Class is in session, please get out your smartphone


Students find instruction on their phones thanks to Purdue Studio.

By Steve Tally & Andrea Thomas

Although many students aren’t willing to speak up in class, all of them are very willing to send messages via text, Twitter, or other social media. The dialogue through online media gives students the opportunity to speak their mind in a very comfortable and non-threatening environment. In 2009, Purdue professor Charles “Chuck” Calahan decided he wanted to be a part of the conversation.

Calahan approached staff in Information Technology at Purdue, or ITaP, about developing an online tool that would allow him to get more students involved in discussions about his course on human sexuality. Some students were reluctant to speak during class, and but he thought they might offer opinions via messages.

This request synced with something Gerry McCartney (PhD LA’95), Purdue’s vice president and CIO, had been thinking.

At the time, colleges and universities were making news headlines for shutting off wi-fi connections to classrooms and banning the use of cell phones in class to avoid disruptions. McCartney thought this was the wrong approach.

Today’s smartphones are powerful pocket machines. In 2005, the most powerful laptop Apple Computer made was a PowerBook that weighed 7 pounds. Today’s iPhone 5 is one-third of an inch thick and weighs less than 4 ounces. In terms of computing power, the iPhone 5 is also 60 percent more powerful than that old PowerBook.

A study conducted at Purdue in 2012 found that 83 percent of students own a smartphone and bring it to class.

“Most students were bringing smartphones to class,” McCartney says. “These devices had capabilities we wouldn’t even have imagined a decade ago. After all, a couple of decades ago it would have seemed like a fantasy to imagine that almost every student would bring a powerful computer, a worldwide communications device, a video camera, and an e-book reader to class with them each day. And now most students have all of this in their pocket or purse. We had to find a way to use this resource.”

So, in a clever bit of educational jujitsu, McCartney and his staff turned what was considered a major disruption into a critical tool for teaching and learning. First, he and his staff began a program to work with faculty to create mobile apps for use in instruction. Then he worked with executives at Cisco and Verizon to create the most advanced campus telecommunications network in the nation at Purdue.

Now, faculty have several classroom apps to choose from, and many more are on the way.

Kyle Bowen (T’99), director of Informatics in ITaP and leader of the Studio project, says a key to the success of the program has been that the IT staff don’t tell faculty how to incorporate the apps into their classrooms.

“We’re constantly surprised by the creative ways the faculty members are using the technology,” he says. “But that’s the way it should be. We provide the field, the stick and the ball, and watch as users create whatever game they want.”

Menu of apps

Five years after the first app was released, Purdue has a string of successes in using mobile technology in the classroom, but McCartney says that although Purdue is in the lead there is still a long way to go.

“There still is a huge potential in using technology to improve learning and student success,” he says. “I like to compare it to a journey from Chicago to Los Angeles. We’re just to Naperville. We have a long way to go.”

Among the technologies developed so far:


Hotseat allows students and instructors to discuss topics either during class or between class sessions. The discussions are typically fairly evenly split between classroom business (“Will there be a quiz on this?”) and discussions about the subject matter. Students can join the discussion through the Hotseat mobile app, via text messaging, by logging into Twitter or Facebook, or by logging in to a website.

Sugato Chakravarty, professor and department head of Consumer Sciences and Retailing, has used Hotseat in his personal finance class.

“The tool allows us to engage students using media they are already familiar with,” he says.

Students in the class most often use Hotseat to ask questions about the material that they don’t care to ask in class. For example, following a recent lecture on financial bonds, students posted these discussion topics:

“Do the junk bonds have a higher par value to make up for the additional risk taken by the bond purchaser?”

“So I want to buy bonds while interest rates are HIGH so that the bond price is low?”

Some students inject a bit of humor into their questions:

“Do bonds have a lifespan? Example, you have a relative who died and as you clean out their basement you find bonds for a gold mine in the 1930s that no longer exists.”

“Are ‘bonds’ the pieces of paper that are so often stolen in movies? Like, 10 sheets = $3 million? And Jodie Foster has to hide in the panic room?”

And, of course, being college students, they sometimes put a completely different spin on the class discussions:

“Craig is the most bad### bond”

Green Notes

The mobile app version of a researcher’s field notes, this app was developed with Purdue agronomist Lori Unruh Snyder. The first app is called Green Notes Costa Rica, which provides information about plants native to that country. The app allows students to send in-app messages to others in a class and it automatically tags photos with GPS information. Green Notes Costa Rica can be purchased on Apple iTunes.


