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Welcome, Freshmen. Have an iPod.

Jonathan D. Glater|The New York Times
Thursday, 21 Aug 2008 | 7:16 AM ET

Taking a step that professors may view as a bit counterproductive, some universities are doling out Apple iPhones and Internet-capable iPods to students.

A customer at an Apple store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, N.C., examines the new Apple iPhone during the first day of sales for the device, Friday, June 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek).
Jason E. Miczek
A customer at an Apple store at Southpark Mall in Charlotte, N.C., examines the new Apple iPhone during the first day of sales for the device, Friday, June 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek).

The always-on Internet devices raise some novel possibilities, like tracking where students congregate. With far less controversy, colleges could send messages about canceled classes, delayed buses, campus crises or just the cafeteria menu.

While schools emphasize its usefulness — online research in class and instant polling of students, for example — a big part of the attraction is, undoubtedly, that the iPhone is cool and a hit with students. Basking in the aura of a cutting-edge product could just help a university foster a cutting-edge reputation.

Apple stands to win as well, hooking more young consumers with decades of technology purchases ahead of them. The lone losers, some fear, could be professors.

Students already have laptops and cellphones, of course, but the newest devices can take class distractions to a new level. They practically beg a user to ignore the long-suffering professor struggling to pass on accumulated wisdom from the front of the room — a prospect that teachers find galling and students view as, well, inevitable.

“When it gets a little boring, I might pull it out,” acknowledged Naomi J. Pugh, a first-year student at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., referring to her new iPod Touch, which can connect to the Internet over a campus wireless network. She speculated that professors might try harder to make classes interesting if they were competing with the devices.

Experts see a movement toward the use of mobile technology in education, though they say it is in its infancy as professors try to concoct useful applications. Providing powerful hand-held devices is sure to fuel debates over the role of technology in higher education.

“We think this is the way the future is going to work,” said Kyle Dickson, co-director of research and the mobile learning initiative at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which has bought more than 600 iPhones and 300 iPods for students entering this fall.

Although plenty of students take their laptops to class, they don’t take them everywhere and would prefer something lighter. Abilene Christian settled on the devices after surveying students and finding that they did not like hauling around laptops, but that most always carried a cellular phone, Dr. Dickson said.

It is not clear how many colleges plan to give out iPhones and iPods this fall; officials at Apple were coy about the subject and said they would not leak any institution’s plans.

“We can’t announce other people’s news,” said Greg Joswiak, vice president of iPod and iPhone marketing at Apple. He also said that he could not discuss discounts to universities for bulk purchases.

At least four institutions — the University of Maryland, Oklahoma Christian University, Abilene Christian and Freed-Hardeman — have announced that they will give the devices to some or all of their students this fall.

Other universities are exploring their options. Stanford University has hired a student-run company to design applications like a campus map and directory for the iPhone. It is considering whether to issue iPhones but not sure it’s necessary, noting that more than 700 iPhones were registered on the university’s network last year.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, iPhones might already have been everywhere, if AT&T , the wireless carrier offering the iPhone in the United States, had a more reliable network, said Andrew J. Yu, mobile devices platform project manager at M.I.T.

“We would have probably gone ahead of this, maybe just getting a thousand iPhones and giving them out,” Mr. Yu said.

The University of Maryland, College Park is proceeding cautiously, giving the iPhone or iPod Touch to 150 students, said Jeffrey C. Huskamp, vice president and chief information officer at the university. “We don’t think we have all the answers,” Mr. Huskamp said. By observing how students use the gadgets, he said, “We’re trying to get answers from students.”

At each college, the students who choose to get an iPhone must pay for mobile phone service. Those service contracts include unlimited data use. Both the iPhones and the iPod Touch devices can connect to the Internet through campus wireless networks. With the iPhone, those networks may provide faster connections and longer battery life than AT&T’s data network. Many cellphones allow users to surf the Web, but only some newer ones have Wi-Fi capability.

University officials say they have no plans to track their students (and Apple said it would not be possible unless students give their permission). They say they are drawn to the prospect of learning applications outside the classroom, though such lesson plans have yet to surface.

“My colleagues and I are studying something called augmented reality,” said Christopher J. Dede, professor in learning technologies at Harvard University. “Alien Contact,” for example, is an exercise developed for middle-school students who use hand-held devices that can determine their location. As they walk around a playground or other area, text, video or audio pops up at various points to help them try to figure out why aliens were in the schoolyard.

“You can imagine similar kinds of interactive activities along historical lines,” like following the Freedom Trail in Boston, Professor Dede said. “It’s important that we do research so that we know how well something like this works.”

The rush to distribute the devices worries some professors, who say that students are less likely to participate in class if they are multitasking. “I’m not someone who’s anti-technology, but I’m always worried that technology becomes an end in and of itself, and it replaces teaching or it replaces analysis,” said Ellen G. Millender, associate professor of classics at Reed College in Portland, Ore. (She added that she hoped to buy an iPhone for herself once prices fall.)

Robert S. Summers, who has taught at Cornell Law School for about 40 years, announced this week — in a detailed, footnoted memorandum — that he would ban laptop computers from his class on contract law.

“I would ban that too if I knew the students were using it in class,” Professor Summers said of the iPhone, after the device and its capabilities were explained to him. “What we want to encourage in these students is active intellectual experience, in which they develop the wide range of complex reasoning abilities required of the good lawyers.”

The experience at Duke University may ease some concerns. A few years ago, Duke began giving iPods to students with the idea that they might use them to record lectures (these older models could not access the Internet).

“We had assumed that the biggest focus of these devices would be consuming the content,” said Tracy Futhey, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Duke.

But that is not all that the students did. They began using the iPods to create their own “content,” making audio recordings of themselves and presenting them. The students turned what could have been a passive interaction into an active one, Ms. Futhey said.

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