Get Your Degree via Your iPhone? Some Thoughts on the University of Phoenix's New App

The University of Phoenix released an iPhone app this week (iTunes link). While by no means the first university (for-profit or otherwise) to build an app, I think it's a significant development nonetheless.

Most university apps serve to keep the campus community up-to-date on news and events. They often include course catalogs, staff directories, and library hours. But their function tends to be about giving users information they need to navigate campus, not about giving students the access they need to navigate their individual courses. These apps can be useful, don't get me wrong, but their emphasis on multimedia is often more marketing than educational.

Several of the learning management systems do offer that via their mobile apps -- Blackboard Mobile, for example, lets students interact with the site via their smartphones. But note the branding: this isn't the university's app. It's Blackboard's.

The University of Phoenix app does serve as a mobile gateway to the school's LMS, giving students enrolled in the university the ability to check their grades, submit assignments, participate in class discussions, and receive push notifications when instructors update class materials.

That practical functionality doesn't make it any less of a marketing device, of course. Following its release, the app quickly shot up to the top of the educational apps category -- perhaps because University of Phoenix's online students are eager to be able to get their grades via their smartphone. Or perhaps because a free app sounds like a great deal.

That's the concern of José Cruz, vice president of higher education practice and policy at Education Trust, who worries that the app may help the University of Phoenix's recruitment efforts, something that has come under increasing scrutiny, in part, because of its abysmal graduation rates.

It's very characteristic of what they do in terms of trying to enroll students into programs, Cruz tells The Huffington Post. It's this consumer notion that we'll give you what you want, but that it's not necessarily what you need. Cruz wonders whether the money spent on marketing or future app development might better be spent researching improved learning models so that more students might actually graduate from the university.

An iPhone app can certainly be viewed as supporting the University of Phoenix's student population -- students who are employed full-time and are balancing work, family, and school. But while mobile learning can open up a lot of possibilities, I am a bit skeptical of the idea that we can really successfully teach and learn "on the go." Is it convenient to be able to participate in a class discussion forum while you're waiting for the bus? Sure. But will we trade convenience for rigor? I don't know.

I do imagine we'll see more and more of this sort of app appear. The University of Phoenix are seen as pioneers in online learning, offering the first online-only college degree, after all. Perhaps they'll be seen as pioneers here as well. And considering what we know about the university's success rates and marketing practices, perhaps that should give us pause.


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