Learning in the ear and now

October 22, 2004

Duke University has given freshmen an iPod to aid their studies. Stephen Phillips plugs in to hear how it will be used

The only perks most undergraduates can look forward to when they start their degrees are a few discount vouchers or a Railcard if they are really lucky. But the 1,650 freshmen at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, this year got the ultimate welcome present - an Apple iPod.
Management at Duke, which was ranked fifth on this year’s college league table by US News and World Report, was not simply feeling generous. In conjunction with Apple, it hopes to turn the digital music player into a powerful educational tool.

On arriving on campus at the start of this academic year, students were able to access an audio tour on their iPod and consult timetables. They could listen to a welcome message from the university president and learn the rousing “fight song” students sing at sporting fixtures to cheer on Duke teams.

All files were pre-loaded on the device. Since term began, students have had access to a dedicated website offering downloadable recordings of lectures and music files for their iPods. Meanwhile, some courses are using the devices in more specialist ways.

Lisa Merschel, a visiting assistant professor, has recorded readings of four novellas by native Spanish speakers for her elementary Spanish class. Students download the audio files on to their iPods. “The goal is for them to be able to read and listen to the texts and hear accent and pronunciation,” she explains. “Students can listen anywhere.”

Portability was the key factor that influenced Duke to choose the iPod over other hardware, says Tracey Futhey, the university’s vice-president for information technology. “There’s not necessarily anything students will do with an iPod that they couldn’t with a laptop. Its real difference is with the mobility and ubiquity of having one with students all the time,” she says.

Lugging around a laptop probably would not cut it in adjunct professor Sally Schauman’s environmental ethics field classes. “My class deals with creating a sense of community and analysing how communities deal with urban water conservation,” she explains. “I am hoping the students will adopt the iPod as part of their personal gear, as they have cellphones, to document their observation.”

Students simply plug the small microphone into the headphone socket to make recordings. Ultimately, Schauman hopes the “handy and cool” devices will spur students to “develop the habit of ‘talking to the Pod’ - creating journals of their experiences as others have done with paper and pen”.

Duke is all ears. It has invited all faculty to submit ideas for prospective academic uses for iPods. Staff whose ideas are approved receive grants to put them into practice.

“The ideas are all over the map,” Futhey says. “We’ve already had interest from the computer science department, and an engineering faculty member wants to use them in his class to generate signals for analysis.”

“Duke has splashed out $500,000 (£9,000) on the scheme and will take stock in a research study next June. We’ll measure its effectiveness by how much it enhances student learning,” Futhey says.

Apple is expected to sell more than $1 billion-worth of iPods this year and students are a key market. Those aged 13 to 24 accounted for 62 per cent of sales of iPod and other similar MP3 players in the 12 months to June 2004, according to Ross Rubin, technology analyst at market researcher NPD Group.

It comes as no surprise that reports of iPod envy have surfaced among older Duke students who have been left out of the giveaway. “Go be proactive and let’s get some iPods,” urges one message posted on a student internet bulletin board last month. And should any freshmen fancy selling the $400 devices to raise some quick cash, they’ll find that they remain university property until spring 2005, when students acquire ownership.

But Futhey admits she has encountered scepticism from some faculty who were unsure of the wisdom of using for learning a device so closely associated with entertainment. They usually come round “when we talk about the possibilities”.

And while Rubin admits that Duke is “savvy to pick a tool students are going to use anyway”, he is remains to be convinced. “The iPods could be effective for distributing lecture recordings, but for them to be stronger information retrieval tools they need search engines and book-marking features,” he says. “Lots of lectures are just spoken, but many use other props. Education is a multimedia experience.”

Other devices with different capabilities (the Microsoft Portable Media Center in the works from firms such as Samsung, Creative Technologies and iRiver, which offers video) could capture more than iPods, Rubin suggests.

Indeed, Ball State University in Muncie, Illinois, is adding BlackBerry capability to its wireless network. The gadget, which looks like an oversized calculator, can be used as a mobile phone and for email and web access. It also links users with the calendar and contacts functions of Microsoft Outlook.

It will offer Ball’s 20,000 students and 3,000 staff continuous connectivity. according to O’Neal Smitherman, Ball’s vice-president for information technology.

Dr Smitherman says users must buy the device at a cost of about $50 (£28) and pay the $40 (£22.60) monthly service charge to Verizon, the mobile network operator.

Academics are proving as interested in the technology as /administrative staff since its introduction this summer, he says, with many finding themselves “seduced” by the BlackBerry after getting one.

No UK university has adopted the BlackBerry, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

Details: http:///cit.duke.edu/about/ipod_project.do

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