USC students turn to mobile apps for online classes

Smartphones, tablets now as much a part of class as laptops and computers

Many colleges have added online classes to their curricula, but mobile devices are now being used to supplement live sessions with teachers and classmates alike.

At the University of Southern California (USC), students can connect via smartphones and tablets while taking online classes for a master's degree in social work or a master's in teaching. The classes have attracted students from other states and around the globe, according to USC officials.

The students use an app on the devices created by 2tor, an online education technology provider that also supports online education programs at Georgetown University and the University of North Carolina.

Julie Row is working on a master's in social work at USC, but doing so from her home in New Jersey. She mainly uses the mobile app once or twice a day to check in and keep up on classes. 2tor officials said nearly half of the social work students at USC who downloaded the mobile app used it 10 times a month for more than five minutes at time; about a fourth of the students in the teaching program have done so.

"I'll go to the phone last minute, when it's useful to see whether the professor has posted information like class materials," she said in an interview. "If there's multimedia material [such as a Power Point or video clip] I prefer not to use my phone, because my battery tends to run out if I do."

Row uses an HTC MyTouch from T-Mobile USA, an Android phone.

If she owned an iPad, she said, "I could definitely see it would be possible" to access videoconferences during live classroom sessions or see multimedia content. Currently, she views those via her laptop.

Row said online classes haven't stopped her from getting to know classmates. "People make a stronger effort to communicate because it's a virtual class," she said. "It's more difficult online to meet the professor and you have to follow up with an email."

Her online mobile app lets her see what classmates are posting on chat boards in various community groups. "In the end, if a student is driven, they can make the best out of this," she said.

Row said she's able to get a top-flight degree from a renowned university without having to live nearby. She pays the same for tuition as a student on campus, and must supply her own computer and phone, the same as most students do on campus. She also got a master's in library science on a physical campus, and said her virtual experience is just as good.

Paul Maiden, vice dean of academic affairs for the USC School of Social Work, said students are encouraged to supplement their virtual classroom experiences with in-person campus visits. Many in the online master's program are coming to USC graduation ceremonies later this spring in Los Angeles.

"I do not think online will eliminate bricks and mortar at all, but it just gives a much more open access to our program," he said. "We've become a national model for social work and there's a possibility of reaching an international market."

The social work online program has doubled in 18 months and now reaches 1,200 students out of 3,000 overall, he added.

When the online classes became available for smartphones and tablets about a year ago, Maiden said it "seemed kind of gimmicky at first. But then I realized I can be at my desk or laptop or iPad in the car or on my cell phone. It's another route in the door. I use the app less so on the iPhone because its so small, but certainly the iPad has more ability and is being used. We've seen students en route while passing through airports using it."

USC has invested millions of dollars in its online education program, but Maiden said, "I think we've gotten the payback, definitely.... Our focus is on quality, and this expands the brand of USC and gives access to a lot of people who don't have the luxury or time to come to a bricks and mortar campus."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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