College Via Smartphone: The University Of Phoenix Unveils New App

Mobile devices now offer yet another option for a generation adept at distraction -- behold, going to college by smartphone.

Earlier this week, the University of Phoenix, the nation’s largest private university, became the latest for-profit institution to dip its toe in the rapidly expanding marketplace of higher-education apps.

Specifically, by launching the PhoenixMobile app, which is now available free of charge at the iTunes store, University of Phoenix students who are iPhone, iPod touch or iPad users will now be able to “move seamlessly between the online classroom and their mobile phone,” according to a recent press release. It is currently listed as the number one education app for the iPhone.

“It’s all about functionality and the extension of the classroom,” says Michael White, University of Phoenix’s chief technology officer. The app will allow students to check grades, communicate with classmates and participate in online discussions. “From four walls to a laptop to a handheld device, it’s about a classroom on the go, whether on the bus or on the subway, where our students can do their learning when and where they need to.”

Soon, some like Diana Rhoten, co-founder of Startl, which helps build digital education companies, predict that we’ll all be learning on our mobile devices -- anytime, anywhere.

“The 2000s were about universities and electronic-learning,” says Rhoten. “The 2010s are going to be about mobile-learning.”

But in lowering the barrier of entry and increasing accessibility, is something being lost as a result?

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Offers, says an unequivocal yes.

“Can you learn thermodynamics by texting?” wonders Nassirian, who describes smartphones used as tools for earning college degrees as “weapons of mass instruction.”

Further, he sees such a development as an “astonishing display of disregard for the actual substance of education. And it shows how little they think education requires in terms of attention and focus and some measure of actual engagement."

Others are far less troubled by the latest technological innovation -- or higher education delivered through the vehicle of a two-inch screen.

“Twenty years ago, people were freaking out about the notion that anyone would take a course online. Now, we just take it for granted,” says Frederick Hess, an education-policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. He sees the shift away from desktops and laptops toward handheld devices as part of not only a natural, but expected order of things. “Our notion of what’s normal versus what’s convenient tends to evolve as people get used to using tools in new ways.”

Hess notes that a 16-person literature seminar being taught by an exemplary professor will be difficult to duplicate on an iPhone. But he doesn’t think that it’s any worse than taking a basic skills course, whether in accounting or air-conditioning repair, on one’s laptop.

In 1989 the University of Phoenix became the first university to provide college degrees online. Its core group of students are non-traditional, whether parents, working adults or members of the military and according to its press release, do most of their online coursework during the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.

But as its digital offerings expand, at issue for some is whether the University of Phoenix’s particular for-profit stance might signal other reasons to be more cautious. 

“For-profit universities have incentives to try and maximize a return on investment,” explains Hess, who sees potential technological innovations as a way to not only serve more clients, but also cut costs. “A concern is whether that will compromise quality -- and that’s a risk. But there's an enormous potential upside, as well."

According to the most recent data compiled by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the Apollo Group, which is the company that owns the University of Phoenix, enrolled 177,368 students in associate degree programs. Of these, fewer than five percent had completed their degree after two years.

More troubling to some are the high costs associated with such a risky endeavor. The cost of the two-year University of Phoenix degree is $21,833. Further, according to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 21 percent had defaulted on their loans after just three years. Meanwhile, the Apollo Group made more than $1 billion in profit last year.

José Cruz, vice president of higher education practice and policy at Education Trust, is more concerned with how the app might help to lure in an unsuspecting demographic of student.

“It’s very characteristic of what they do in terms of trying to enroll students into programs,” explains Cruz. “It’s this consumer notion that we’ll give you what you want, but that it's not necessarily what you need.”

Further, Cruz wonders whether the money spent on marketing or future app development might better be spent researching improved learning models so that students might actually graduate at higher rates.

Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, worries about the overall effectiveness of such a model. Essentially, that just because we have the tools doesn't mean they will necessarily improve learning outcomes. "It's a little hard to imagine the person changing a diaper and running off to work and in between, having the time to meaningfully engage with their classmates."

Meanwhile, Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, hopes that such technology doesn’t expand elsewhere for now. He worries about students trying to do too much at once, and that much of learning and subsequent discussion can’t be relegated to a 140-character tweet.

One of Pallas’ colleagues is known to pass out his cell phone number so that students can contact him, day or night. “I simply don’t want to be that accessible,” says Pallas, who advocates the imposition of a more reasonable setting of boundaries that demarcate when he can devote his full attention to his students and the complex issues they raise. “I want to be accessible, but I don’t want to be perpetually on call.”