OWL-Space goes mobile

OWL-Space goes mobile
IT’s upgrade puts course materials and more in the palm of a student’s hand

Rice News staff

Students spend a lot of time with their noses buried in cellphones, their fingers gliding over tiny touchscreens. Maybe they’re texting or tweeting. But they just might be checking a course syllabus or reading an assignment.

This year OWL-Space, the university’s online course-management system, has gone mobile. It’s been updated so that any student can use a cellphone, electronic tablet or other mobile device to access course information, updates, assignments and materials.


No matter where students are — on a shuttle bus, at the rec center, at a coffee shop — they can check an assignment, turn in a paper or find out whether a grade has been posted.

The new mobile OWL-Space isn’t an app; it’s an upgrade that makes OWL-Space functional on a mobile Web browser, no matter the operating system. The program automatically senses which type of device a user has and provides the proper mobile-friendly display.

The Information Technology department understands that students aren’t always near their laptops and that they may want or need to access course materials on the go, said Carlos Solis, manager of educational technologies.

”We recognize that mobile devices are pervasive,” he said. ”We started thinking it was time to figure out how we were going to deliver these services in devices that didn’t necessarily have a keyboard.”

Students picked up on the benefits of a mobile OWL-Space immediately.

”A lot of professors don’t hand out a syllabus anymore on the first day, so it’s convenient to be able to pull up the syllabus whenever,” said Tara Slough, a McMurtry College senior. She uses OWL-Space on her iPhone to check assignments and read updates from professors.

John Turman, a Wiess College sophomore studying music at the Shepherd School, has become a regular OWL-Space user on his iPhone too.

”It’s a lot more user-friendly,” he said.

Turman uses OWL-Space to view PowerPoint slides, lecture notes, handouts and course syllabuses.

”Last year I used OWL-Space mostly on my laptop,” Turman said, ”because on the phone, the interface was really chunky and hard to navigate and it would have to refresh every time you clicked a button. Now it’s really accessible, and there’s no extraneous reloading.”

Turman also uses his phone to check his orchestra’s rehearsal schedule, which is updated in OWL-Space every couple of days.

”It’s incredibly valuable,” Turman said. ”You don’t have to have your big old computer; you can just drag your finger.”

The upgrade is part of a broader effort to make Rice content available on mobile devices. IT is working to provide mobile access to media files of all kinds: video, music and PDFs.

The Sociology Department was one of the first to jump on board with this effort. Assistant professors Rachel Kimbro and Justin Denney used grant money this year to digitize the readings for introductory sociology courses.

”We decided to jettison the textbook we’ve been using,” Kimbro said. Instead, students get journal articles and other assigned readings online, through OWL-Space. The files are in ePub format, which means they can be opened on any type of device. Kimbro’s students can use a smartphone to read assigned articles, turn in papers and even watch related videos she has posted on OWL-Space.

Mobile devices ”are already on campus,” Solis said, and they aren’t going away.

Janice Bordeaux, associate dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, knows it too. Students will rely on their phones and tablets to do more and more, she said. We’re past the PC era when laptops were considered high-tech, she said. ”We’re emerging into the smartphone age.”

The mobility of this new era affords the ability to interact at any time, at any location and offers new teaching opportunities, Bordeaux said. Instead of merely making material available for students to read or download, faculty members can foster more interaction — and can reach students wherever they are.

”Multiple people can be in multiple locations and have a collaborative conversation,” she said. ”That opens up a chance for conversations you might not have had.”

Mobile discussions, even collaborative games, can enrich learning and make a class more engaging and lively, Bordeaux said. A mobile OWL-Space can make this possible.

After all, Bordeaux pointed out, students usually keep their mobile devices with them at all times.

”In between texting their friends,” she said, ”it would be nice if we were all using the phones for something educational.”

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