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By JONATHAN D. GLATER
Published: August 20, 2008
Taking a step that professors may view as a bit counterproductive, some universities are doling out Apple iPhones and Internet-capable iPods to students.
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Jud Davis/Freed-Hardeman University
Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee is providing incoming students with a free Apple iPhone or iPod Touch.
Related Times Topics: iPhone Times Topics: Apple Inc.
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Jud Davis/Freed-Hardeman University
Students at Freed-Hardeman activate their iPhones. Experts say uses for mobile technology in education are in their infancy.
"Are we training thinkers in our colleges or are we training gadget users?"
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The always-on Internet devices raise some novel possibilities, like tracking where students congregate. With far less controversy, colleges could send messages about canceled classes, delayed buses, campus crises or just the cafeteria menu.
While schools emphasize its usefulness — online research in class and instant polling of students, for example — a big part of the attraction is, undoubtedly, that the iPhone is cool and a hit with students. Basking in the aura of a cutting-edge product could just help a university foster a cutting-edge reputation.
Apple stands to win as well, hooking more young consumers with decades of technology purchases ahead of them. The lone losers, some fear, could be professors.
Students already have laptops and cellphones, of course, but the newest devices can take class distractions to a new level. They practically beg a user to ignore the long-suffering professor struggling to pass on accumulated wisdom from the front of the room — a prospect that teachers find galling and students view as, well, inevitable.
“When it gets a little boring, I might pull it out,” acknowledged Naomi J. Pugh, a first-year student at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., referring to her new iPod Touch, which can connect to the Internet over a campus wireless network. She speculated that professors might try harder to make classes interesting if they were competing with the devices.
Experts see a movement toward the use of mobile technology in education, though they say it is in its infancy as professors try to concoct useful applications. Providing powerful hand-held devices is sure to fuel debates over the role of technology in higher education.
“We think this is the way the future is going to work,” said Kyle Dickson, co-director of research and the mobile learning initiative at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which has bought more than 600 iPhones and 300 iPods for students entering this fall.
Although plenty of students take their laptops to class, they don’t take them everywhere and would prefer something lighter. Abilene Christian settled on the devices after surveying students and finding that they did not like hauling around laptops, but that most always carried a cellular phone, Dr. Dickson said.
It is not clear how many colleges plan to give out iPhones and iPods this fall; officials at Apple were coy about the subject and said they would not leak any institution’s plans.
“We can’t announce other people’s news,” said Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing at Apple. He also said that he could not discuss discounts to universities for bulk purchases.
At least four institutions — the University of Maryland, Oklahoma Christian University, Abilene Christian and Freed-Hardeman — have announced that they will give the devices to some or all of their students this fall.
Other universities are exploring their options. Stanford University has hired a student-run company to design applications like a campus map and directory for the iPhone. It is considering whether to issue iPhones but not sure it’s necessary, noting that more than 700 iPhones were registered on the university’s network last year.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, iPhones might already have been everywhere, if AT&T, the wireless carrier offering the iPhone in the United States, had a more reliable network, said Andrew J. Yu, mobile devices platform project manager at M.I.T.
“We would have probably gone ahead of this, maybe just getting a thousand iPhones and giving them out,” Mr. Yu said.
The University of Maryland, College Park is proceeding cautiously, giving the iPhone or iPod Touch to 150 students, said Jeffrey C. Huskamp, vice president and chief information officer at the university. “We don’t think we have all the answers,” Mr. Huskamp said. By observing how students use the gadgets, he said, “We’re trying to get answers from students.”
At each college, the students who choose to get an iPhone must pay for mobile phone service. Those service contracts include unlimited data use. Both the iPhones and the iPod Touch devices can connect to the Internet through campus wireless networks. With the iPhone, those networks may provide faster connections and longer battery life than AT&T’s data network. Many cellphones allow users to surf the Web, but only some newer ones have Wi-Fi capability.