An iPad University: Giving It the Old College Try

Thursday, July 28, 2011
When you think of an online degree, you might imagine a pajama-clad thirty-something, clicking through slides on a text-filled screen, occasionally watching an instructional video or lecture to spice things up. According to University of Southern California’s Melora Sundt, that picture is all wrong.

USC has recently teamed up with New York based TouchAppMedia and 2tor,Inc. to introduce the first mobile app for higher education. It rolls an assortment of technologies resembling Skype, Facebook, and Twitter into a virtual school experience. Video chat with a classmate on the bus, receive push notifications when a professor posts a new grade, share notes on the course “wall.” It’s the most portable development coming out of USC’s successful online masters degree program in teaching, dubbed MAT@USC.

“You can do everything on the iPad app that you could do on your laptop,” says Sundt, associate dean of academic programs at USC’s Rossier School of Education. Since USC first launched MAT@USC four years ago, over 1,500 students have enrolled in the program.

Now, let’s face it, online education isn’t exactly new. Typing “online degree” into Google gets you over 58 million results. Besides the well-known University of Phoenix, there are all sorts of online degree programs that promise a convenient, high quality education. Yale and MIT have recently put many of their lectures online, and iTunes U and Academic Earth offer resources from many top schools. Last year saw an unprecedented jump of almost a million more students studying online, according to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. What makes MAT@USC different?

Actually, that’s the wrong question. MAT@USC’s strength is what makes it similar – to a real school.

“It’s got all the upsides of the classroom,” says said Khanan Grauer, the CEO and founder of TouchAppMedia, “you’re just not physically attending school.”

When students enter the online “classroom” – whether on their iPad or laptop – they see a Brady Bunch style grid of live-stream video headshots of 10-12 students and the professor. During class, which is scheduled several times throughout the week, students can take notes, view slides, discuss questions on a Twitter-like chat pod, break into groups, or virtually “raise their hand” to answer a question. In other words, they can do most of the activities they would in a normal classroom. Only in this scenario, their classmates might be sitting at a desk in rural Kansas – or Japan.

Outside of class, students can view their wall (similar to Facebook’s wall), check their class schedule or grades, catch up on missed reading or watch a supplementary video, or join any number of thousands of online social groups or communities.

“Students are pretty comfortable using a computer to socialize,” says Grauer. “This is an extremely rich experience.”

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