Hal Abelson’s Android Class at MIT Expands to Nokia and Windows Mobile Phones—But No iPhone

9/26/08Follow @bbuderi

What do you do when the experimental class you offered in designing applications for Google’s Android mobile phone operating system brings your students $300,000 and unprecedented experience in creating real-world-ready applications? If you’re MIT professor Hal Abelson, you expand it to phones and other mobile devices made by Microsoft and Nokia. But not Apple’s iPhone (more on that in a minute).

Abelson says the experimental course he offered last spring—Building Mobile Applications with Android—was a rip-roaring success. While the Locale team got all the attention after Google selected it last month as one of 10 big winners in the Google Developer Challenge, all six groups in his class created working applications. Abelson says that success highlights the merits of a new way of teaching—one more deeply rooted in the real-world. “From my point of view it’s partly developing mobile apps, but in some sense the real educational point is teaching students how you develop a software product under extreme time pressure,” he says. “It’s learning that particular style of project management and program development. That’s what I hope they’ll learn from that.”

The course also better aligns MIT’s computer science curriculum with where the world is going—mobile. “What’s going to happen over the next two to three years is this whole range of mobile applications is just going to explode,” Abelson says. “It’s just a great project area for students to do things in.” And MIT benefits in another way as well. The course is being co-taught by Andrew Yu, manager of mobile services for MIT. And Abelson says it helps Yu to explore the potential effect of the mobile Web on campus life, and in particular “what should MIT provide or build.”

All of which is why he, Yu, and some colleagues—including Media Lab professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland, Eric Klopfer, a professor in Urban Studies and Planning, and Luis Sarmenta, a research scientist at the Media Lab—have expanded the course, which is now called simply Building Mobile Applications, to other device makers for the fall semester. Says Abelson, “We’re doing it again this semester, except we’re going to do it not only with Android, but with Google, Microsoft, and Nokia…We’ll give people a choice with things.”

The course sets a fast pace, even for MIT high achievers. Students assemble into small groups of between 2 and 5 members. Industry mentors and technical experts, who include representatives from Nokia, Microsoft, Google, BankAmerica, and one New England mobile apps company, Connected Bits, are assigned to work with each group. “I’m really happy that we have such a great group of industry mentors,” Abelson says. “I think it’s really important that students get to do this under the tutelage of experienced applications developers.”

Teams then have one semester to build working apps, which will be demonstrated at an event in mid-December. Abelson says there are currently about double the number of teams that signed up for the spring class (I can’t help but wonder if one team’s winning $300,000 had anything to do with that). “At the moment I think we’ve got about 12, but we’ll see in a couple weeks whether we still have 12,” he says, intimating the fast pace might cause a few to drop out.

But the world’s hottest, and most application-rich, mobile device—the Apple iPhone—won’t be included in this new experience. Abelson says it wasn’t for lack of trying. “We’ve been talking to Apple over the summer, but Apple still is requiring confidentiality restrictions, both on universities and on students,” he says. “It’s something that’s not workable for MIT.” Still, Abelson is optimistic that the iPhone will be part of future classes. He points to news this week that Apple has created an iPhone Developer University Program that allows schools to create development teams of up to 200 students free of charge—but says he hasn’t yet read the terms.

“It’s not going to get worked out this semester,” he says of an iPhone deal. “I suspect that by the spring this will be fine. We’d certainly do it with iPhones by the spring if they were open.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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