The Optimist is first to publish on iPad

 

We did it!

ACU's student newspaper, The Optimist, has a long and proud history of innovation. Together with student programmers and student designers from across our campus, the newspaper staff has created a first-of-its-kind application for the Apple iPad. Go to the Apple site and see for yourself - but first, take a look at how our team pulled it off!

 


 

ACU's student newspaper launches iPad version 

Minutes after Apple unveiled its widely anticipated iPad on Jan. 27, ACU's student-run Optimist declared it would be the first collegiate newspaper to publish on the new device.

Armed only with a block of painted wood, a sketchy framework of what the device could do and a determination to remain on the leading edge of technological innovation, a group of 16 students and faculty met to plan their strategy.

Their goal was admittedly ambitious and the time frame formidably short – only about 60 days from the announcement until the iPad's release – but the group was undaunted.

On Tuesday, April 6 - three days after the iPad's release - members of The Optimist iPad development team celebrated victory. Mission accomplished. A job well done. The Optimist app now appears in the Apple store and is downloadable on the first wave of the devices.

 

A fitting project
Creating an iPad-friendly edition was a logical step for The Optimist staff. The 99-year-old
newspaper has a history of pushing new technologies and already is available in print, online
and via iPhone and iPod touch.

Devoting resources to the project also made sense for a university that has modeled innovation and embraced technology with its mobile learning initiative - a strategic plan that includes outfitting every student with an iPhone or iPod Touch and encouraging faculty to use mobile devices in their classrooms.

What perhaps wasn't as logical was the commitment to create an application for a device that no one outside Apple had ever seen or held.

"I've never had to take on a project where it was this unknown," said Colter Hettich, senior journalism major from Abilene and editor of The Optimist.

 

We were following the buzz on the blogs the same way that the rest of the world was. We were wondering what this new device would be and how we would be able to create something that was usable.

- Dr. Susan Lewis

Before the iPad unveiling, "we were following the buzz on the blogs the same way that the rest of the world was," said Dr. Susan Lewis, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication. "We were wondering what this new device would be and how we would be able to create something that was usable."

"The planning process was infinitely more difficult because it was like someone asked you to build a car. And they told you you're going to have a tool box, but they didn't tell you what tools are going to be in it," Hettich said.

 

Forging ahead

Undeterred, ACU students and faculty jumped into the fray. They quickly formed an iPad development team, a collaboration between the university's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Department of Art and Design, and School of Information Technology and Computing.

The interdisciplinary team was led by students, with faculty members serving as advisers.

"The students were involved from the very first moment," said Lewis.  "As we sat down to plan, we knew that we needed students from each of those areas. We saw it as a tremendous opportunity for these students, and every student that we approached about joining our team dropped what they were doing and came with us.  They were excited because they knew that this was the future of media."

Students accomplished the bulk of the work.

"The students were doing the coding, the students were doing the planning, students were doing the design," said Dr. Kenneth Pybus, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication and faculty adviser for The Optimist. "It might have gone smoother if it were top-down, but smooth is not what we're going for – education is what we're going for, and education isn't always smooth."

The faculty members were "incredible, guiding us through this process and using their professional experience," said Hettich. "Every faculty member that I've been involved with on this project has treated me as a peer. [They've said] 'We don't want to do this, because the students are the ones who are going to be out there for the next 20, 30 years doing this. ... You go and run with it.'"

And run with it, they did.

"We started really with nothing," said Lewis. "We had this wooden mockup that we had painted to look the way we thought an iPad might look - and we imagined. We imagined it in portrait. We imagined it in landscape. But we were doing just that; we were just imagining."


Assembling the pieces

The team began meeting weekly and breaking the task into pieces of a development puzzle that involved translating Optimist content - including stories, photos and videos - onto the new platform.

Members of the team took assignments home with them each week.

Rich Tanner, senior information technology major from Abilene, spent much of his spare time on the coding.

"It was a lot of extra work to get this accomplished on time," he said. "We spent a lot of time in between classes – an hour here, a half hour there, wherever we could find time to get into the lab and work on it.  I actually really had a problem focusing on the other homework I needed to get done, because I was anxious to get back to developing this."

Designers such as Brian Havins, senior art and design major from Wichita Falls, Texas, tackled the job of making the iPad Optimist integrate visually with the print, online and iPhone-friendly versions of the publication. "It was a challenge to take a device that hasn't been developed, and no one really knows what's going on, and to give it a look and feel and, you know, make it part of The Optimist. That was huge."

Meanwhile, Optimist staffers began thinking about how the iPad version would present the news. That included "what we're going to be able to put on, how many stories we were going to get on, how we were going to make sure things are being updated and changed, because news always changes," said Linda Bailey, senior journalism major from Borger, Texas, who will be editor of the 2010-11 Optimist.

All those pieces began to fit together as the deadline for submitting the app neared.

"It became really apparent that this was going be a newspaper like I had always hoped a newspaper could be," said Lawson Soward, senior electronic media major from Colleyville, Texas.  "We've got it now to where you can do stuff that I thought was only possible in Harry Potter. You can just scroll through everything, go from one page to another looking like you're on a paper, still able to hold it, but it doesn't feel like a Web site."

 

A tale of collaboration

The development of The Optimist app is as much a story of collaboration as it is a story of technology.

"I think we all knew we were working on something big. So we didn't come at it from a territorial perspective. We came at it from a very collaborative perspective," Lewis said.

Still, inevitable conflict arose simply because the thought processes were so different among the academic disciplines that were brought to the table.

"You have people in art and design who like to do their creative thinking independently," Pybus noted. "You have people in programming who like to do their work by themselves at their computers. Journalists work a little bit more closely with each other and sharpen the saw a little bit more. And so there are different ways of doing things that we had to adapt to."

Tanner found the experience exhilarating.

"Working across disciplines like that, with the journalism and design people was interesting," he said. "It was an exercise in communication definitely.  Probably the biggest challenge of it was … we were working with a magic box that's brand new, and so the questions were constantly, 'So what can we do?  Can we do this?' And we would always have to go back and look through the code and look through the documentation as it slowly leaked out from Apple and find out what was possible."

This collaboration provided a unique learning environment that is difficult to replicate in classroom projects.

"This was a new experience for all our students," said Dr. Brian Burton, assistant professor of information technology.  "They had never worked on a project this large involving this many people from so many different angles and perspectives. [They were] working with other faculty from across campus that they may never have worked with before.  They're seeing perspectives from different professional viewpoints that they had not experienced in the past.

"So, yes, there's frustration, but at the same time there's also that very rewarding experience of trying to create something with other people that are involved in the university environment, and it really has created a very real-world work experience for them." 

Learn more about ACU's mobile learning initiative 

 



 
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