johnson said. "[Smart phones] are [used] much more as a tool than a delivery platform."
IT officials said the cell-phone industry–and especially Apple–has helped college IT departments clear one barrier for hosting classes via mobile devices. Cell-phone screen size and clarity were once seen as a detriment to accessing college material, but not now.
"It is just not an issue anymore," Johnson said. "But we used to say that that would be the limiting factor."
Most college students still use cell phones that cannot access the web, but smart phones are more common among 20-somethings when compared with other demographic groups. A Ball State University study released in April showed that 27 percent of 300 college students polled owned a smart phone, compared with 19 percent of the general population.
"Smart phones, which are simply minicomputers that often feature touch-screen applications, are popular with college students because the larger screens allow for more entertainment uses," said Michael Hanley, an assistant professor in the university’s journalism school and leader of Ball State’s mobile communications research program. "I think the communications industry will build on this popularity among technology-savvy young people, adding more types of emerging media applications."
"Students are clamoring for [cell phone college courses]," Cooper of Thomas Edison said.