A Prof on Your iPod

Even as professors wage an uphill struggle to keep cell phones out of classrooms, universities and community colleges are developing new ways to use mobile and wireless technology to enhance learning, reach new groups of non-traditional students, and stretch educational budgets further.

The groundswell in "mLearning" will be on display later this week at the Mobile Learning 2006 conference, held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and organized by the International Association for Development of the Information Society. Among the presentations at the three-day conference, which will draw teachers and researchers from across Europe and North America, are "Interactive E-Learning Environment Using Mobile Phone Messages" and "Creating Learning Spaces for Mobile Devices in the Information Technology Classroom."

Plagued by scarce funding, network capacity, security issues, and the difficulty of keeping up with new technologies, the entire electronic-education sector until recently has been "a remarkable object lesson in naïveté, hubris, and missed opportunity," wrote Ellen Wagner, the senior director of global education solutions at Macromedia, in a recent issue of Educause Review, the monthly publication of Educause, the non-profit organization that supports the use of information technology in education. Now however, "whether we like it or not, whether we are ready for it or not, mobile learning represents the next step in a long tradition of technology-mediated learning."

Non-Traditional Needs Grappling with those next steps are IT professionals in schools both big and small, prestigious and little-known outside their immediate communities.

Tal Dodson, IT manager for off-campus programs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, sees the development of a specialized mobile device as the key for extending his school's courses to students who spend little time on campus and have little face-to-face contact with professors.

"These are non-traditional students, who generally say 'I don’t know what I'm doing' when they first come back to school," Dodson explains. "They're looking for something that fits into their schedule, and they're not comfortable sitting in a classroom environment. You actually get so much more out of them online, because no one can put a face with who they are and they'll participate more."

For extended-learning programs at UALR, where almost half of the student population of 11,000 is involved with some kind of off-campus program, Dodson has been seeking a portable device with wireless capability that will be inexpensive, functional, and offer security capabilities that will help professors protect their copyrighted classroom materials -- "sort of an Origami on steroids," as Dodson puts it.

Classroom Shuffle At Duke University, the Duke Digital Initiative is experimenting with iPods as a way to provide students with lectures and other information outside the classroom. For Dodson, however, the ubiquitous music/video players have two main drawbacks: Their screens are tiny, and their price tags are big. At well-endowed Duke, students in courses that require iPods get loaner models, or they can buy the devices for a special price of $99. At a state-supported school like UALR, that's not an option.

"Honestly, I hate having to ask the students to buy anything," says Dodson. "For an iPod with a decent-sized video screen you have to pay 500 bucks. But for a PlayStation Portable you'll pay $200 for a model that comes equipped with the full package."

The popular Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE) gaming device might seem an unlikely tool for studying at the college level. But it has everything Dodson is looking for: a decent-sized screen, vivid graphic display, wireless connectivity, and plenty of space for information on insertable memory cards. Dodson, however, has not been successful at persuading the Japanese consumer-electronics giant that college classes represent a lucrative potential market.

"I went to my Sony rep last year, and he tried for two or three months to get me a PSP allocated for evaluation," Dodson recalls. "But he's in the education and government market, which is a totally separate group [from the giving division] and the response he got was, 'They want one for what?' "

Failing the PlayStation model, Dodson is now looking for ways to download lectures onto MP3-capable mobile phones, so that students can listen in anytime, anywhere.

"We want to offer students who're working two jobs more efficient ways to get the information," he says. "Not everyone can afford to go out and buy an iPod, but almost everyone has a cell phone. Then it's a question of, 'What do you have and what can you afford?' "

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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