6 Top Smartphone Apps to Improve Teaching, Research, and Your Life

Academics describe going mobile to plan lectures, keep up with scholarship, and run classes

Leonardo Carrizo for The Chronicle

"I used to use a piece of paper" for taking attendance in class, says David M. Reed, a computer-science professor at Capital U., but he kept losing the sheet. The smartphone app that he wrote to do the job has gained him about $20,000 on the iTunes store.
January 02, 2011

Not long ago, it seemed absurd for aca­demics to carry around a computer, camera, and GPS device every­where they went. Actually, it still seems absurd. But many professors (and administrators) now do just that in the form of all-in-one devices. Smartphones or tablet computers combine many functions in a hand-held gadget, and some users are discovering clever ways to teach and do research with the ubiquitous machines.

For many on campus, checking e-mail on the go is the first killer app of the hand-held world. The downside: Having that ability can mean working more than ever—answering student e-mails while in line at the grocery store, responding to a journal editor during lunch. There can be benefits, though. Some professors say they find that carrying the Inter­net in their pocket helps them collaborate, teach, and collect data in new ways that include e-mail but go far beyond it.

A handful of colleges are running expensive pilot projects in which they give out iPhones or iPads to students and professors to see what happens when everyone goes mobile.

Some of the most innovative applications for hand-held devices, however, have come from professors working on their own. They find ways to adapt popular smartphone software to the classroom setting, or even write their own code.

That's what I discovered when I put out a call on Twitter, as well as to a major e-mail list of college public-relations officers, asking about the areas in which professors and college officials are making the most of their mobile devices. Here are the six scenarios that people mentioned most often. I have highlighted the apps in each category that got users' highest marks.

Taking Attendance

Calling roll may not seem like an activity that needs an upgrade. But David M. Reed, a professor of computer science at Capital University, in Ohio, saw his iPhone as a way to streamline the process and keep a digital backup. "I used to use a piece of paper," he said. "What would happen is invariably I would lose that piece of paper halfway through the semester."

He couldn't find any software to keep those paper check marks on a smartphone, so he wrote his own app about two years ago, in a two-week burst of coding. He called his task-specific app Attendance and put it on the iTunes store for other professors, charging a couple of bucks (and adding features as colleagues suggested them). So far he has earned about $20,000 from the more than 7,500 people who have virtually shouted "Here."

Several professors said their favorite feature of the app (which now sells for $4.99) is a flashcard function that helps them learn the names of their students. It literally puts names to faces, if professors add photos supplied by the college. Some professors take pictures of their students on the first day of class and put them in the app. An iPad version takes advantage of the larger screen of Apple's tablet computer.

Collecting Data

A professor at the University of California at Davis is asking drivers to help him with his research on roadkill by logging any dead squirrel, possum, or other critter they see along the highway. At first he asked people to write down the location and details about the carcass on a scrap of paper and upload the information to a Web site when they got home. Then the research team built an iPhone app to let citizen-scientists participate at the scene. It's more convenient, and it gives the researchers better data, because a phone's GPS feature can send along exact location coordinates (and the app encourages users to take a picture with the phone's camera). The lead researcher at Davis, Fraser Shilling, in the department of environmental science and policy, said the app should hit the iTunes store any day now, though he and his colleagues haven't decided whether the name will be WildlifeObs or simply Roadkill.

That's just one of many research projects adding smartphone interfaces to so-called "crowd science," in which the public is invited to add structured data to an online database. "For crowd science, I think it's definitely the next step," Mr. Shilling told me, although he says he prefers logging roadkill with pen and paper, which he thinks encourages more colorful write-ups than an app. "My kids tell me that I'm a Neanderthal," he jokes.

Reading Scholarly Articles

Instead of clicking print when saving an article for later reading, many professors now send the document to their phone or tablet computer. Those I talked with cited a range of apps designed for the task, though Dropbox was cited most frequently. The commercial app is available for iPhones, iPads, and for smartphones or tablets running Google's Android operating system. David Parry, an assistant professor of emergent media and communications at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he uses Dropbox for both scholarly reading and keeping track of documents for the courses he teaches. "The key for me is I store all my syllabuses there," he told me. "Anytime someone has a question about a syllabus, I have it—anywhere." So when a student e-mails to ask about an assignment deadline while Mr. Parry is at the grocery store, he knows.

Other options for building a personal virtual library are GoodReader and Evernote, both of which allow readers to highlight and take notes on any PDF saved to the system. Students, too, say they find the services useful. Shep McAllister, a junior at Trinity University, in Texas, who writes for the HackCollegeStudent blog about students' use of technology, said he turns to the iPad version of GoodReader for much of his assigned reading, because his university's electronic reserve offers documents in PDF, so he can easily transfer them to the service. "It's like you're holding the actual page in front of you," he told me.

Recording Notes

Just having a camera on hand can sometimes help in the classroom. Aaron Delwiche, an associate professor of communication at Trinity, often uses the camera built into his Android phone to snap a picture of his whiteboard before he erases it. When he breaks the class into groups for a project, the photos remind him who was on each team and what they came up with. High-end whiteboards offer a function to print out or e-mail their contents, but some professors say their phone cameras do just as well.

Mr. McAllister, the student blogger at Trinity, uses his iPhone's camera as a document scanner, with an app called JotNot Pro. After he takes a picture of a page of text, the app (which costs 99 cents), can turn it into a PDF file for easy review later. "If I get a handout from a professor, I'm always afraid I'm going to lose it," he said, noting that he tries to scan any class-related documents with his phone.

Using Textbook Tools

Cellphone screens are tiny compared with textbook pages, but several publishers now offer apps to read their e-textbooks on mobile devices. CourseSmart, a company that sells electronic versions of textbooks from major publishers, offers a free iPhone app to read books purchased through its service. It may not be ideal for long reading sessions, but it could be a handy way for professors to look over the material to remember what their students are reading.

Textbook publishers see the iPad and other tablets as a better medium to one day replace printed textbooks completely. A company named Inkling creates textbooks made for iPads, with interactive features and videos—things that paper volumes cannot do.

Planning Lectures

Brainstorming for classroom talks has gone high-tech with "mind mapping" software that encourages arranging thoughts and ideas in nonlinear diagrams. These programs have been available for years on laptops and desktop computers, but some professors say the touch-screen interface of smartphones or tablet computers enhances the process, letting scholars toss around ideas with a flick of the finger. Gerald C. Gannod, director of mobile learning at Miami University, in Ohio, recommends Thinking Space for Android devices, MindBlowing for the iPhone, and Popplet for the iPad. Mr. Delwiche, of Trinity University, likes MindJet. "It's great when organizing papers or project ideas," he said.

For professors who shift to the app world, there's one gadget they can do without: that messy ballpoint pen.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to or @jryoung on Twitter.