Tech Check

Apple 101: The App Class

Apple's App Store might be one of the greatest entrepreneurial tools the world has ever seen. Nothing virtual about this gold rush. Consider what Steve Jobs told us last week: 140,000 apps, and over 3 billion downloads. Think, i-KaChing.

Apple's iPhone
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And now it seems universities are recognizing the potential as well.

One of the latest schools to offer a course in app development is the University of Minnesota, courtesy of professor Dr. Charles Miller.

I interviewed Dr. Miller via email over the last few days, and his answers offer a telling glimpse into the enormous excitement and momentum Apple's App Store is generating, how other platforms are almost being ignored, and the sticky ownership issues colleges are facing when it comes to finished apps developed by students at schools.

Below is some of my exchange with him:

TechCheck: Why start an app class?

Dr. Charles Miller: This one is easy - because our MA and PhD students are asking for it! My responsibility in the Learning Technologies program at the University of Minnesotais focused on energizing and supporting our students as they explore innovative design and development opportunities for meaningful online learning. I believe that apps targeted at education constitute a large and evolving piece of that focus.

Also, knowing that your target audience will be interacting and collaborating on a single platform (the iPhone or iPad) offers exciting interaction possibilities and steers away from developing for the lowest common technology denominator. For example, the design of an app that motivates students to go out and explore/document their surroundings by capturing geotagged media (e.g., videos, photos, text), analyzing these media, and collaborating with their peers is an exciting opportunity. When a single device affords these types of possibilities in a simple app, I become very excited as both a teacher and a designer.

Me: What kinds of things will you be teaching?

Him: I give 100 percent ownership of my classes to my students and believe that first and foremost design should be fun. Since this is an introductory course, I know that we will create both web-based and native apps, but the target audience, interactivity, problem space, and context for our designs is up to the students. I focus on teaching design logic, vision, and conceptualization; learning the syntax of the tool is a means to achieve these goals.

Me: What's the goal of the class?

Him: The primary goal of the course is to inspire and support students in thinking creatively as they envision and develop apps for the future of education and online learning.

Me: Is this just for the Apple platform, or all platforms?

Him: The focus of the course is on creative and innovative opportunities for mobile learning. For this semester, the iPhone, iPad, and Apple iPhone SDK are the tools we will use to explore this focus. Currently, I believe Apple is in the leading group of select companies pushing mobile technology. However, if students want to investigate other software packages and devices, I will encourage it and support them to the best of my abilities.

Me: How exciting are the opportunities for app development given the current mania surrounding all things "app!?"

Him: Endless!

Me: Are there other classes like these offered elsewhere in the US?

Him: Yes! In fact, there are other exciting courses at the University of Minnesota in development, and some are already being taught. Also, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Washington have wonderful iPhone development courses and certificates. The main difference with my course is that the focus will be on education-based app design and development; however, I’m sure we will build some apps with loose educational ties simply to experiment and have fun.

Me: Are you finding that Apple is interested in cooperating with you?  Supporting this?  Does it even matter?

Him: I haven’t spoken directly with Apple just yet; however, I believe Apple’s vision for the future of online learning is shared by many in the educational technology field who are trying to look beyond what’s currently available. Learning should be active and fun – I think Apple understands this 100 percent as seen in the simple, aesthetic design of their products. The future of app design and online learning represents an exciting opportunity – I want to make sure that Learning Technologies and the University of Minnesota are playing a major role!

Me: What about "ownership?" Who owns the app once it's finished?

Him: For now, this is an experimental design seminar course for the fall. However, our program sees mobile design for education as a serious investment in the future, so we will see what happens…

Ownership is something that I am currently looking into at the University - it's always good to be upfront about issues like this from the very beginning and I think it will make for an interesting discussion in the course. I know there are licensing and distribution issues with the SDKs we will be using (we have wonderful support at the University of Minnesota that I know will assist us in these issues); however, I would like to see the students maintain the majority, if not all, of the ownership of their designs.

The times, they certainly are a changin', now that Applied Entrepeneurialism seems like a rather appropriate nickname for classes like these. And the app phenomenon just keeps feeding on itself.

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