iPhone Catalyst to Education Reform

Can iPhones be used effectively in an education institution? The iPhone is simply a computer that you take with you everywhere. Instead of a big screen it has a 3.5-inch LCD. Instead of a real keyboard it has a virtual one that comes up on the LCD. Instead of a mouse you use your finger and you can use more than one at a time to do things like zoom in and out. So, if the iPhone is a computer of course it can be used for educational purposes. If a regular desktop PC or notebook PC can be used effectively to enhance the educational effectiveness, the iPhone can be used in that way too. But we all know the iPhone isn’t just a miniaturized computer. Through the power of apps–100,000 of them–the iPhone can be transformed to do just about anything. For example, I recently found out it can transcribe my voice into text via a program called Dragon Dictation by Nuance, the company that brings you Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the most powerful dictation software on the market today. It isn’t perfect but it’s a start and it’s an important start. Imagine the usage scenarios in the education space for people who find it difficult to type. I think voice transcription capabilities should be built right into the iPhone so you can use your voice to do anything that you’d normally do with your fingers.

Abilene Christian University, a private university located in Texas, just completed the first year of its pilot program involving 1000 freshmen students toting either an iPhone or iPod touch. The pilot program’s intention is to explore how a persistently-connected device like the iPhone could become a catalytic tool to reform the way we teach.

Wired’s Brian Chen mentions in his article, How the iPhone Could Reboot Education, that students can use “web apps to turn in homework” but I think the more likely scenario would be iPhone-specific apps that interact with a homework server to make sure that you’ve completed the latest assignments. The same app would of course tell you whether you’re on your way to becoming the next Einstein or retaking the class next semester.

The iPhone can be used as a text reader, but it certainly can’t completely replace a textbook or a novel. The right fit for the iPhone would be Cliff Notes and I think it will continue to be very well with students, whether in high school or college. I remember when attending Berkeley there were “Black Notes” at least I think that was the name. These notes were taken by smart students and were sold to less-than-thorough note-taking students for a price. Now imagine this happening online via an iPhone app that lets you access all sorts of notes from many different students. There would need another iPhone app where it transcribes pictures of notes so you can get diagrams and non-textual information up on the note-sharing site. How about a Black Notes Wicki site that allows almost anyone student with credentials to update the content, comment on it or give it a thumbs up or down?

Brian also notes “campus maps” and I think that might be useful, for the first week of classes when you’re trying to figure out where they are located. A better app would be to locate someone, say the top 10% of your Economics class, so you can easily find them (not stalk them!) and approach them to help you understand some macroeconomic theory. A real-time campus map showing where all the classes are being held might be an interesting idea for the iPhone.

Lecture podcasts are already a reality on iTunes U but they are mostly audio. I think it is time for lecture podcasts to turn to video and then add augmented reality to get diagrams, charts, reference links, etc. to enrich the learning experience. Would that be a neat trick on your iPhone? Not only that there will be extensive references to the teaching styles of each and every one of the professors paying particular attention to what he/she has focused on in the last several years of teaching a particular subject. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was an iPhone app in the near future that analyzes the tones of professors when they lecture to indicate whether the subject matter is likely to end up in the final exam.

Ad hoc study groups? No problem since most likely they’d be using Twitter. MMS would be a good way to foster question and answers: take a picture or video of the question, send it, and you get the answer back.

Polling software allows for digitally raising your hand. I like how there is the potential for instant polling results for a class, subsection of students, or an entire student body. By using anonymous polling the professor can quickly gauge whether or not the students are understanding the material, or not.

48% or 2,100 Abilene Christian University students have a free iPhone. 97% of the faculty has iPhones as well. Just the simple ability to tap into the Internet to online resources such as Wikipedia anywhere and anytime changes the way you interact with information. One of the main challenges to web-based information is deciding what is valuable and what is not. Bill Rankin, professor of medieval studies at Abilene, instructs his students to search information on their iPhones and discuss what they have found. Rankin’s role is to help figure out what sources are relevant and valuable. It is quite paradoxical that a medieval studies professor is making use of 21st century’s most advanced mobile phone.

Abilene plans to continue the iPhone program and upgrade the iPhones to new versions every two years. Other universities are interested in taking advantage of the iPhone as well. Stanford has an iPhone app called iStanford (up to version 2.0 already) that helps look up class schedules, the Stanford directory, campus maps and sports news. Duke University has an iStanford-like app called DukeMobile. Another school is the Gumley House Convent School, a small Christian school for girls ages 11 to 18 located in London. Gumley plans to give iPhones to a select group of 30 students as an educational experiment. The select girls will have free access to all of the iPhone’s features with the exception of actual calls until the end of the school year and use the iPhone to enhance the educational experience.

The iPhone brings a brand new computing platform that allows for development of apps specifically geared to enhance educational goals. I can only imagine what a tour de force Apple’s tablet will be for enhancing education and other markets!

Source: Gumley House Convent School, Fone Home, Wired, Engadget