Smartphones on Campus: the Search for 'Killer' Apps

George Archer

Peter H. Abrahams, a professor of clinical anatomy at the U. of Warwick, helped create an app called Aspects of Anatomy. It includes 38 short films of Dr. Abrahams guiding viewers through anatomical models of human organs. Here he points to a model of the bronchial tree.
May 08, 2011

If everyone on a college campus had a smartphone, could that change higher education?

One college, Abilene Christian University, is perhaps closest to an answer. It has given iPhones or iPod Touches to every one of its students, and offered professors training and support for experimental projects in teaching, research, and university management. The project began in 2008 when incoming freshmen received the devices, but this is the first academic year that every student on campus has had them.

What has been the payoff? That question was an unofficial theme at a conference held at Abilene Christian in February. Called the Connected Summit, the event drew participants from colleges around the United States that are developing their own mobile Web services.

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The simple answer is that no one "killer app" has emerged that fits every professor's teaching style, every research discipline, or every administrative office on campus, according to several people who attended the meeting. (And of course, many professors have no interest in the smartphone craze—at Abilene Christian some professors turned down free iPhones.)

Instead, college professors around the country are finding unique ways to use smartphones, as well as highly portable tablet computers like the iPad, that work well in certain situations but do not represent a revolution in educational practice. At least not yet.

At Abilene Christian, one of the most popular uses of iPhones has been to turn the devices into so-called "clickers," using an app that lets students use their phones during classes to buzz in answers to quiz questions or discussion prompts. But even fans of that approach acknowledge that turning classes into something like a game show is not appropriate for every subject, and that a clicker app makes more sense in large lecture classes than in small seminars.

The Chronicle's ProfHacker blog, written by a group of tech-savvy professors, regularly reviews smartphone apps that can help faculty members handle certain classroom activities, like taking attendance or reading scholarly articles while commuting to work. Meanwhile, admissions offices, university extension services, transportation departments, and other units across campuses nationwide are also using smartphones and tablet computers to offer new kinds of campus services. Following are five examples:

Multimedia study guides on the go. A cellphone screen may seem too small to use as a study aid. But then again, those screens are about the same size as standard 3 by 5 index cards, an age-old format for flashcards. So the space can be just right when it's time to cram for a test. Unlike paper flashcards, though, a smartphone can display video clips, audio, and interactive features that go far beyond flipping a card over to see an answer.

Medicine in particular has embraced smartphones as study aids. Peter H. Abrahams, a professor of clinical anatomy at the University of Warwick, in England, recently released a video reference-manual app called Aspects of Anatomy for the iPhone. The software quizzes students by presenting them with medical scenarios, and asks them to name the relevant body part. On one question, students must decide whether the trouble is with the cardiopulmonary plexus or the arch of the aorta.

The app also includes 38 short films, two to eight minutes each, of Dr. Abrahams guiding viewers through anatomical models of human organs.

The university invested $25,000 to develop the app, the professor says, and is charging $7.99 per download to recoup production costs and help support medical education on the campus. "All that money goes back into postgrad programs," he says. "I am not getting a penny."

The same videos are available to students on a password-protected university Web site, but Dr. Abrahams wanted to offer them in a mobile form so that medical residents could tune in during breaks at the hospital or at other times when they are away from their computers. "Doctors are very highly stressed people who have very little time for their own study, and they have to catch it on the go whenever they have a spare 10 minutes," he says.

The iPhone app isn't meant to replace time in an anatomy lab, the professor says, but he argues that it can help fill a gap as some medical schools reduce the amount of lab time. "I would rather that students touch, feel, and smell the human body in the lab, but the reality is that medical schools can't afford to run as many labs," he says.

Better outreach for extension services. University extension services have long published detailed brochures meant to help farmers and others who work in agriculture. Now some of those extension services are finding that smartphone apps are an easy way to reach new audiences and offer the fruits of their research at a lower price.

