Universities log on to hand-held mobile apps
Schools such as Northwestern and Abilene Christian University are taking advantage of the mobile app explosion to keep in touch with students, faculty and alumni
For years it's been commonplace to see students toting their laptop computers to class or the library. But more recently, some students have begun to rely instead on smartphones and personal digital assistants such as Apple's iPhone and iPod — even for academic applications.
Just over half of undergraduate students responding to a 2009 study conducted by Educause Center for Applied Research said they own an Internet-capable hand-held device. Although only 11% of respondents said they use those devices for course-related activities, that's changing — and changing fast.
Two institutions that have put strong support behind hand-held mobility are Northwestern University, which has campuses in Evanston, Ill., and Chicago, and Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas.
Amid the news, game, navigation and other apps available at Apple's iPod App Store you'll find a free download for a suite of eight software applications developed for the Northwestern University community. The software lets users check the library collection; look up staff, students or faculty in a directory; or find their location on a campus map using their iPhone's global positioning capability. There's even an app that lets users view the university's African art collection and use iPhone haptics to pan across or zoom into an image.
Northwestern's software suite was developed at the request of the university's student government, said Harlan Wallach, media architect for NU. "It wasn't that long ago that a mobility platform meant Wi-Fi hot spots on campus," Wallach said. "In the last couple of years that has changed radically. A mobility platform now is about using hand-held devices and computers to get access to university resources for the purposes needed, regardless of the device."
During the planning phase for the new software, Northwestern's academic and research technologies group contacted Terribly Clever, a software development firm founded by four Stanford University undergrads who had created similar software for their own alma mater. While Northwestern's suite was in the planning phase, Terribly Clever was acquired by Blackboard, a provider of course management software, and is now known as Blackboard Mobile.
Working with Blackboard Mobile helped Northwestern's development team complete its project promptly. The software suite was launched in mid-January — just nine weeks after project kick-off. The solution uses a cloud-based approach, with Blackboard Mobile operating the servers supporting Northwestern's application. The university delivers content to support its applications to Blackboard via RSS feeds.
A Web-based version of the software that will work with any mobile browser is also supported. Wallach said the user experience with that version varies, depending on the carrier and device used. "It depends how the browser responds to user agent requests," Wallach said. "Some hardware devices don't send the correct user agent so they don't get the correct view back. It's difficult to anticipate or correct."
More than 3000 people downloaded Northwestern's iPhone software suite in the first two weeks it was available. There are no restrictions on who can download it. "There is a broader world interested in Northwestern University than people who are on our campuses," Wallach said. "There is a vast array of alumni who want to be kept in touch of news and athletics."
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