As smartphones and tablet devices are incorporated into college classrooms around the country, many students and educators have turned to mobile apps to help supplement their daily academic lives.
While the education market has been flooded with mobile apps created by textbook companies and technology firms, some professors are making their own custom apps to engage students in specific courses.
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For Anant Sundaram, a professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, who collaborated with Aswath Damodaran, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, the motivation for creating a mobile app for business students arose when they considered writing a textbook.
"We looked at the textbook landscape and said, 'Who needs another textbook about valuation?'" Sundaram says. "In this day and age, one of my biggest disappointments is how textbook companies have been slow to adjust to changes in the industry."
While Sundaram notes that their company valuation app, uValue, is not required for his course—it's available for free, but only on Apple devices—he says it helps supplement his in-class instruction, and will benefit students even after they've completed the course.
"You get the sense that [the students] have something in their hands that they have immediate access to for a very long time that a textbook doesn't offer," he says. "It's not like you're going to go to your office and reach into your bookshelf and pull out that old textbook."
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One feature of mobile apps that textbooks don't offer is the ability to update material or make changes immediately, notes Elliott Visconsi, a professor at the University of Notre Dame.
"The nice thing about developing mobile apps is that you can push out new small features [and] you can make changes or corrections if you discover you've made a mistake," Visconsi says. "It allows for us to be really flexible and responsive to what student needs look like, and it allows us to continually improve the experience."
Visconsi collaborated with Katherine Rowe, a professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, to create the app, Shakespeare's The Tempest for iPad, which provides a digital spin on Shakespeare's classic play. The app, which costs $9.99 to download, allows students to go beyond reading the text by listening to audio performances or lectures about the play, taking notes and sharing them with classmates, and annotating passages from the play, among other features.
The goal of developing this app was to transform students from consumers of the material into content creators, Visconsi says.
"Students learn best when they are creators; when they have the ability to not just read, but also participate in the ability to create new content," he says.
Beyond being able to engage with the content, students benefit from the collaborative features of class-specific apps, notes Jen Rajchel, who took the Shakespeare course with Bryn Mawr's Rowe.
"When you take the class and you're able to share your notes with your classmates, it really made for a collaborative environment as we read through the text," Rajchel says. "What's really exciting as a student is that your professor and fellow classmates become resources because you're all working through the app together."
An added bonus for students is that the cost of the apps are relatively inexpensive—and many are free to use, says David Johnston, a professor at Duke University who created the free digital textbook app, Cachalot, for his marine megafauna course.
"If we were to assign textbooks for this class, we'd have to assign five textbooks and students would end up using 10 to 15 percent of each textbook," Johnston notes. "We wanted to create a textbook that would allow us to … facilitate learning, but we also wanted to reduce the cost for students."
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For all the potential benefits these mobile apps can provide to classrooms, Johnston acknowledges that it may be some time before professors can determine whether the technology has, in fact, made a positive difference.
"I don't think we've been able to measure whether it's improved student performance," he acknowledges. "I would say, though, that students have enjoyed having information all in one place. We can essentially gain the attention of a student when we use these compelling tools."
While the creation and development of mobile apps can be very expensive and time consuming for professors, Notre Dame's Visconsi says he believes mobile devices will have a strong influence in the future of education.
"We're at a very exciting moment in the transformation of higher ed," he says. "And I think the mobile app is going to become the dominant platform for the consumption of educational content."
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