For instance, the University of Florida's extension service recently released "iPest1," designed to help homeowners (and pest-control professionals) identify and kill pesky critters lurking in their homes. The extension service charges $1.99 for the app, rather than $20 for the two booklets the materials drew from, which are sold on the service's Web site. The app has been so popular—with more than 1,000 downloads so far—that the extension service plans to release two sequels, including one that covers stinging and bloodsucking pests.

"If you're wondering whether you have a tick or a bedbug, you can use the app to determine those differences," says Rebecca Baldwin, an assistant professor of entomology at Florida and the app's principal developer.

Louisiana State University recently announced a mobile app with information on the state's rice crops, after realizing that rice consultants had begun roaming the fields with iPads.

Location maps for college tours. It's an archetypal nightmare that sometimes comes true: A student wanders the hallways of a classroom building on the first day of school with no idea of where to go, knowing that class has already started. Now colleges have an app that might make such scenarios seem quaint. Using the location-tracking features of many smartphones, several colleges have built detailed maps of their campuses that can superimpose a dot showing the user's position, continuously updated.

One such app was recently developed by the admissions office at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, working with YourCampus360, a company that produces virtual college tours.

The app can lead campus tours anytime, even when regular tours are not under way. And because the app knows where a visitor is, it is programmed to play prerecorded audio clips about key campus buildings when a user walks within range.

"We're not really looking at the technology to replace our physical tour program, we're really looking at it as a supplement," says Stefan Hyman, the Web and electronic-information coordinator for Stony Brook's admissions office, "We are also finding that students are downloading this when they live far away" to get a better sense of campus, he says.

The free app is available for iPhones or for phones running Google's Android system.

Class scavenger hunts. To take advantage of the mobility of smartphones, some professors have sent students outside the classroom, designing scavenger hunts in which phone-based clues guide students to learn through exploration.

In March, Stephen Baldridge, an assistant professor of social work at Abilene Christian, sent his students on a campuswide hunt inspired by the TV reality show The Amazing Race—except his Amazing Nonprofit Race had students searching the campus for information about service organizations in the area. To divide up roles and coordinate the assignment, the professor used an app called Heads Up, which was developed at the university to manage classroom discussions and group projects.

"It really allowed me to get them out and about across campus and still interact with them, since they can just text-message me," Mr. Baldridge says.

His tip to professors who want to try it: Have a Plan B. When Mr. Baldridge first experimented with the approach, a technical glitch caused him to abandon the idea that day and use a paper copy of clues that he had prepared just in case.

"As much as you set up, the wireless might be down at some point," he says. "Always have a backup—a paper copy."

Better bus schedules (and other services). A common joke among college officials is that despite all the heady academic debates, the most contentious issue on campus is parking. So it's not surprising that one of the most popular features of some college smartphone apps is a bus schedule that shows students and professors how long they have to wait. The bus schedules are just one of dozens of campus services on official smartphone apps that many colleges are building. Other features of the apps include ways for students to log in and check their course schedules, grades, homework assignments, and other campus information.

"The key is, a campus has to have a critical mass of services in the app to make it useful," says Kayvon Beykpour, vice president of Blackboard Mobile, a division of Blackboard that has built apps for many campuses. "Then people will want to have the app because they know they're going to use it at some point."

Professors at the mobile-device summit at Abilene Christian stressed that more study needs to be done on whether these services improve education and are worth the cost. Some research done at Abilene Christian on the clicker application, for instance, showed that while students liked the ability to take quizzes by phone, their grades did not improve compared with those of a control group that did not use the clicker approach.

"We've done this, but we're early enough in the process that we still don't have good data to support it," says Mark Phillips, associate professor of management sciences at the university. If iPhones and other smartphones don't turn out to be revolutionary, he says, other teaching ideas are sure to emerge—even if the result is getting students outside more often to do scavenger hunts using clues written on paper index cards.