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Bob Harrison spends a few weeks every year visiting friends and colleagues at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Stanford has become a hotbed of technological innovation which combined with silicon valley venture capital has led to many of the famous names in digital technology such as Cisco, Google, LinkedIn and many more. During his most recent visit Bob met with Thomas Black, Associate Vice Provost for Student affairs and one of the people behind 'iStanford'.

When Thomas Black was growing up in Nebraska’s farming community innovation and problem solving were the difference between life and death:

"I learned at a very early age from my community that in order to survive you had to be able to solve problems as they arose, to innovate when the environment changed otherwise you could just starve."

Tom’s early learning has certainly benefited the 15,500 students on the Palo Alto campus of one of the USA’s most prestigious Universities, who now access resources and support services via the iStanford app on their iPhones, iPads or other mobile devices.

Tom arrived at Stanford over three years ago, as Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs and University Registrar. He quickly discovered the student services website used by the students was not well received, and that as a consequence their access to the support services was reduced. "The students said they 'hated it'", says Tom.

It was then that Tom’s early learning in Nebraska paid off:

"I decided that we had a problem, and that we needed to solve it quickly and think innovatively. So I turned to the people most likely to know the answer: the students. Our whole support structure was based on 'face time' yet most of our students live in 'screen time'".

Stanford already has an impressive list of alumni who have become the founders of some of the most well known names in digital technology so Tom had good reason to believe the students would be able to help. But even he was surprised by the outcome:

"I approached a computer sciences major, Kayvon Beykpour, who was doing some web design and had a start up business with a friend Joe Bernstein, the TerriblyClever Design company. This coincided with Apple launching the iPhone and the opportunity to design your own apps so we approached Apple and they were happy to help us”.

A few months of hard work later, and with the help of a few more of Kayvon’s trusted student friends, iStanford was born.

"The students loved it" says Tom. "We have 15,500 students on campus and nearly 12,000 iPhones and iPod Touches with 7,000 active on our system for a total of 64,000 downloads".

So, how did Tom get Stanford to accept such a change?

“With some reluctance because it was so new and many were unfamiliar with the iPhone at the time. Although it was helpful that our Provost John Etchemendy is very technologically orientated and it just so happens he was advised by advised another Stanford graduate, Scott Forestall who is responsible for the launch of the iPhone and whilst the Provost didn’t commit to the project immediately, he at least was intrigued with the idea”.

Fairly soon other universities, schools and colleges were showing an interest and now (through Blackboard Mobile) over 70 Universities and 50 schools have bought into the project including Duke University, University of Chicago and University of Georgia’s Medical School.

The potential of the iStanford concept and the design skills of Kayvon and his team were soon on the radar of commercial companies and in July 2009 the TerribyClever Design company was purchased by Blackboard for $4m: making Kayvon and Joe millionaires at just 20 years old! They now form the core of the Blackboard Mobile project and their team has grown from 4 to 50.

So what next for Tom Black and his iStanford dream?

"We are adding functionality to the app all the time" said Tom "I think wifi is a utility now and the tablet and iPad provides us with so much scope for further development of our student support systems, registration, advice and guidance, career counselling, electronic portfolios and transcripts, ongoing contact with alumni, the potential is endless". Tom added enthusiastically.

Bob Harrison


Bob also spent a day at the recently formed History of the Computer Museum just down the road from Google HQ in Mountain View and recommends a visit for any ALT members in the San Francisco Bay area especially as the working prototype Babbage machine is currently on loan and some major new exhibits are being added.

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