iPhones go to front of the class at Texas university

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Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from Network World.

When almost 1,000 freshman students showed up at Abilene Christian University on Aug. 16, they got something more than the usual medical release forms, parking permits and Welcome Week T-shirts.

They got a choice of a brand-spanking-new Apple iPhone 3G or iPod touch, plus a package of ACU-written Web applications to use on them. (Watch a slideshow of the coolest iPhone apps.)

The hardware is part of the Texas university’s pilot mobile learning project, which has been gestating for over a year. (The university announced its iPhone and iPod touch plans in February.) About 650 first-year students chose the iPhone, and about 300 the iPod Touch, which is a very similar device but without the 3G radio (both devices incorporate an 802.11g Wi-Fi adapter). ACU pays for the hardware, student (or their parents) select and pay for their monthly AT&T service plan.

After just six weeks, the freshmen seem fully mobilized.

Mobilized students

“I use it in four of my five classes,” says Halie Davis, a teenager from Rankin, in west Texas, who chose the iPhone. “If your teacher says ‘get out your iPhone and look up a word’ you can do a Google search or check Wikipedia on the Internet. It’s really fast.”

With their Apple devices, students also get read-only mobile access to files of all kinds stored on the campus Xythos Software online document management system. Since deploying Xythos in the spring of 2008, ACU has been building applications on top of it, including a class-folder system: for each class, teachers can add a syllabus, a spreadsheet, pdf files, video clips, podcasts, all accessible by iPhone from anywhere there is wireless access.

ACU created a bundle of Web-based mobile applications, rather than make use of Apple’s software developers kit. That gives the school the option of making use of other devices in the future, possibly a touch-based Android phone, running a full mobile Web browser such as Firefox for Mobile, now in development. These new mobile applications, and others such as Google Apps for Education, a suite of e-mail and other cloud-based services, are all accessible as soon as users complete their login authentication.

One group of ACU applications heavily used by Davis during her first week or so on campus is called mymobile “You click on the tab and it tells you the classes you’re enrolled in, where they are, the professor’s name, and [gives you] a 3-D map of the campus,” she says. “That was really, really helpful to find your way around.”

Part of mymobile is what ACU calls NANO tools, for “no advanced notice.” These are a set of interactive quizzes, polls and other programs for class uses. Davis says her Bible class professor is constantly doing in-class, online polls of the students, who select answers via the device’s Safari Web browser. “It’s really neat: you can see the results changing,” she says.

A second tab is ACUmobile, with campus calendars, events and photos taken by students. A third tab, pocketguide, contains information about the city of Abilene: places to eat, bands, coffee shops and the like.

Campus techno-community

The devices are constantly in use not just in class but across the campus, apparently making it easier and faster for students to find and develop their own place in the campus community. One of the first applications Davis downloaded from Apple’s App Store was the store’s Facebook application, where she has her own profile and networks of family, friends and classmates. “I’m always logged in, and it’s just like being on my computer,” she says.

And she keeps in touch with nearly all of them, sending and receiving anywhere from 200 to 300 text messages a day. And that was one of the two problems she encountered with her iPhone: shifting from being a texting speedfreak with her old Samsung Wafer phone on Alltel’s network to the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. “I’m as fast as I used to be, but now I do have to look at the keypad,” Davis says.

The other problem was draining her iPhone battery, which happened almost daily to start with, until she shut off the 3G connection while on campus, and relied on ACU’s just-upgraded Alcatel-Lucent Wi-Fi network (the company OEMs the Aruba WLAN equipment). When it learned of the school’s plans, AT&T, the iPhone’s sole U.S. carrier, upgraded the campus area with 3G base stations. ACU says 3G performance is consistently about 900Kbps compared with AT&T’s EDGE network at 300K to 400Kbps.

“If I didn’t have my iPhone, I would feel like I was out of the loop,” Davis says.

iPhone sparks mobility pilot

The range of uses by Davis, and her constant reliance on the device, is evidence to ACU IT, faculty and administrators that the university’s bet on developing an ultra-mobile platform for campus life is paying off. A few years ago, the school evaluated the costs and benefits of equipping each student with a notebook, say CIO Kevin Roberts. But the PCs were still bulky and expensive, with “abysmal” battery life, and ACU discovered 95% of their students were showing up with some kind of PC of their own.

Eighteen months ago, hearing rumors of the impending iPhone launch, ACU faculty and IT staff brainstormed about how a wireless, handheld device, with a full Web browser and support for voice, could impact student learning and life. “We’re connected today in ways we couldn’t even dream of 10 years ago,” says Roberts. “But our classes look very similar to the classes of 100 or even 200 years ago. Why not meet the students where they are today, using the tools they already have to leverage the education process?”

When iPhone was released, the school bought nearly two dozen to test out. By December 2007, campus officials decided they had what they needed.

Well, almost.

The university decided to focus on just the incoming freshmen, rather than try to equip and support all nearly 4,000 undergrads. Even so, IT staff realized the campus Wi-Fi net had not been designed to support a fully and constantlyconnected population. “As I thought this through, I realized these [handhelds] were wireless-only devices, and much better positioned than laptops for doing all kinds of things like quick lookups,” says Arthur Brant, ACU’s director of networking services. “That meant these devices would be used a lot more than laptops.”

Revamping the WLAN

That meant redesigning the WLAN for capacity, Brant says. (Compare enterprise WLAN products.) In record time, the campus network was completely overhauled, jumping from 176 access points to 500, with another 130 or so scheduled for deployment in summer 2009. The goal was giving 1Mbps to each user, says Brant. One key part of this rollout was extensive signal and performance testing to make sure the WLAN was delivering that performance.

The access points support 802.11abg, though the Apple handhelds run only on 11g in the 2.4 band, posing some tough challenges in large lecture halls with lots of students. The first time 300 students in a Bible class tried to connect, in a lecture hall with four access points, not one succeeded. There are now 12 access points, with power levels adjusted and channel plans in place to support such use.

ACU is working now to configure wireless laptops to automatically select 11a, shifting clients from the crowded 2.4GHz band to the much less crowded 5GHz band.

Traffic and usage data specifically from the iPhone and iPod Touch users is sketchy right now. But Brant says there has been a 150% increase in the number of registered devices on the network compared with last year, and they’re not all Apple devices: there’s been a jump in Wi-Fi or dual-mode Windows Mobile and Blackberry devices also.

Internet bandwidth use is up sharply also. Typically, it takes about three months at the start of the academic year to max out ACU’s Internet connection, currently peaking at 80Mbps. This year, it took only six weeks.

This story, "iPhones go to front of the class at Texas university" was originally published by Network World.

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