ACU's Goin' Mobile
Dr. William Rankin is an associate professor of English and Director of Educational Innovation at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Dr. Rankin helped create the initiative that became ACU Connected, the school’s groundbreaking program that gave every student an iPhone or iPod touch as a means to gauge the power of next-wave mobile learning.
He has received numerous awards for teaching and has presented on the mobile educational technologies all over the country and the world. He serves on Apple’s Distinguished Educators Advisory Board. TE spoke with Dr. Rankin in July to hear his thoughts on how technology is changing education and the classroom experience both the college and high school levels in Texas.
TE: How did a professor of medieval literature become a noted and much-quoted figure in the world of mobile technology and its implications for improving the educational experience here in the 21st century?
Dr. Rankin: I’ve taught in the English department at various universities for 26 years now, and early on had a lot of focus on composition and writing. So I gained a lot of experience in writing centers. I was in one at the University of California – Riverside and I was the director of the writing center at the University of Minnesota. As we thought about how to help students develop their writing skills and how to help them explore their voices, technology became a very useful way to do that. Obviously, anyone who lived in the world of typewriters knew the ways that even having access to word processing unlocked some creative possibilities -- you could kind of draft on the fly and move things around. So I became involved early on in developing computer-assisted writing facilities, writing labs and classroom labs. That’s something that was always very interesting to me as an English professor. My own field – my own explorations in medieval literature – deals a lot with medieval pedagogy. And so the ways that people taught – the way they helped bring students voices to life – has always been very interesting to me. So I see these two not as diametrically opposed, but, in fact, as really closely connected.
TE: It also may strike some as surprising that a university on the Texas plains has become a hotbed for new iPad-and iPhone-inspired innovations in education. Why is such cool, cutting-edge stuff happening at Abilene Christian?
Dr. Rankin: Obviously, there are a lot of people doing great work – throughout Texas and around the world. I think a lot of what made ACU special had to do first of all with a willingness to try some stuff. Maybe that was possible, in part, because we were off the beaten path. It’s always easier for places that don’t necessarily have a lot at stake to be really innovative. Some schools fear or worry about that – it just is harder, I think. We were able to get together a team – a very creative team – and that team was able to sell the university broadly on a vision. And at that point the university was willing to throw behind that vision. What we’ve discovered has been borne out at lots of different schools, and we see these emerging trends of mobility and constant access to learning materials building strongly and powerfully into the culture of education. And not just higher education, but K-20 education throughout the world.
TE: And what has all this meant for ACU students?
Dr. Rankin: From the beginning our goal was not ‘How do we use technology to improve education’ or ‘How do we focus on technology?’ That really hasn’t been our concern ever. What we’ve really been interested in is saying ‘How do we change education for the better? … And what tools can we use to do that?’ And we’ve really tried to look broadly at lots of possible tools … and how we understand technology in terms of teaching and learning. For our students, we’re already leveraging the tools and resources that are going to characterize their professional lives. It’s just at most schools we say you’ve got to put those tools away – you’re not allowed to use them. We have a kind of antiquated educational culture broadly that often ignores – or actively cuts off – the great benefits that our students are going to find through these new emerging technologies that are really going to characterize their lives. At many schools, for example, students are told ‘No mobile phones. Put those things away. They have no place in the classroom.’ And there were certainly faculty here who were saying that … saying, you know, that we have to build a Faraday cage around each classroom so no phone signals can get in. But what a number of us said was that if you look at history and trends its clear these things aren’t going away. In fact, they’re becoming more and more dominant in the culture. So rather than pretending that they don’t exist, or building an artificial environment where we keep them out, we said ‘what would happen if we embraced them?’ And what would happen if we embraced them specifically to serve educational purposes? And that’s really where I think the strength of this lies.
TE: Clearly, there are many early adopters of technology like you on the faculty at ACU, but are there Luddites as well who have been slow to get on your iBandwagon?
