At Texas' Abilene Christian, Digital Age Under Way

“The entering freshman class in 2011 will have several interesting traits," Abilene Christian University officials noted in a 2006 report, "not the least of which is that they were born the same year the Internet became mainstream."

Indeed, 2011 will be an interesting year for Texas higher education. At Texas' public institutions, it will assuredly be marked by budget cuts, even as they are asked to graduate more students. It is also the year of the $10,000 — books included — bachelor's degree, less than half the cost of the current statewide average. At least, that's what Gov. Rick Perry called for in his recent State of the State address, along with some vague suggestions of how to do it. "Let's leverage web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal," he said.

In the five years since Abilene Christian University began preparing for the freshman class of 2011, the private West Texas university with fewer than 5,000 students has done just that, transforming itself into perhaps the most technologically innovative campus in the state. It’s drawing the attention of digital heavy hitters: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Karen Cator, the director of educational technology for the U.S. Education Department, will be visiting campus at the end of the month, delivering keynotes at the 2011 ACU Connected Summit.

In an e-mail to The Texas Tribune, Cator said education as a whole needs to rapidly change its trajectory to create a more economically sustainable model similar to how technology has advanced other sectors. "Our education system is based on both an agrarian [school year calendar] and an industrial [seat time, bells and rote memorization] time frame," she wrote. "Now the information and communication age has changed the ways we live, socialize, learn, work and play. Our schools have a tremendous opportunity to increase access to learning — everywhere and for everyone."

ACU officials say the lessons learned in the process can inform the state's public universities as they are pushed toward similar innovation by the changing expectations of the student body and the state's leadership.

A few years ago, professors noticed that fewer students were taking notes. Instead, if they needed to recall information, they were looking it up online. "Students were basically saying, 'There is nothing you're telling me that I perceive to be of value,’" says George Saltsman, executive director of ACU’s Adams Center for Teaching and Learning. He says the conventional method of teaching — basically, professors telling the students the answers to the upcoming tests — is badly outmoded in the digital age. "In today's world,” he said, “students can look that up any time they want" — including in the middle of a lecture.

"If a student can Facebook through your whole class and still make an A, whose problem is that?" Saltsman says. To meet the students in their digital space, ACU gave faculty and every student on campus an iPhone or an iPod Touch last fall. Students can choose either one, but if they want the cell phone functionality of the former, they pay for that themselves. Saltsman says the school spends about $1 million each year on the initiative, but that there are also some savings in that the school no longer maintains computer labs in residence halls, and is in the initial planning stages of phasing out its land-line telephone network.

Unlike other schools in the country that have handed out high tech devices, ACU has made a point of tracking usage and researching what, if any, benefits the devices have provided. One early lesson: Not all devices are created equal. When students are asked how often they use their device for academic purposes, there is a statistically significant higher level of satisfaction among iPhone users, which is about 68 percent of the campus. "Because it’s socially connected, students don’t go anywhere without it," says Saltsman, noting that a device without cell phone capability will be more likely to be left at home.

Today, 83 percent of ACU professors say they incorporate the mobile device into their instruction on a regular basis, and most report an increase in student participation. Some professors have taken to flipping the traditional model by podcasting lectures and instructional information for students to consume on their own time and applying that knowledge in the classroom. For example, in theater professor Adam Hester’s class, students find YouTube clips of scenes they want to discuss and share them with the class. They look up information on the Internet Broadway Database in class. They rehearse anytime, anywhere by sending and receiving videos. In recent performances, actors have communicated with the audience via text messages and live blogs.

The school's use of mobile devices is featured in the 2011 Horizon Report, an annual collaboration between the New Media Consortium (a nonprofit association of organizations like colleges, museums and education-related companies focusing on new media and emerging technology) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (a project of Educause, a nonprofit association that promotes the use of information technology in higher education) that looks at emerging technologies in higher education. The new report, released this week, predicts widespread integration of mobile devices into the classroom in four to five years. But on the nearer horizon, it says electronic textbooks will become more prominent.

Saltsman anticipates that public elementary and secondary education will see the adoption of e-textbooks more rapidly than higher education because the state has a stronger incentive to reduce costs than the university bookstore. They’ve been studying the implementation of e-textbooks at schools like New Tech High, a charter school in the Coppell Independent School District, where every student gets a laptop. Tabitha Branum, the executive director of the school, cautions against assuming that all kids are technologically sophisticated. “Our kids are incredibly tech savvy on technology for entertainment,” she says, “not necessarily for how to use technology for efficiency, productivity and learning.” She hopes to change that.

The school doesn’t have a library or a librarian or other costs traditionally associated with a high school. Though they don’t use physical textbooks, the state still purchases them and sends them. She says forgoing them would be an easy savings.

But Saltsman is wary of rushing into the elimination of physical textbooks just yet. One of his concerns is that, in tight financial times, the potential financial savings of digital textbooks will outweigh the educational benefits. “Before we run off and give everybody digital texts, are we sure they’re learning as effectively and efficiently on them?” he says. “Let’s be sure we’re not wrecking the education system by making it more cost effective.”

When that research comes in, Texas lawmakers hope the state is ready. Last session, state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, passed legislation allowing high school textbooks to be assembled using digital open-source technology. State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, passed a bill freeing up funds for digital textbooks in public education.

Branch says colleges and universities will soon get on board. “I think higher education is going to figure out at some point that we can really use technology to get a quality, engaging, rigorous experience,” he says. “But along with that, the interface with the professor is going to change.” Branch also expects technology to transform the business side of education. “If you’re not paying attention to the customer and you’re not keeping up with their data, then you’re going to lose them,” he says. The 2011 Horizon Report says that sort of rapid data-mining and analysis is still five years away.

In the meantime, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is taking stock of everything the state offers in terms of online learning with an eye on reducing higher education costs. Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes says the result could be a statewide digital university, or increased offerings of online degrees.

Although ACU students, coached along by their professors, appear to be increasingly teaching themselves with the help of electronic resources, Saltsman says there is no plan to disband the physical campus. “There is a diversity of opinions and experiences on a college campus that is extremely valuable,” he says. “We just want professors to be using that value of coming together in the classroom.”

Of course, the likelihood of one of Texas’ large public universities doling out iPhones with the same enthusiasm as a very small private university – where a student’s tuition and fees run more than $22,000 per year — is slim. But Saltsman believes their teaching model needs to change either way. “We’re seeing a backlash against the industrialization of education, where we just move kids through the assembly line,” he says. “Are they willing to make the change or are we going to stay with pedagogical models that haven’t changed since the 17th century?”

[Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the cost of tuition and fees at Abilene Christian University. It is $22,000 per year, not per semester.]

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.