Plug in - but tune in, too

An iPad or Kindle does not magically improve education, says Cathy Davidson

October 13, 2011

Because it's autumn, US universities are busy announcing what new technology they will offer new students. Across the country, institutions of higher education are dispensing Kindles and iPads in the hope that they will spur revolutionary pedagogies.

Duke University, where I teach, is often credited with beginning this trend in 2003 when we gave first-year students free iPods. At the time, iPods were simple music-listening devices. We received a lot of public criticism for investing in them. As I was the vice-provost for interdisciplinary studies who helped initiate the Duke iPod experiment, one might assume that I enthusiastically embrace the subsequent iPad trend.

Well, not so fast. I believe strongly in the importance of education addressing the urgencies of the moment, but I also oppose "techno-determinism": the tendency to think that a technology in and of itself promotes systemic change. The point of our experiment was not that an expensive technology can reform institutional practice. Rather, we were trying to orchestrate an exercise in calculated disruption - seeking to reorder some of the terms and consequences of learning in higher education. I am against the mere technologising of higher education. But I am an ardent proponent of calculated disruption of the pedagogical status quo with the aim of reshaping education for the Broadcast Yourself era of the interactive, digital age. That's a mouthful. Let me explain.

In 2003, there was not a single known educational use for the iPod. When Apple approached Duke about giving out some technology to students as part of an Apple Digital Campus initiative, it was thinking more about laptops or multimedia suites. We went with iPods for two reasons. First, students loved them. Second, we were interested in what learning applications students might come up with if challenged to think about pedagogical uses of a technology that was already part of their everyday life. This is the opposite of the usual educational pedagogy based on the "cod liver oil" approach, where you force students to do what is "good for them" no matter how distasteful.

We gave the free Duke-branded iPods only to incoming, first-year students. Within a week, our other students were complaining bitterly that they too paid Duke's hefty tuition fees, so why didn't they get free iPods? We hastily admitted our "mistake" and issued a challenge: if any student could dream up an educational use for the iPod and could convince a professor to include the iPod on a syllabus for a course, we would give a free iPod to the student, the professor and all those in that course. In one semester, we gave away more iPods to those in classes where students had devised serious educational uses for them than we had given, without strings, to the 1,650 first-year students.

Virtually every field and department profited from the experiment. There were obvious uses such as downloads of recordings of T.S. Eliot or Thomas Edison's famous recitation of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Classes from Spanish to introduction to jazz to organic chemistry were recording lectures, and students were listening to them on the campus buses, in the gym, as they walked across the quad. But we were astonished by the ingenuity of thought that students gave to what those iPods might do. For example, undergraduate biomedical engineering students figured out a way to adjust the signal processing so you could put an earbud in one ear, a stethoscope in the other and diagnose heart conditions by accessing, in real time, the audio library of cardiac arrhythmias from the National Institutes of Health. Music students dropped their flute solos or voices into performances of famous philharmonic orchestras or quartets to be able to hear themselves perform with the very best. Computer science students studied (some might say "hacked") and improved Apple's computer code, while engineers stress-tested the famous white plastic material and proposed suggestions to make it less brittle.

The R&D Apple derived from these energetic students was incalculable and, within a year, was demonstrated in detail by Duke students at the world's very first academic podcasting conference.

The multimedia content was the first point of this educational exercise, but there were three other benefits that, to my mind, must be prerequisite to any experiment inserting expensive, new technology into the university classroom. First, the iPod experiment reversed the role of student and teacher by asking students to think about their education and how it intersected with a technology that already informed their everyday life. Second, it asked the professoriate to admit that students knew something key about novel interactive technologies and their potential for enhanced learning. It shifted the implicit hierarchy and direction of knowledge transmission - and we were thrilled to see how receptive the faculty were. And third, it reminded faculty that, although they might be baffled by these tiny iPods, they, as seasoned academics, still understood the larger framework of education and had lessons to impart to the student-users of technology. The students provided know-how, but the faculty provided deep context for serious discussion about larger issues of technology and society such as cost, value, ethics, intellectual property, security or privacy.

These components of pedagogical participation are essential. We can't just drop some new electronic device into education and think our job is done. Quite the contrary, new technology is merely a catalyst for a serious rethinking of higher education for the Information Age.

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