No time for class? Pull out your iPhone. A small but growing cadre of online universities is developing mobile apps to help students pursue their studies whenever and wherever they want.
Western Governors University, a non-profit online university that enrolls 24,000 students in 50 states, is developing mobile apps to allow students access to course content. Golden Gate University, a non-profit online university that enrolls about 4,000 students, anticipates the launch of an app in the upcoming year.
And the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college that makes its name by offering flexible schedules to busy adults, launched an app last month for the iPhone and iPod Touch that allows its 300,000 online students to experience what it calls "a true extension of the classroom." Students can use their smartphones to access online discussions, threads, assignments, and receive real-time alerts when grades are posted.
"It's a supplement … a very helpful tool on the go," says senior Tracy Lawson, 30, of Portland, Ore., who works full time while pursuing a bachelor's degree in health care administration. She is one of nearly 60,000 students who have downloaded the PhoenixMobile app since it came out late last month.
Rob Wrubel, executive vice president of Apollo Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, says the app was designed for non-traditional students but that the concept likely has wider appeal. "If this is the generation of the future, and they're … using these kinds of information-rich devices, we have to be able to migrate the classroom and educational experience more and more to that world," Wrubel says.
More than 5.6 million college students nationwide were taking at least one online course during the fall 2009 term, about a million more than the previous year, says a November report by the Babson Survey Research Group .
Other colleges appear to see potential, too. In a survey of nearly 1,300 Iowa State University students published in March, 78% said they wanted "mobile access" to course management systems, such as assignments and grades, though there was no clear agreement on exactly what form that should take.
Some critics say the University of Phoenix is encouraging a watered-down degree. "If you want to read Plato you can't do it on a cellphone," says Barmak Nassirian, of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "You've got to have a little focus."