Higher education android apps


Last week, I was fortunate to attend the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit, an industry-academia event looking at the future of computer science. Mark Sample noted many of the cool projects shared throughout the weekend in his Digital Culture Week post, and you can see a lot of the recorded talks online. One highlight of the summit was a DemoFest featuring a number of tools both futuristic and current, including TouchDevelop, a platform for scripting on and for mobile Windows devices that offers an intriguing solution for learning mobile design.

While Windows Phones are relatively new to the mobile landscape, the platform is experimenting with some capabilities that others (namely Apple) limit. As the conflict over MIT’s Scratch for iPad app demonstrated, Apple has not been comfortable with programs that allow for the execution of code on the device. Mobile development.

Building with MIT’S Google App Inventor
By Anastasia Salter
When Google first made its entry into the mobile market with the launch of Android, they also set about to create a new tool to allow would-be app developers to quickly migrate to the new ecosystem and get their projects working on Android phones. The resulting project was Google App Inventor, a graphical user interface for building mobile apps using drag and drop elements and building block code. Amy wrote about the Google App Inventor beta back in 2010, before the project was shut down and set free as an open source project but without the support of Google’s servers. Thankfully for those of us who were already excited by the idea of a simple tool for rapid mobile prototyping, App Inventor has re-emerged.
MIT recently resurrected App Inventor and expanded it with particular attention to educational use, and the new hub for the tool includes the beginnings of a section of resources.

How to Turn Your Nook Color into an Android Tablet with Ice Cream Sandwich
By Prof. Hacker
I previously wrote how I converted my Nook Color into a usable iPad alternative. Over the holidays, though, I was hoping to find a full-blown tablet under the tree. Alas, we settled on a new TV instead of new tablets, and I was left with just my Nook. The experience is nice overall, and I still used my Nook every day as a tablet, but I just had that itch for some new tech that needs to be scratched. The release of Android 4.0, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) , has only made this more maddening-a frustration I share with many Android tablet owners, as the operating system is only slowly being released.

When George MacKerron set out to investigate how people’s happiness is affected by their environment, he hit upon the idea of using mobile phones. What if an application could be developed to ask study participants – at regular intervals – how they were feeling, where they were and who they were with?

The research project Mappiness does just that via an app that beeps phone owners once or more a day to enquire about their state of mind while simultaneously taking a noise measurement and tracking the participant’s location with global positioning system technology. Richard Layard, the British economist and Labour peer known for his research on well-being, has described the project as “a revolutionary research idea”, but for MacKerron, the concept was obvious.”The technology was there: it seemed a no-brainer,” says the PhD researcher at the London School of Economics.

What took MacKerron by surprise was the scale of the response. At the start of the project, he and his supervisor Susana Mourato had a “crazy pipe dream” that it might be possible to get as many as 3,000 people to volunteer to participate in the project. Instead, to date nearly 43,000 people have experienced “the warm glow of helping increase the sum of human knowledge”, in the words of the Mappiness website.

It is now nearly four years since Steve Jobs, co-founder and chief executive of Apple, announced that his company would be allowing third-party mobile apps to be developed for its newly released iPhone.

At the time, he predicted the move would lead to “hundreds of new applications” for iPhone owners, but this too proved to be something of an underestimate: today, almost 500,000 different apps are available for download on iTunes.

Thanks to apps, it is now possible to play Sonic the Hedgehog or read Times Higher Education on your mobile device. You can even turn your phone into a virtual pint of beer or a Star Wars lightsabre if that is what your heart desires.

As apps have grown in popularity, there has been an increase in the use and discussion of such software within the academy. As well as research, apps are being used by academics to help with teaching and administration, and as a new way to engage with the public. Rob Spence, associate head of the department of English and history at Edge Hill University, has discovered a series of apps that help him manage his busy week.

One, called Evernote, allows him to keep track of notes and interesting titbits that he picks up throughout the day.

“I was forever scribbling down notes on bits of A4 paper and then losing them and thinking: ‘I’m sure I wrote something down about that,’” he says.

Evernote allows users to take “notes” in the form of sounds, pictures, text, websites or even handwritten sentences that can then be sorted into folders, tagged and edited.The benefit, Spence finds, is being able to keep on top of things that may prove relevant at a time when people are being “bombarded with education”.”It’s a question of filtering and organising, and this is a good way of doing it,” he says.Another app that has proved useful for academics is Dropbox, which Spence says is currently “flavour of the month”.

Dropbox uses cloud computing to allow file synchronisation. Put more simply, it allows users to save a file to a folder that can then be accessed at any other computer with Dropbox installed. This provides a secure and accessible way to store files without relying on a physical (and easily lost) USB (universal serial bus) stick, or the need constantly to email oneself updated versions of the same documents.”It’s great – just on the very simple level of being able to save your precious documents in a remote place you can access at any point,” Spence enthuses.Steve Greer, lecturer in drama, theatre and performance at Aberystwyth University, also uses Dropbox, and says that the app is helping to make him more productive.”It is particularly useful being able to save things I want to read into my folder and synchronise before I go anywhere,” he explains. “It means I can catch up on reading on, say, a train. It makes me far more productive on my journeys.”

Greer has also found value in using an app called Quick Cite when writing papers. Quick Cite allows users to take pictures of books’ barcodes. An email is then sent with the book’s citation, which can be recorded in American Psychological Association, Modern Languages Association, Chicago or Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers styles.

“I now scan books I read automatically, so I’ve got a subfolder in my email when I go to write a journal paper or organise my teaching,” Greer says. “It’s like my own personal archive.”

Despite this, Greer feels that academics do not always appreciate the opportunities offered by apps, even if they own smartphones.

“I think there are a lot of people walking around with these phones in their pockets who don’t understand what they are capable of doing,” he says.
Even if scholars are not using the technology, they still need to be aware of the culture shift caused by the use of advances such as apps and smartphones, argues Alec Hosterman, senior lecturer in communication arts at Indiana University South Bend.”The nature of technology is such that something will come along in five years or so and we will forget about apps. However, I think that what these apps are doing is changing our cultural perception of the interface between user and device.”

Peter Abrahams, professor of clinical anatomy at the University of Warwick, understands the potential of apps without feeling the need to use them himself. Abrahams is the star of Aspects of Anatomy, an iPhone and iPad reference app that combines videos, quizzes and written information on the chest and upper limbs.The app came about when Abrahams was looking for a way to preserve plastinated specimens that he had bought from the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens with a £500,000 grant.”If you handle the specimens too much they deteriorate over time quicker than if you do not,” he says. “These specimens have got to last a long time because we’re not going to get another half a million from anyone in the next 10 years, that’s for sure.”Abrahams made a series of video podcasts of the specimens. This in turn led to the development of an app that has become a hit with time-starved medical students. The portable format and short videos and quizzes allow them to study on the move or in coffee breaks.Abrahams believes that the success of his app shows there is scope for academics in other fields to develop something similar. But he adds a caveat: “They need to think about how they do it. In anatomy, a lot of the apps have just been people taking pictures of flashcards and sticking them up. It’s pathetic. These types of app are not using the medium at all.”He also advises those thinking of building an app to have their material fully prepared before they go to see an app developer. This, he says, will enable academics to ensure that their vision for the app is realised.”I have had total control over the app and I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t had that, because it’s me and my reputation on the line.”

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