Topics: College of Architecture and Planning, Online Education, Emerging Media

May 8, 2013

Students use Traveler to capture Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Ill.
Students use the Traveler app to document their visit to a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Oak Park, Ill.

Ball State University has developed a versatile mobile application that allows college classes to compile the equivalent of digital “textbooks” about their field trips and individual travelers to create detailed vacation journals.

It also addresses a key area of developmental need for many college-age students: cultivating a sense of geographical and spatial awareness.

The app — known as Traveler — is a reflection of the university’s interest in the burgeoning field of mobile education and the product of a collaboration between Ball State’s Information Technology Services and College of Architecture and Planning.

Traveler, which has been developed for tablet computers and smartphones running the Android operating system, uses GPS technology and Google Maps to keep track of a user’s route and features a number of embedded programs that can be used to chronicle a trip.

A user can easily take photos, record audio or video clips, jot notes or use a stylus to sketch a building or landscape. The app keeps track of where each of those actions takes place and drops a marker to pinpoint them on a map.

“At the end of the day, you can look back and retrace everywhere you went and see where you took photos or made a sketch or took notes,” says Kyle Parker, senior development group leader for Ball State’s IT Services. “You have a complete record of your trip.”

Two versions of the app have been developed: one for use by college classes, which can tie into a university’s server system for easy sharing and archiving, and the other for individual users who might want to keep track of a vacation trip.

The individual version is available, free of charge, through the Google Play store for Android devices, and has received warm reviews from online media that cover Android apps.

Parker developed Traveler in cooperation with Lohren Deeg, an assistant professor of urban planning whose environmental design students helped test early versions of the app, and Valerie Morris, associate director of enterprise user relations. A class of Ball State architecture and landscape architecture students gave the app another shakedown this spring on an extended world tour that covered 29 countries in 15 weeks.

Deeg says experience with those classes confirms that the app meets a number of academic needs, and is especially helpful for students trying to improve geographic and spatial awareness — developmental areas where students younger than 24 typically struggle.

“A group of 18-year-olds will follow me blindly and say, ‘Oh, Deeg’s walking now, so here we go.’ They will do that for eight hours a day very well. But if you ask them to point on a map where we’ve walked, they have no idea — even students familiar with an area,” Deeg says.

“When we’re done for the day, this app allows us to review our journey in an environment that collects every piece of media that a student created. It shows them where it was created and enhances their ability to understand, geographically, where they performed or recorded this material and how those locations relate to each other.”

Although the app was originally conceived with design-related classes in mind, Parker says, it would be useful in history, science and an array of other subject areas, too.

“It can be used by students in any discipline who are going out and doing field work or traveling where they would be collecting different types of media or going someplace where they would need to recall where they had been,” he says.

Ball State Honors College students studying the development of western civilization through art, history and literature will test Traveler during a field study in Italy this May.

The version of the app designed for use by college classes allows instructors to collect the photos, videos, notes, sketches and other material created by every student in the class and compile a complete record of a field trip that can be saved indefinitely.

“You have, in effect, a digital textbook of your field trip that is very rich in material that you and your students can refer to over and over,” says Deeg.

He and Parker have written a paper about the app and its educational uses, which they have presented at a variety of academic and technology conferences. Going forward, they hope to interest other universities in using, testing and refining Traveler even further.

They also are experimenting with different devices. The first version was written for a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet computer because it included a stylus, needed for the sketch program, but they now are experimenting with smartphones, smaller tablets, and even smart cameras.

“What’s the sweet spot?” Parker asks. “Is it the tablet, which is better for sketching, or something more portable that makes it easier to take pictures or shoot video? We’re trying to find that middle ground.”

They also are discussing the possibility of developing a version for Apple devices.

Regardless of the specific device used, Traveler is an excellent example of where higher education is heading, says Michel Mounayar, associate dean of the College of Architecture and Planning.

“I think the tablet is going to become, more and more, the book format of the college of the future,” he says. “Students will use these devices for everything: their textbooks, their writing, their research. And when they travel, instead of carting around a lot of equipment, they’ll grab their tablet and have everything they need.”