Just how tempting is an Apple?

May 5, 2006

iPod, therefore I learn? Not just yet. A pilot suggests the iPod is still more a gimmick than an educational tool, says Michael Thomas

Offering an iconic, covetable product that fits perfectly into students' mobile lifestyle seems to be the academic marketing manager's dream ticket in the globally competitive business of student recruitment at undergraduate level.

Is this the reason behind Apple iPod's sudden appearance in education? Or have educators harnessed the device to sound pedagogical principles to encourage effective learning? Although Duke University's iPod experiment has grabbed most of the headlines, a joint project between Apple and another US institution, Georgia College and State University, preceded it by two years. In 2002, 50 iPods were distributed to students and incorporated into two courses; since then, more courses have been added.

And in Japan, Osaka Jogakuin, a two-year women's college, issued iPods to its first-year class in April 2004, six months before the Duke experiment became big news.

Japan has also been the site of one of the first projects to use iPod education in the context of the wireless university. Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Administration (Nucba), one of the first wireless campuses in Japan, introduced Apple's entry-level iPod Shuffle to its first-year class a year ago. Whereas projects at Duke were developed by a range of disciplines, Nucba was one of the first to carry out empirical research on the iPod's use by English-language students.

Although Duke published an almost entirely self-congratulatory report on its iPod experiment, students writing in Duke's campus newspaper, The Chronicle Online, describe it as an expensive failure undertaken largely to recruit new students and call for it to be discontinued. Perhaps the most important finding of the Duke experiment was that there can be value in using iPods for certain courses, specifically music and foreign languages, as long as there is a pedagogically sound rationale for incorporating the devices. Projects should also be given time to mature and develop, rather than being discarded once the publicity has faded.

In the Nucba experiment, 205 first-year English-language majors were surveyed. Respondents were required to download audio resources from a university server and encouraged to listen to them on their iPods, on and off campus. The audio material was then used as the basis for questions in final examinations.

Seventy per cent of respondents said that they used their iPods mainly for listening to music, 18 per cent for activities related to learning English and 12 per cent for storing data files. Although the devices were promoted to encourage mobile learning, a substantial number of respondents (64 per cent) indicated that they had never or had hardly ever used their iPods for listening to English-language audio while travelling to and from campus.

Though the device is clearly a powerful tool for listening to audio books and lecture content, only 26 per cent of Nucba respondents said that they thought the iPods had improved their overall exposure to English-language resources. The potential for making the audio a mandatory requirement does, however, exist, as 54 per cent of students said that they brought their iPods to campus very often or often. Despite the fact that this demonstrates a relatively high rate of contact, only 15 per cent said that faculty had used the device effectively enough for them to consider using their iPod for English-language learning purposes. Moreover, as little as 21 per cent of students saw a strong connection between the English language resources and the iPod technology itself.

Although iTunes has been instrumental in the success of promoting downloadable music, only 15 per cent of students who participated in the study had downloaded music from the Apple site, while 66 per cent said that they had never done so. Students' lack of credit cards is clearly one major obstacle to promoting the more widespread use of online shopping in the undergraduate market.

Most telling of all, perhaps, and in confirmation of Duke students' comments, 57 per cent of Nucba students thought the iPods had been distributed as an attempt to attract them to study at the university rather than to help them in any meaningful learning process. iPod, therefore I learn? The question mark seems appropriate. Duke seems to have got the marketing right - if subsequent programmes at Stanford University are anything to go by - but its adoption of a more selective approach to courses for future iPod projects suggests that pedagogical questions still remain unanswered.

The Nucba survey indicates that such initiatives to enrich learning by giving students iPods are much like those schemes to get computers into schools not so long ago. The mere presence of computers in the classroom would, advocates argued, increase students' motivation to learn and improve results. The same argument was rolled out to make the case for wiring classes to the internet and, most recently, for course-management systems and for blogging. However, a student sitting in front of a computer with access to millions of internet pages of material of greatly variable quality will never learn as effectively as one who follows a highly structured series of tasks that are clearly articulated and are set at the appropriate level of competence.

Educational technology requires a rationale that predates and guides its use in the classroom. Although successful approaches can be developed after the introduction of technology, educators must have the pedagogical discussion before formulating the marketing strategy. Otherwise, they could end up with just another version of the UK's failed eUniversity project.

Michael Thomas is associate professor in English communication at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Administration in Japan.

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