Dr. Rankin: Obviously at any school there’s going to be a range of responses. What we’ve tried to do is never require anything. Because to require it, to say ‘Okay, you’ve got to use these devices,’ again, that’s a device-centric idea, and what’s going to happen is people are going to resist or they’re going to find ways to make it not successful. We’ve tried to encourage people to explore and provide them a context where they can tell the stories of their exploration to their colleagues. What we’re seeing is really fascinating. There are two significant emerging trends – not only at ACU, but broadly in K-20 education. Trend one is we see learning breaking out of the walls of the classroom. It used to be that there were particular resources that people could only access at school and that was where a particular type of learning took place. There was other stuff you might do at home but there was a very profound separation between the resources and access you had at school and the resources and access you had at home. We’re seeing that disappear. And, interestingly, we’re also seeing, therefore, the classroom emerge much more broadly. So it’s not just that students have to be in a certain physical location in the school to learn, in fact, powered by this new generation of connected mobile devices, I can be in class at the museum downtown or I can have class at the low-income housing project or I can have class wherever class makes most sense. And we’ve known forever that contextual learning is the most powerful form of learning. We simply haven’t been able to scale it before. These devices unable us to scale it. I now have a device that brings all of those connections, all of those resources – video, audio, search, the library – all of those things can now travel with me conveniently into a new context where learning makes sense. So that’s the first trend – breaking out of the physical walls of the classroom.
The second trend is breaking out of the chronological walls of the classroom. I used to have an instance where, okay, my class was nine-to-ten a.m., Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And that’s when my students were in my class, and when they weren’t in my class, there was no way for them to participate in class. With these devices – with things like the web and blogs and a variety of online resources, including social networking resources, my students can now be in class whenever. So if an idea strikes them at two in the morning, they can be in conversation with fellow students and myself – if I’m up. And if I’m not up we can have that conversation asynchronously. So an enormous amount of learning that used to get lost is now capturable because I am no longer bound by the chronological limits of my class. So if a student is walking down the street and they see something that reminds them of a concept we were talking about in class, they can take a picture of it or record a movie of it -- or even write a note about it and post that up to a forum where we can all talk about that and explore it together. What I’m finding then is it’s not just the teacher who is bringing materials to the class, but, in fact, the students who are becoming the largest generators of classroom material and classroom discussion. That becomes really interesting, because what it’s saying now is it’s my students now who are taking the responsibility for their education, and my role is not to deliver; my role is, in fact, to help them curate. To help them organize and think through that information. That means I’m producing a much more independent class of student – a kind of student who is really inculcating the values of this educational system and becoming an agent in that. And that’s very powerful.
TE: So instead of college students walking around campus or the city of Abilene with their noses in textbooks, they’re spending hours texting their thoughts and staring at tiny screens? Can an intensive online experience also be a collegial one?
Dr. Rankin: One of the interesting things we’re seeing is that virtual and online associations among students are actually a great predictor of physical associations among students. So it’s not that more and more people are huddled around a tiny screen in their house or alienating themselves more and more from their fellows, but, in fact, they’re participating more profoundly and getting to know on another. One of the great benefits of online – and something you see all over the place – is it effectively lowers the resistance of … it lowers the stakes in people being open and honest. You might find out something about a friend on Facebook that they would never tell you face-to-face, but they’re willing to talk about more openly because the stakes are lower online. And so the quality of relationship is actually stronger. We’ve actually done studies on-campus that have looked at things like ‘Is Facebook activity a predictor of face-to-face meetings?’ And the answer to that is ‘Absolutely.’ So it’s not just that people are becoming more virtual, it’s that people are becoming more associated – more connected – with one another and that has powerful implications for learning.
TE: We’ve been talking about technology at the college level thus far. How can mobile devices improve the quality of education in high schools and do so in a way that is both cost-effective and more in tune with today’s realities?
