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MU app development class earns Swift recognition

Apple

MU was one of 11 colleges and universities listed as incorporating Swift, the new programming language for iOS and OS X development, into their curriculum during Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi’s recent presentation. Screenshot from apple.com.

Anytime Apple holds keynote addresses or town-hall style presentations, it tends to turn heads in the tech community. And being associated with one of the world’s most cutting-edge institutions is the kind of currency every university wants, which explains why seeing the University of Missouri’s stack MU logo on screen over the shoulder of Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, at an Oct. 15 address was a big deal.

MU was one of 11 colleges and universities listed as incorporating Swift, the new programming language for iOS and OS X development, into their curriculum during Federighi’s presentation, holding court with the likes of Cal Poly, Stanford, Drexel and Southern Methodist.

The reason for such lofty placement lies in the focus of this semester’s INFO_TC 4500: Collaborative Mobile Application Development class. Launched in 2009, the course brings students from the MU College of Engineering’s Information Technology (IT) Program and Computer Science Department, and the MU School of Journalism together “to design, develop and build iPhone applications.” This semester, the curriculum adapted to include Swift to create health-based applications.

“We’re evolving with technologies. We’re always on the leading edge of technologies, and we’re always trying to deal with partnerships that get us early access, direct access, so our students are getting the best, most up-to-date and modern engagement,” Information Technology Program Director Dale Musser said.

The opportunity to be on the cutting edge in terms of educating students on a brand new programming language was too good to pass up, Musser said. The idea to incorporate Swift came about after Musser received an invitation from Apple to attend the Worldwide Developers Conference, where Apple unveiled its new health-focused apps and new operating system, iOS 8. The company also introduced Swift, which is influenced by Apple’s current primary programming language, Objective-C, among several others. Musser’s interest was piqued immediately.

“Working on something that’s just being released — you can’t get any more leading edge than [saying], ‘We’re going to start the class, and in a week, Apple is going to make this available,’” Musser said.

The timing of Swift’s release presented challenges for instructors. Since the official release didn’t come until just after the beginning of the fall semester, they had little time to get up to speed with the language before the beginning of classes. Musser had to work out the feasibility of being able to teach Swift in the fall with Apple, and instructors had access to a book Apple put out through its app store to help prepare.

“Can we truly be ready to do this for the fall? Should we really target it for the fall?” Musser said. “And the answer was, really, ‘Yeah, we’d like you to target it.’”

The students involved in the course have the opportunity to be involved with the language as it evolves and develops, presenting the kind of real-world challenges many of them will face upon graduating to take jobs in the IT and computer science industries. It provides the opportunity for students to work through the kinks of still-developing technology, which they’ll likely encounter upon moving from the classroom into the working world.

“This is as real-world as it gets,” Musser said. “If you were going to work for a company right now that also would maybe have a need to adopt leading-edge stuff, you’re going to deal with these exact same issues.”

Earning recognition from Apple for the class’ work on Swift evoked many of the same emotions for Musser as when the headline of a story discussing MU’s 2008 app design competition — the precursor to the current course — appeared on the front page of the Apple website. For some students, it likely seemed surreal to see the MU logo — essentially representing not only the university broadly, but them specifically — on screen; for others, likely pride or joy.

“We’re talking about having our logo included at a keynote, which is watched by millions,” Musser said.

“Very specifically, for the students in the class this semester, that logo is them. That logo was the representation of them sitting in the class. They were being literally acknowledged on an international stage by a head of Apple for what they were doing.”