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Prof: iPhone Holds Promise as Portable Classroom

Sunday, December 9, 2007
[Professor James Miller with the iPhone]

Unquestionably, it ranks as one of the most-hyped gizmo launches in history.

Last summer, throngs of technophiles camped in lines to snap up the iPhone, the latest must-have from the innovators at Apple. Some desired the iPhone’s functionality; others liked the product’s stylishness; many simply wanted to be first to flash the red-hot status symbol.

But one researcher at the University of Kansas saw through the hullabaloo to recognize that the pioneering iPhone offered promise as a distance-learning tool. According to James R. Miller, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at KU, the pocket-sized computer can perform like an on-the-go classroom.

“It’s pretty much a complete computer system in your hand — and oh, by the way, there’s a phone there, too,” Miller said. “People are beginning to expect on-demand delivery for education. They may be out in a field someplace or completely away from standard Internet connectivity. Well, if they can pick up their iPhone and turn it on, that technology is making it possible for them to get this on-demand education that they need.”

Miller is co-director of KU’s eLearning Design Lab, one of the core labs at KU’s Information and Telecommunication Technology Center. The lab represents a partnership between the School of Education and the School of Engineering. Through research into state-of-the art Web applications, the lab has produced more than 50 online courses for teacher education and other subjects since 1996.

The inspiration to design instructional content for the iPhone is rooted in the lab’s previous success creating customized educational material for the iPod, Apple’s personal audio player.

“That became one of the most popular delivery mechanisms,” Miller said. “We started to look at the next generation of iPods. Then of course the iPhone was coming out at that point. It made us sit up and take note.”

With a General Research Fund award from the KU Center for Research, Miller acquired an iPhone and began development of subject matter for delivery to the device.

Miller said the iPhone’s three-in-one functionality — as a mobile phone, audio player and on-the-go Internet browser — made it superior to other handheld devices as a learning tool. But he also saw challenges to developing lessons customized for the iPhone.

“I wondered how you prepare content for what’s a pretty small screen,” said Miller. “But there are tools built into the iPhone that give it some nice zooming and panning capabilities. Often when you develop technology for an environment that’s a little more restrictive, that leads you to develop brand new technologies that also work when you bring them back to the original context.”

Other challenges were evident only after working with the iPhone, according to Miller.

“We wanted to be able to deliver Java applets that allow you to have mini interactive programs running inside of a Web page,” he said. “Well, that capability isn’t there right now, and it’s not clear whether it ever will be. We just don’t know, so we’re having to rethink some of our original design plans.”

Despite such hurdles, Miller said the iPhone’s capability for delivering educational content has potential far beyond the lab, both for businesses and educational institutions.

“I don’t know that there necessarily will be an ‘iPhone University,’ but rather it may be an iPhone portal to a university,” said Miller. “Educational materials would be housed online and the iPhone will just be one hopefully very popular way to access those materials. Delivery of instructional content for the iPhone may very well turn into a commercial product someday in the future.”

— Story by Brendan Lynch, University Relations.



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