"I am helping to change the classroom." That's what Mike Dickson told his grandmother during a telephone conversation when she asked what he did for a living. Dickson, the special projects director in University Technology and keynote speaker at Tech Fest 2009 at Western Illinois University, was relaying this story to many of those who attended the 10th annual Tech Fest, which was held recently in WIU's College of Education and Human Services.
"I basically told her that, due to technology and computing, people no longer learn just in the confines of the classroom," Dickson said. "Learning can take place in many different environments, and my colleagues and I are working to help ensure we capture all of those for students of today and tomorrow."
Along with Dickson, several other WIU faculty and staff members are actively working on that process of changing the classroom and positioning WIU's Macomb and Quad Cities campuses to take advantage of a new paradigm in instruction and education, often referred to as "mobile learning," facilitated by advances in computing and mobile technology. Through the Mobile Computing Task Force (MCTF), the approximately 30 committee members are investigating and examining how mobile technological devices can aid learning opportunities and provide Western's students with additional technology tools to explore and create meaningful learning experiences.
Started in Fall 2008, the MCTF starts off its second academic year of existence with a blog and a Web presence well underway; a forward-thinking laptop initiative in the broadcasting department in the College of Fine Arts and Communication (COFAC) this Fall; and a video podcast that outlines some of its scope and introduces some of its members.
A Fruitful Journey
After an information-seeking trip to Apple Inc.'s headquarters in Cupertino, CA last year, COFAC dean Paul Kreider, an MCTF member, and other Western faculty and staff came back to WIU with a mobile learning mission in mind.
"We were excited about what we saw: a number of mobile computing-related activities going on in education these days," explained Kreider. "So we decided we'd start a task force. We put together a group of people from all different departments on campus — academic and non-academic." The committee is divided into seven sub-committees, including groups that address such areas as research and development, marketing, financial aid, technical support, faculty preparation and podcasting.
"Today, students are coming to campus with certain expectations. They are dealing with technology on a daily basis — they don't even refer to it as 'technology.' It is just a way of life," noted Kreider. "To prepare for their educational needs, we at WIU need to become more equipped with and conversant in technology, as well as how we apply that to the education of our students, dissemination of content — all of these things that students are expecting today," he added.
Digital Lesson Distribution
Apple's iTunes University Web site reiterates Dickson's message about nature of the twenty-first century "classroom."
"Learning no longer happens only at a desk," it states. "Students now expect constant access to information, no matter where they are. Which is exactly why more and more faculty are using iTunes U to distribute digital lessons to their students."
Dawn Sweet, who works in instructional technology systems in Western's College of Education and Human Services and who serves on the MCTF's iTunes U and podcasting sub-committee, said that the decision to implement iTunes U as a place to store and access "digital lessons" was based on a variety of factors.
"We felt that partnering iTunes U with the podcasting process — which many of our faculty members were starting to use — provided us with a way to mobilize learning for our students," explained Sweet. "Instructors were already using Apple's iLife software product suite — using iMovie to create videos or GarageBand to generate audio clips, for instance — to integrate multimedia into their courses and into student projects.".
iTunes U, she said, has the added value of familiarity for users; its interface is very similar to the iTunes storefront that many people use regularly to download music and other digital content.
"This enables us to build on the operating knowledge that many faculty members and students already possess, which requires less training and facilitates more immediate integration of podcasts and multimedia into the curricula," Sweet added.
A cross-platform, free application, iTunes U works both with Apple's Macintosh computers and mobile devices such as the iPod, iTouch or iPhone, as well as with computers and mobile devices that run on the Windows-based operating system. Sweet also noted that using iTunes U means that WIU faculty and students can take advantage of other user-friendly functionality, like RSS feeds and the ability to synch mobile devices with iTunes from a desktop or laptop computer.
"iTunes U also syncs automatically to the various mobile devices many individuals are using, and it includes subscription services through RSS feeds," she said. "This means students don't have to go out and look for new information. Once something new is published in iTunes U, and students have subscribed via RSS, they are notified of the new podcast content within a matter of minutes."
Beyond the Classroom
In some disciplines, mobile devices not only extend the boundaries of the conventional bricks-and-mortar classroom, but they also provide students with necessary learning tools they will use well beyond their higher ed studies. One such discipline is broadcasting, which requires its practitioners to be adept in video and/or audio editing. Today, access to these media-production tools is more achievable than ever, as many professional-grade programs will run on laptop computers and can be practiced through relatively affordable software.
To provide Western's broadcasting students with an edge and prep them for the highly competitive field of media production, COFAC's broadcasting department has instituted a laptop initiative, which begins Fall 2009. According to Sharon Evans, department chairperson and COFAC associate dean, the program requires broadcast-production students to acquire the industry's standard hardware and software, Macintosh laptop computers, Final Cut Pro video-editing software and Adobe Audition audio-editing software.
"In the broadcasting area, getting that first job or an internship can be very difficult," said Evans. "With the laptop program, we are trying to prepare our students for the realities of working in the technically and technologically intensive media-production industry. The goal is for them to be able to walk into any TV station, public relations firm, advertising agency or post-production house and be able to demonstrate they are certified in the production programs that broadcast media professionals use daily. We're hoping that this will give them an edge in getting that first job."
Evans explained the laptop program will be phased in over the next three to four years in the department, noting that freshman and transfer students enrolled in the department's Fall 2009 introductory production course, Broadcasting 101, will be the first group to participate in the initiative.
"We estimate it will take three years for the laptop requirement to be integrated into all production courses," Evans said. "Broadcasting majors and minors who will enter their senior year in 2009 or 2010 will not be required to purchase the computer hardware and software, and the department will continue to operate its computer labs, audio- and video-editing suites and lend out portable equipment."
To help students swing the hardware and software investments financially, Evans and her department and COFAC colleagues have been able to establish a student-financing agreement with the Western Illinois Credit Union, a non-for-profit financial cooperative located in Macomb. This plan will enable students to finance their hardware and software investments with low-interest loans.
For those students who qualify for financial aid, there's the possibility that the hardware and software costs could be incorporated into an individual student's financial aid package.
More information about the laptop initiative, including the implementation timeline, is available on the Mobile Computing Blog. Additional information about mobile computing and learning, at WIU and beyond, is available at the Mobile Computing Task Force's blog.
View a video of the Mobile Computing Task Force.