Online resources go mobile with student-developed iPhone applications
BY MICHAEL PEÑA
A project now under way at Stanford illustrates how integral high-tech innovation is at every level of the university: Stanford is in the beginning stages of making several of its core web-based systems and services available to students as applications on Apple's iconic iPhone.
A suite of five software applications developed by students is now being tested on campus. Two of them, for managing course registration and bills, are intended for students. The other three will allow access to Stanford's searchable campus map, get team scores and schedules, and check listings in the university's online directory, StanfordWho.
Hence, senior administrators at the university also say the Stanford iApps Project sets a new standard for student collaboration and interaction with the institution itself.
"We have talented students with good ideas about how they want to access administrative systems and services," said university Registrar Thomas Black, whose office is overseeing the project. "We want to harness their genius. We want to be able to say, 'You can come to Stanford, where students develop the applications that students use.'"
Black's office contracted Terriblyclever Design, a startup company in San Francisco co-founded by Stanford student Kayvon Beykpour, to develop the suite of applications. Beykpour is a junior majoring in computer science, and five of his company's six full-time employees also are undergraduates at Stanford. He co-founded the company in August 2007 with good friend Joseph Bernstein, and they develop web applications for social-networking platforms, corporate micro-sites and software applications for the iPhone.
"We really were passionate about being more engaged in these systems," Beykpour said. "I am a student, and I use all these services, and I can't tell you how exciting it is to spend your time working in a capacity that you love working in—but also such that your final product affects your community."
Project leaders said the idea of letting students access key online systems and resources at Stanford via the iPhone began last May, when senior administrators in the registrar's office had a vision of introducing mobile applications that would enhance student life. The administrators then got in touch with Beykpour, and his company proceeded to develop the applications over the summer.
From Stanford's standpoint, the notion of opening up its systems and allowing students to develop applications that would then be integrated was a dramatic departure from the norm. But given the university's willingness to demonstrate technological leadership, the idea also made a lot of sense.
"We are re-examining our relationships to students and our role as administrators," said Tim Flood, director of student affairs information systems. "We're actually going to mentor students in real-life use cases. We think this constitutes an additional learning experience for the students."
In fact, the university is offering a computer science course this fall titled iPhone Application Programming. The class, one of the first of its kind in the country, currently has more than 80 students registered.
"We're offering this class because we think it provides students with a good way to exercise the foundations of computer science on an exciting new platform," said Mehran Sahami, an associate professor of computer science overseeing the course.
During a pilot phase that launched on Monday, Sept. 22, a select number of students at Stanford who work in residential computing will test a beta version of Beykpour's applications on their iPhones.
"Every student has gotten lost during their first week," Beykpour said. "Lots of kids, when they're out getting dinner, they want to know the score of the football game—they want to know when the next football game is. One application on the phone that lets you just do it. It's just so easy.
"That's why this has been such an appealing project for us to work on and why it's been such an appealing project for others to hear about," Beykpour said. "When they hear about it, they say, 'Whoa, I want that!'"
Acknowledging that security is a top priority, Flood said the same principles and practices currently governing the use of laptops and desktop computers at Stanford also will apply to mobile devices using the new applications. The applications will be compatible for anyone with an iPod touch as well.
Also collaborating on the project at Stanford are technology staff, IT Services, Residential Computing, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and other groups on campus.
On Sept. 19, Apple released a free iPhone developer program designed for higher education institutions looking to introduce curriculum for developing iPhone or iPod touch applications.
"The ultimate lesson here is you can't think of everything on your own," Beykpour said. "The lesson is people have great ideas, and if you allow people to foster those ideas and implement them, really cool things can happen."