The Slow-Motion Mobile Campus

Noah Berger for The Chronicle

Weston McBride (right) and Andrew Bellay got help from their alma mater, Stanford U., in creating an iPhone application that rewards students for attending class.
May 08, 2011

Stanford University, birthplace of Google, Yahoo, and Cisco, is surely one of the most tech-savvy campuses in the world. A survey last year of 200 iPhone-owning Stanford students portrayed them as digitally obsessed, even addicted. Most slept next to their phones. A quarter said their phones were "dangerously alluring."

But when Stanford's School of Medicine lent iPads to all new students last August, a curious thing happened: Many didn't like using them in class. Officials had hoped to stop printing an annual average of 3,700 pages of course materials per medical student, encouraging them to use digital materials instead. Some students rebelled, and Stanford was forced to resume offering printed notes to those who wanted them. In most classes, half the students had stopped using their iPads only a few weeks into the term.

In just a few years, handheld computers like smartphones and tablets have gone from niche items to the primary way many people use the Internet. Their popularity has led some supporters to predict that the devices will revolutionize how college students learn and experience college. Seton Hill University, in Pennsylvania, has branded itself as "the leader in mobile learning" and heavily advertises its iPad program as a way to reel in prospective students.

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But the hype has outpaced the reality, to judge from the experiences of Stanford and other colleges. Getting iPads and iPhones in the hands of college students is the easy part; rebuilding campus infrastructure to support mobile devices is expensive. And as Stanford's experience shows, getting professors, students, and staff to work together to explore the educational potential of mobile devices is a slow, uneven process, more suitable in some fields than others.

The Chronicle visited Stanford, whose use of mobile technology is far ahead of most colleges', to see the promise and pitfalls of the transition to a mobile-friendly campus. Officials here have big plans. They hope to replace students' ID cards with electronic versions stored on their phones. They hope to replace some paper textbooks with tablet-based digital textbooks. They hope to help cultivate a new generation of student entrepreneurs focused on mobile technology. A progressive stance toward mobile technology, the officials believe, will help set Stanford apart.

On a recent spring morning, medical-school officials had a more pedestrian concern: Wireless Internet access in a key building was down.

A strain on wireless networks has been among the most immediate effects of the boom in mobile technology. Stanford students carry around an average of 2.7 Internet-enabled devices with them—and expect to be able to use them. That's a lot of wireless Internet traffic.

The iPad in particular gives colleges headaches. When it was released, Princeton, Cornell, and George Washington Universities struggled to support its wireless capabilities. All three were falsely accused in news reports of "banning" the iPad, revealing just how much pressure colleges are under to support new devices.

As Jenn Stringer, the Stanford medical school's director of educational technology, worked on getting the wireless network going again, she explained that students like using their iPads for some subjects more than others. In an anatomy class, students can use the iPad to draw and annotate structures with their fingers, something they can't do on a laptop.

"It's the perfect use for the technology," Ms. Stringer says. Roughly 80 percent of medical students used their iPads for that class, compared with 40 to 60 percent in other classes. Among the users is Abdullah Fenze, who balked at using the iPad in most other classes. "I just wasn't seeing the stacks of paper piling up on my desk to raise the red flag that I was two inches behind," he explains.

Even in a promising area like anatomy, missed connections between staff and faculty members have complicated the adoption of digital materials. For an anatomy course, instructional-technology officials built a three-dimensional, interactive map of the brain for the iPad. But a professor who had supported its use happened to stop teaching the course, and his replacements didn't want to use the iPad. The map hasn't been used since.

Medical-school officials caution that the iPad program is only six months old. They believe cooperation will improve as they begin a broader rethinking of the curriculum over the next few years. They have won enthusiastic support from one young assistant professor of anesthesiology, Lawrence Chu, who, like many other doctors, believes the iPad will have enormous teaching value in clinical settings.

Medical students spend most of their third and fourth years in hospitals, working with patients, rather than in the classroom. With an iPad, Dr. Chu says, students can watch a video in the hospital showing how to conduct a complex procedure right before they are about to perform it. If they forget exactly what to do during an emergency, they can pull up a cheat sheet on an iPad showing the steps they should follow.

"The problem in the past was all these types of media were trapped on a computer, trapped on a laptop," he says. "They weren't highly portable."

Dr. Chu worked with Stanford computer-science students to build an iPad application with instructional videos and other tools in one month, he says. But like much of Stanford's iPad program, his application will take some time to introduce. Only first-year students received iPads, and they will not reach Dr. Chu's critical-care rotation until the fall of 2012. He is trying to get financial support to get iPads for clinical students who can use them now.

But Stanford officials say they don't know if they will even continue the iPad program for a second year. It will be up to students, not college officials, to decide how to learn, says Brian Tobin, the medical school's instructional-technology manager. "We're just trying to make sure that the iPad is working well for the students who are using it," he says. "They're going to come up with great new ways of using the iPad in curriculum and education. They're going to be the ones who find out what is most useful for them. We're not going to be the ones to tell them that."