Dr. Rankin: Again, what we’re really talking about is engagement. And we know that students who are engaged, students who are captivated by an idea - are able to explore a topic often times on their own - are going to be more invested in their educational experience. And we’re certainly seeing that emerge with this new generation of devices. Let me say that what we’re seeing disappear – and this is a huge challenge in K-12 education. The notion of standardization is, I think, an outmoded notion. Effectively, what we do with most of our standardized testing is – well, we give people a test, we throw out the people at the top, we through out the people at the bottom, and we pretend the people in the middle are the same. It’s really emerging out of an industrial model of education, which had to do with processing people in the same way you might process raw materials in a factory.
What we’re recognizing – and what these devices let us recognize – is, in fact, that what we need is not standardization and not uniformity, what we really need is diversity. I think that’s going to be the best thing to meet the challenges of the coming age – in fact, the challenges we’re already facing. What we’re seeing as a considerably emerging trend is schools that are effectively focusing themselves not around a standardized set of courses and passing standardized exams, but student-led project-based learning. So instead of learning math because you’re sitting in math and it’s required for you to learn math and you have to learn math so there it is, learn math – which is not, by the way, particularly motivating for anyone – what we’re seeing is schools saying ‘right, so, find a problem in your community, and solve that problem. Work to solve that problem. Work to come up with a solution that makes sense.’ And teachers are there to guide students, but they’re not there to deliver information effectively to students. So the students have to go out and find a problem and think about how they might address it, and they can consult with faculty on how to do that. They learn math – not because they’re supposed to learn math; they learn math because they have to learn that concept to solve the problem that they’re facing. What’s interesting about that learning is it is very rich and deep. Students, in fact, who have virtually no curriculum will still pass exams, but they’ll pass them because they’ve learned those principles because the principles were real and they mattered. And these devices allow those students to travel around to pick up information – to be information creators, in fact – and to bring all of that to their solving of real-world problems. I would point to a couple of schools in Texas – I would point to Coppell and I would point to Manor New Tech. These are schools that are doing some profoundly powerful things with challenge-based or project-based learning that really allow teachers to capture student interest, to capture student engagement and to use that for real educational change, and not just for some kind of artificial thing.
TE: What apps have you, your peers and your students found most effective?
Dr. Rankin: So there are 650,000 apps on the Apple App Store right now, we’re seeing lots of them being used in lots of weird ways – but ways that really work. And ways we never would have predicted. For example, there’s a wonderful augmented reality application called Layar. And Layar lets you build augmented reality sheets – or layers – over a place. I’m a big fan of augmented reality over virtual reality. In augmented reality you bring the powers of the web into the real world, as opposed to bringing real people into a virtual world in virtual reality, which I don’t see a lot of benefit for. For example, one of our art teachers has been teaching basic art concepts by having his studies built augmented reality layers around the art on campus. We have some monumental sculptures, for example, and he’s having them write about those monumental sculptures in way that if a person came with a smart device and held that device up to the sculpture, they would see floating above it lots of information about the artistic concepts behind that sculpture, they would see information about how that sculpture was developed, and they would be able to look at the history of similar kinds of sculptures. The students are learning their concepts – not because they have to pass a test – they’re learning the concepts because they’re building something that other people are going to be able to use. So that’s a really interesting one.
We’re seeing lots and lots of usage of lots and lots of different kinds of applications, but I would say that most powerful applications for us at our school are in some ways the simplest ones. The camera because a very powerful tool. There are a lot of schools that have spent an enormous amount of money on smart boards. I would never spend a dime on a smart board again, because I don’t think you need it. In part, because … everybody now effectively has a smart board in his hand, or her hand, and a whole class of people can write on or mark on a kind of virtual board on their devices at once, so there’s no reason to put a big one at the front of the class. What we’re seeing is that people take photos at the end of class of the board and that lets them pay really close attention, actually, during discussion instead of having to scribble down notes the entire time. So at the end of the class, they take a picture of that board and carry that around with them and they can even annotate that picture to help their study and better understand. And so the camera becomes very powerful. In chemistry classes, we’re seeing students augment their lab reports with videos, so it’s ‘I’m going to put the reagent in and I’m gonna show you exactly what happens in that test tube because I filmed it.’ Or, ‘I’m going to take a movie of my experience of that sociology concept downtown,’ so that becomes very powerful. We’re also seeing a lot of use of blogs. We now have a class blog that’s automatically generated for each class on campus. And that becomes really our central learning management system. So students and faculty post questions and responses and sources and information and images and all kinds of things up on those blogs and that becomes a second life, really, for the class. It’s the class continuing discussions outside. We have had some students do some programming. We have had voting applications. Last year, people voted for Mr. and Miss ACU for the homecoming court digitally, which makes great sense. Our student newspaper was the first student newspaper in the country to be available on iPad, which allows more flexibility and more interesting coverage than just the paper copy. We’re just seeing an explosion of exploration – so much and so diverse – that I can’t point to just one or two things.