This app makes video assignments as easy to create, submit, review, and grade as paper assignments. It has been successfully used to demonstrate lab and field research techniques and to demonstrate capability in American Sign Language. Often students submit their videos to the entire class so that other students can comment on the videos. Unlike posting videos to YouTube or other online sites, videos in DoubleTake and their comments are completely private.

With DoubleTake, students can produce, submit, and view video assignments from their mobile phones or by uploading the video from a video camera to a website. Instructors can use DoubleTake to make video assignments and manage and grade submitted student videos. Videos can be evaluated within DoubleTake by either the instructor or by other students in a peer-evaluation exercise. Instructors can then upload the videos to an online learning management system such as Blackboard or Sakai.


This mobile app is actually a publishing platform. Instructors create “packs,” which are electronic course materials that the students can view from their computers or mobile devices. Unlike printed course packs, instructors can include video, links to websites, libraries of images, and even calculators for specific topics. JetPack provides a simple yet mobile alternative to course packs and textbooks.

The packs can be run on most popular devices, such as iOS and Android, as well as laptop and desktop computers. Authors of the packs have access to analytic data about how many people are reading the packs or how well the readers did on the quizzes or self-assessment tools.

Professor Mike Jacob in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Technology was one of the early adopters of the JetPack technology.

“I can include a problem in the text, the students can call up the calculator and work the problem, and later I can see if they solved it correctly,” he says. “I can be right there instructing them while they are on their phone as they wait for the bus, explaining the day’s lesson to them for a second time.”

JetPack has been licensed to a startup company in the Purdue Research Park and will soon be available commercially as Skyepack,


Digital badges are an increasingly popular way to acknowledge the breadth of student learning. They indicate proficiency in a particular skill, and provide more information than a grade in a course because the badge connects to a digital portfolio, which shows examples of the work performed to earn the badge.

Badges are currently used at institutions such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California-Davis, and Seton Hall and organizations, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US departments of Veterans Affairs and Education, and the movie studio Disney-Pixar.

Purdue, in partnership with the Mozilla Foundation, has developed a pair of mobile apps that make creating, awarding, and displaying badges much easier. Passport Profile, which displays a person’s badges, is available for iPads through Apple iTunes, and a mobile app will be available for Android and Apple iOS devices this summer.

Bill Watson, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, is an early user of Passport.

“Typically in courses, we have a number of very broad learning goals, and grades are given out on student assignments tied to these broad goals,” Watson says. “But really, it is more a comparison of students rather than a focus on student learning and attainment of desired learning outcomes.

“Badges help instructors encourage students to demonstrate how they have met very specific learning objectives through actual performance.”


This app allows students to create private, secure groups, which they can access through the mobile app, their desktop computer, or Facebook. They can post discussions or, through a partnership arrangement with Dropbox, share files of up to several gigabytes. While on Facebook, information they post for their study groups can be seen only by other group members.

Continuing lecturer Ellen Gundlach uses Mixable in her Statistics 113 class, and has found that half of her students use the stand-alone app and the other half connect through Facebook.

“Mixable looks and feels just like Facebook, so it doesn’t take students much time to learn how to use it because it’s a format they’re accustomed to using for conversation with their peers,” Gundlach says. “It feels like a community, which is especially nice for my online students who never see each other.”


This app allows lecturers and public speakers to write Twitter messages, or tweets, and release them at appropriate moments during a talk. The messages may contain links, photos, or video clips to provide additional information about the subject.

To use the app, speakers write their tweets before their presentation and then release them during the talk by double tapping on the Tweet. Because Twitter messages can contain links, photos, or video, speakers have the ability to deliver information and media directly to their audience. Users can also save messages they’ve used for previous presentations within the app by using hashtags.

With each app serving a different purpose, the similarity that they share is the creative a convenient approach to learning. Instructors can take advantage of the smartphones tucked away in their students’ backpacks and utilize them as a powerful teaching tool to enhance the classroom experience. After all, in nearly every facet of our daily lives, there is an “app for that” so why should a classroom be the exception.

Try the apps yourself

Want to try the Purdue Studio apps yourself? Other than enrolling as a Purdue student, there are two ways to sample the Purdue student experience.

Backdraft is available for download for Apple iPads by going to the Purdue Studio Backdraft page at

Also, Purdue alumni can earn a just-for-fun digital badge showing their command of Purdue trivia by going to the Purdue Studio Passport page at

Steve Tally is the author of two books and the senior strategist for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics within Purdue Marketing & Media. Andrea Thomas is a freelance writer and a technology writer within Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP).