Students reap benefits as smartphone culture evolves

Waiting outside the campus bookstore, Martin Miller stands with his head down, thumb-tapping his iPhone. He’s gearing up for his second year at the University of Saskatchewan and says he carries his smartphone everywhere. In the classroom, Miller uses the device to email, track assignments, fact-check and take notes. And he’s not alone.

A survey released Aug. 9 by communications startup Mobilicity indicates more than half of randomly selected Canadians agree that mobile phones are an “invaluable” tool for students. The “Mobile Student 2.0 Survey” found that 66 per cent of Canadians would use a smartphone to conduct on-the-spot research if they were a student. While, 46 per cent would download mobile apps to stay organized, 41 per cent would record lectures and tutorial sessions, and 42 per cent would coordinate school and social activities if they were a student.

The findings point to what former chief culture and technology strategist at the University of Toronto Mark Federman calls “the emergence of contemporary education and social learning.”

“Not only are we seeing students using smartphones to record lectures, photograph instructor notes and collaborate through cloud-based applications but some instructors are starting to allow [students] to research items of interest during a lecture or use Twitter to open a back channel of conversation and enhance student participation and engagement,” Federman told Mobilicity.

Director of the University Learning Centre Jim Greer, who serves as academic lead for the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Excellence, said we are beginning to see smartphones and tablets used more skillfully to support learning at the U of S. Greer said students will soon be able to complete course evaluations on mobile devices and that smartphones will soon replace clickers in courses that employ a personal response system.

But as smartphones become increasingly widespread in the classroom, both students and instructors will have to adapt, Greer said. Students need to learn to stay focused on course material during lectures and tutorials while instructors should begin integrating online tools — such as Wikipedia and Youtube — into their course design.

“If you’re text messaging or Facebooking in class, it’s almost as distracting as when there are people sitting and visiting in the back of the classroom and ignoring what is going on. So I can understand when professors sometimes get annoyed,” Greer said.

But banning the devices would be foolish, he said.

“More and more apps are being developed all the time. There are some very useful apps to help keep students organized, keep them on a study schedule, and to give them reminders. I think students should be using smartphones more [intelligently] to support their own learning and education.”

iUsask and app development at the U of S

Three years ago, after cutting his teeth as a software developer at Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters, Chad Jones returned to the U of S to teach a computer science course on programming smartphone apps. The course was the first of its kind in Canada, and the third in North America.

“During the process of creating the class, we created the iUsask application, which was also the first of it’s kind in Canada,” Jones said.

When launched in 2009, the iUsask app gave U of S students access to grades, campus news, class locations and maps. The most recent update, available for free from Apple’s App Store and Google Play, includes additional features including “the ability to find out available seats at various computer labs on campus” and personalized information such as “recommended textbooks for courses that you are enrolled in, your PAWS announcements and access to your electronic Bulletin Board postings.”

Now, Jones heads College Mobile, a 20-person, Saskatoon-based app development firm. College Mobile has recently developed apps for Carleton University, Western Oregon University, the Saskatchewan Party and the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority.

Most of the startup’s employees came from the app programming course at the U of S, which will be offered again in January. The computer science department at the U of S, Jones said, is one of the best in the country, despite being out-funded by other programs.

“If you take some of the best graduates from computer science at the U of S and take them down to Silicon Valley — like myself — and plomp them into high-level jobs, they’ll be fine,” Jones said. “The best here can compete with the best from pretty much anywhere.”

Still in development, College Mobile is working on a second smartphone app for the U of S — set to be released early 2013 — that will “help students find classrooms and bathrooms,” Jones said.

In ways that even Jones did not foresee, smartphones have risen from obscurity to the mainstream. Now, he says, Saskatoon and the U of S have dozens of app developers helping to drive the industry.

“At the start, a lot of people even at the university thought smartphones were just a fad,” Jones said. “Nowadays everybody has a smartphone, knows what an app is and knows why you would want one.”

The Mobilicity survey, conducted online July 9 and 10 by Angus Reid, is weighted to be nationally representative. It is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


Graphic: Samantha Braun/The Sheaf