TE: We hear a lot about the Cloud and how that is changing how we work and connect with others. What has Cloud technology meant for higher education and particularly for researchers.
Dr. Rankin: The cloud is essential to collaboration. We’ve been using the cloud since the very beginning of our initiative with Google Apps for Education, for example, and some others. Being able to work collaboratively on a document rather than having to send these individual versions, and if you’ve ever tried to build a document together in a traditional system where you make your changes and send them to the group and two or three others make their changes, but they make changes at the same time, so then you have two different versions and you have to figure out ways to merge those together, and then there a third set of revisions and those come in later, and quickly you’ve got this horrific mess. You spend more time managing the document then you spend thinking about the ideas. So the cloud allows us to have one place where people can work together collaboratively whether they’re physically together in the same place, or not. We can all see what other people are thinking and writing – that means we can continue to focus on the content and continue to focus on the real work, rather than the management of the document itself.
TE: How will mobile devices further the goal of the $10,000 college degree and the ability to get a college diploma entirely online?
Dr. Rankin: I think ACU has not leveraged that particularly well – we haven’t been very focused on that. We’re becoming focused on that. For a number of us, I think we recognize that education broadly, but higher education certainly, has become unsustainable. There’s no way to have entire cohorts of students leaving university with an average of $40,000 or $45,000 of debt. That’s just not something that the world can sustain. I think the current generation of students are starting to question profoundly whether a college education is worth it. I think the open courseware movement that Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. have been participating in is fascinating where they’re giving all the content for all of their courses away for free. Because it’s not the information that’s important, again, it’s things around the information – the connections, the community, the sorts of relational issues and the ability to practice the information that is critical. I do think there are ways to deliver learning in a much more sustainable fashion. Technology is going to help with that … The days of paper textbooks are profoundly numbered. I would say that five years from now I don’t know if people will be using them. And certainly the state of Texas has been a leader in saying ‘look we need to move beyond these books that go obsolete so quickly, that cost us so much to ship and store, and that suffer damage so readily. We need to be investing our money more responsibly.’ Digital is one way to do that. We’re going to see a transition not just of the way we hold courses, but of the kinds of materials we use. I see that as happening, not in the long-term of ten years down the line, but I think in five years most of those situations will have been resolved. Because they’ll just have to be. We just simply can’t continue down this inefficient course.
TE: Technology is allowing more inclusion, isn’t it – making everything more democratic, with a lower-case ‘d.’ We see this in news when the best reporting is often done by amateur journalists who have grown up with technology, know how to use it, and can communicate in concise ways.
Dr. Rankin: What it means is journalism is being diffused more broadly throughout culture. That can’t be a bad thing. We’re going to pick up more stories, we’re going to understand the world more profoundly when that happens. But what it also means is in education is we have to take that very seriously. We can’t pretend that it’s not happening and we can’t pretend that the old hierarchical systems that were in place during publishing – again, because we couldn’t really scale information before. If we pretend that those systems are still dominant, then what we’re doing is creating a generation of people don’t understand the literacy of the responsibilities they’re being called to enact. If, on the other hand, we embrace these new structures and technologies, and help prepare our students and our faculty to live in that world, then I think we’re doing the world a significant favor. And our responsibility is not pretend that the new world doesn’t exist, but to help people live in it more effectively.