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Welcome to college! Here, have an iPhone

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is the iPhone a necessary tool for academic success? Abilene Christian University seems to thinks so. The Abilene, Texas university announced Feb. 25 that it will give either an iPhone or an iPod touch – which has many of the same functions as the iPhone – to its entire incoming freshman class of just more than 1,000 students.

“This whole thing for us is really about learning initiatives,” said Kevin Roberts, chief information officer at ACU. “It’s not about just giving somebody a device.”

Roberts said the university has been searching for a way to better integrate technology into the classroom for six years and looked at other options, including laptops and palm pilots, before settling on iPhones.

“The fact that with this one device I can literally have any web application at my fingertips was really the tipping point,” he said.

As to how iPhones can help students learn, Roberts gave an example of a professor instantaneously and anonymously surveying students via the iPhone and modifying his lectures to the level of understanding of the class. Kristina Wallace, assistant professor of communication at ACU, said the use of iPhones will provide her students with better background information. She plans to use the iPhone to replace a textbook in her freshman communication class.

In addition to providing educational benefits, the iPhones will make daily life more convenient for students. According to the school’s Feb. 25 press release, students will be able to use their iPhones to “receive homework alerts, answer in-class surveys and quizzes, get directions to their professors’ offices, and check their meal and account balances.” They will also be able to order food, listen to music and get notifications from the university, no matter where they are.

Wallace hopes the phones will better connect students to both their classes and to the school.

“Students are just attached to their phones and their iPods,” Wallace said. “It’s their lifeline.”

While the university has not ironed out all the details, the plan is to distribute the devices to incoming freshmen before classes begin next fall. Students who choose the iPhone will have to set up their own plans with AT&T. Adding telephone service may incur a cost, but otherwise, the devices are free to students.

When asked if Abilene Christian had made an agreement with AT&T and Apple, Roberts said the university is “still in discussion.”

“Even if we had a deal, I wouldn’t comment on it, and we don’t have any kind of special agreement with either one of those companies,” he said.

While some ACU students support the initiative, it has sparked a backlash among others.

Wallace said students opposed to the initiative had several concerns, including issues of entitlement and budget. In addition, she said some students are concerned that the university is losing sight of its Christian mission, “feeding the consumerist mindset and spending money that some students consider a waste.”

Troy Thomason, an Abilene freshman from Buffalo, Texas, said he was upset that students in his grade would not receive the devices.

“What I don’t like is that they told us they were giving us those, and now we’re becoming sophomores and they’re giving them exclusively to freshmen,” Thomason said. “I’m a little upset about it.”

Roberts acknowledges that some students are angry but said it would not make sense to give the iPods and iPhones to the entire campus, at least initially. “There’s too many unknowns,” he said. “How bad would it be if we gave 5,000 of these things out and it brought our network to its knees? It would just be irresponsible to do that.”

The Abilene Christian student body has started a substantial protest on Facebook against the iPods and iPhones. There are 459 members in the Give Us All iPhones Facebook group and 218 in the Official ACU Freshman iPhone Policy Protest Group.

The group walls are surprisingly heated. Some students wonder where the money for the iPhones is coming from; others question the University’s motives. Even faculty are responding angrily: “You have crossed a line,” posted one faculty member. “For a person of faith, you seem to have very little faith in us,” posted another.

Roberts said the money for the iPhones is coming out of an existing university fund and that the tuition and fees were set before the decision was made to give out the devices. He denied the accusation that the iPhone initiative is a stunt for publicity, but he said the university welcomes the attention.

In addition, Roberts doubts that the initiative will have a large affect on the school’s admission rates. “I honestly don’t think that a whole lot of students are going to make a decision to go to school based on whether or not they’re getting a phone,” Roberts said.

Thomason, on the other hand, believes the iPhones could absolutely affect admissions.

“I’m just saying, you know, if someone like me was having to choose between those Christian schools, and that was a factor, I really would go to ACU because it sounds really cool,” he said.

But Thomason and his Facebook compatriots’ concerns bring up a crucial question – will iPhones still carry their cache if all freshmen have them? Rachel England, who will start her freshman year at Abilene in the fall, is doubtful. “At first I was like, ‘I’m going to be so cool with the iPhone,'” she said. “And then I was like, ‘Everyone is going to have this.'”

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