ABU DHABI // Students at Abu Dhabi University will soon be able to register for courses, check their grades, take quizzes and contribute to classroom discussions on their mobile phones.
The university launched its pilot of an application called Blackboard Mobile this week. As many as 75 students will participate in the trial before it is rolled out to other regional universities in September.
Officials say the experiment will determine how the smartphone application might improve classroom involvement and grades.
Half of the students in selected courses will be given access to the application, the university announced yesterday. Officials will compare the first half's progress with the other half through surveys, interviews and test scores.
Some classes are already using Blackboard's online services through the university's website. The educational software maker provides a platform for online discussion forums, campus maps, announcements, online tests and assignments.
"I plan to use it as much as I can," Rhema Bhatti, a finance major at ADU, said of the mobile application. "If I am just looking through my phone because I am bored, there is always an opportunity to connect with my teachers, or with other students."
Teachers can link media or related materials to comment threads, or even send out an announcement if they are stuck in traffic before a class.
Having that information in the palm of students' hands would boost the amount of time they spent focused on classroom content, said Yara Azouqa, an English instructor at the university who will teach classes that use the new technology.
She said it would open up the classroom experience to more students. "It is a new style of learning that allows them to participate, regardless of their personalities, and eliminates the roles they take on in the classroom — the leader, the joker, the speaker, the very cautious, those with softer skills.
"It lets students break out of the rigid classroom environment and allows me to deliver my class in different ways."
Hidayah al Zaabi, an environmental science major at ADU, said she would feel more confident speaking in an online forum, and would utilise the extra access the application would give to the teachers. "I would have the content available anywhere and at any time, so it would mean more time with the teacher."
About 100 universities are tapped in through the US-based company's mobile application, but Abu Dhabi University is the first in the GCC to get access.
Officials from Zayed University, UAE University and the American University of Sharjah have expressed an interest in using the product, and will monitor the results of the trial, said Dr Rick Van Sant, the director of faculty development at ADU.
After the pilot, university officials would decide whether to make the application mandatory for completing assignments or communicating with teachers and classmates, he said. That may mean distributing phones to some students.
The application also offers an opportunity for parents to easily check in on their children's academic progress. "I told my two daughters studying in the US that I needed to have their passwords, so even from thousands of miles away I can see what they are up to in their studies," Dr Van Sant said.
Etisalat is providing free 5GB data packages for the pilot, and would work out discounted subscriptions for faculty members and students after the official launch, said Abdulla Hashim, the president of business solutions for the telecom operator.
BlackBerry UAE has donated 40 phones for students to use in the project.
Nicolas Klotz, the regional manager of Blackboard for the Middle East, called ADU "an excellent laboratory for the UAE and GCC".
"Think of the amount of time students spend on mobile devices instead of in text books," he said. "If we can increase the amount of time they concentrate on the class by an hour per week, that is a great result."
Blackboard Mobile has applications available for major mobile platforms including the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android, and this week announced that it would roll out an application for the operating system of HP's Palm and TouchPad.