As the medical school was giving out iPads, Andrew Bellay and Weston McBride were just learning how to write computer software.

The two recent Stanford graduates—Mr. Bellay with a master's in management science and engineering, in March, and Mr. McBride with a master's in mechanical engineering, in 2009—understand why many people think mobile devices lack serious educational value. The top-selling paid iPhone application last year was Angry Birds, a game that involves destroying structures by flicking cartoon birds at them. Last year the two entrepreneurs winced when President Obama told a commencement audience that with mobile devices like iPads, "information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment."

But Mr. Bellay and Mr. McBride say that the mobile software that colleges use is subpar, and that many colleges could do more to encourage students to learn. So after learning how to program in a matter of months, they wrote an iPhone application, CreditU, that rewards students who attend class. Students with better attendance records will receive cheaper campus meals, and eventually discounts on bigger-ticket items like student loans and car insurance. The application, which is supported by Stanford, verifies attendance by checking students' GPS locations when they check in to class.

In college, Mr. Bellay says, "we believe that half of the battle is just showing up."

If a college introduced a system that recorded attendance by tracking the GPS locations of students' mobile phones, it would be creepy. It would be met with complaints from privacy groups. It could violate federal law. But if students chose to install such a tracking system on their phones to get cheap eats, it would not be creepy. The source of the application matters.

Then again, it would be easy to miss that the CreditU founders got help from Stanford itself, as part of a concerted effort to encourage student start-ups that improve campus life. The university's registrar, Thomas Black, and other officials provided the two graduates with proprietary data on students, contributed ideas, and signed an agreement to offer CreditU as an official Stanford product.

Stanford has helped other students build software aimed at college students, with some big success. In 2008, with Stanford's support, two students built software to help other students find campus maps, directories, and other information on their iPhones. The software produced by their company, Terriblyclever—which they sold to the course-management provider Blackboard last year for $4-million—is now used by more than 100 colleges. Another group of Stanford students worked with Mr. Black to create CourseRank, a course-evaluation service that was sold last year to Chegg, a textbook-rental company.

When CreditU, the class-attendance tracker, is released, it will be offered as part of Stanford's iPhone application, iStanford, giving the developers a built-in audience. "We wouldn't have had a fighting chance at this without them," Mr. Bellay says, referring to the university.

Most colleges would be leery of offering new, student-built software as part of an official product. The strategy is risky. The access that students gain to valuable data must be weighed against privacy and security concerns. "It's a lot of work," says Mr. Black. And student entrepreneurs aren't always reliable, he says. "They're not punching a clock. They're up at 3, and you're up at 8, and you get some sleepy meetings. You have to want to do this."

Most colleges lack Stanford's resources, and none have stronger ties to Silicon Valley. But whatever the future of mobile technology on the nation's campuses, many colleges could learn from Stanford's willingness to put its mobile strategy at least partially in the hands of students—the ones who are obsessed with their iPhones and believe, perhaps more than anybody else, in the devices' educational potential.

"Many university initiatives fail because they are too top-down," says Mr. Bellay. "Nobody wants to be told what to do—especially college students."

A Look at Mobile Technology on 4 Campuses


In 2008, the Texas university was the first to give all new students their choice of an iPhone or an iPod Touch. William J. Rankin, an associate professor of English who helps lead the project, says 85 percent of faculty members report using the devices in the classroom at least once a week. Such efforts have to be about fundamentally rethinking the way we do teaching and learning," Mr. Rankin says. "If it's just about giving out a device, it's not going to last. It can't be a marketing initiative or a recruiting initiative."


Duke gave iPods to all incoming students in 2004 but scaled back the program two years later. Tracy Futhey, chief information officer, says campus officials are now focusing on improving Duke's mobile application and making existing campus data available on new platforms. Duke has also been working for three years to expand wireless and cellular coverage to 95 percent of the major areas on campus, a challenge that people tend to underestimate, Ms. Futhey says. "They're thinking about developing cool apps, but they're not realizing that we might have limitations on where those apps can be used."


The Greensburg, Pa., university has drawn widespread press coverage since it gave iPads and MacBook Pros to all full-time incoming students last fall. Students pay a $500 technology fee each semester. JoAnne W. Boyle, Seton Hill's president, calls the iPad a "magical device" that could be a "transformative learning tool on campus." Ms. Boyle says she does not know of any faculty members who are critical of the project. "If there are, they're not part of the buzz around here."


The university's main campus, in Seattle, is devoting most of its efforts to expanding wireless and cellular coverage on the campus and making its Web content easier to use on mobile devices, says David R. Morton, director of mobile communications. To involve more students in the college's mobile efforts, Mr. Morton hopes to stage a "development Olympics" in which small teams of students compete to quickly develop the best additions to Washington's iPhone application.