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Apple holds big plans for 'iPhone University' on college campuses

Two weeks before the iPhone went on sale last June, Apple Inc. flew representatives from five universities — including four of the nation's top-tier schools — out to its Cupertino campus to cement deals for a new educational learning initiative dubbed 'iPhone University.'

It was the first of several baby steps towards a much larger goal of helping to reestablish the company's brand in the educational sector and instate the then fledgeling touch-screen handset as a staple of higher learning for years to come.

In addition to participating delegates from such prestigious universities as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Yale, were those from a little-known school by the name of Abilene Christian University (ACU), situated about two and a half hours west of Dallas/Fort Worth and comprised of a student body of roughly 5000.

The concepts discussed at the gathering were similar to those that exist with today's iTunes University programs where students can download to their iPods or computers lectures and associated materials to bolster their education. But unlike the primarily software-driven iTunes effort, "iPhone U" would let participating students download class presentations directly to their handsets over WiFi rather than require a transfer from a host computer.

For the past six months, the five schools have had the opportunity to serve as anchors for the pilot program, according to those familiar with the matter. Apple is said to have provided iPhones and iPod touches for the pilot under a loaner agreement, while also helping the universities to more closely meld their campus networks to their existing iTunes University services, which reportedly serve as the backbone of iPhone U.

On Tuesday, the initiative bore its first fruits, with ACU leading the charge by announcing that come this fall, all incoming freshmen would be provided with either an iPhone or iPod touch as part of a new learning experience called "Connected."

"At ACU — the first university in the nation to provide these cutting-edge media devices to its incoming class — freshmen will use the iPhones or iPod Touches to receive homework alerts, answer in-class surveys and quizzes, get directions to their professors’ offices, and check their meal and account balances," the university said in a statement.

In addition to those functions, ACU said it has already developed more than 15 other useful web applications for use on the Apple devices as part of its vision to "Connect" every student, faculty, and staff member. In a subsequent posting to its mobile learning website, the school offered a demonstration video portraying fictional, yet conceivable day-in-the-life account that highlights some of the potential benefits of its ideal mobile wireless environment.

ACU, according to those familiar with Apple's plans for iPhone U, is destine to become just one of dozens of universities that will eventually gain aid from iPhone maker in deploying similar services on their campuses. In addition to the first five pilot cases, the company is said to hold considerable list of additional schools that have made proposals to join a second, and much broader phase of the iPhone U initiative set to begin shortly, if it has not already.

Interestingly, while Apple is said to have invited representatives from each of the first five schools to its home base last Spring, its decision to try out the iPhone with higher education wasn't entirely deliberate. The Cupertino-based company reportedly scheduled the first meetings in response to proposals from the schools themselves just after the iPhone's January announcement, suggesting that the strategy was more of a reaction to the advent of the game-changing device.