Do iPods help College Students Learn?

Last year Duke gave iPods to all of it’s incoming freshmen. An article came out today that gives a small overview of the program. It sounds like the iPod program wasn’t really studied. They basically just gave everyone iPods to see what would happen. The article has quotes from teachers saying that the iPods helped keep students engaged.

Professors reported that students seemed more engaged in classes where they could use the iPods. They also cited strong student use of the audio capabilities of the iPod in their presentations, and more accuracy in quoting from interviews they did using the iPods.

I guess that is great and everything, but I’m afraid that if iPod’s are what makes the class “engaging” then there is probably something wrong with the class. While I can appreciate the value of being able to record a conversation to reference it later, we’ve had this capability for some time in an obscure device called a tape recorder.

Just for the fun of it, take a look at how the article would look if we replaced the word iPod with tape recorder.

When tape recorders go collegiate
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Kenneth Rogerson walked into his newspaper journalism class on the first day of the school year, the professor could barely contain his excitement.

After a quick introduction he broke the big news: “We got the grant,” he told his class. “You all get tape recorders.”

As if on cue, the students exhaled an audible “whoa” and exchanged elated glances. Duke University in Durham, N.C., had already made many a headline as the first school ever to provide all incoming freshmen with their own 20-gigabyte tape recorders – enough space to store up to 5,000 songs.

Ok so now it sound silly. But why? Pretty much all of the uses described in the article are things that can be easily done with older technology. This is a fundamental problem with the way that technology is implemented in education. When the focus is on a new piece of technology instead of new educational processes, we end being excited about mundane capabilities as can be seen by the following (modified) quote:

Professors reported that students seemed more engaged in classes where they could use the tape recorders. They also cited strong student use of the audio capabilities of the tape recorder in their presentations, and more accuracy in quoting from interviews they did using the tape recorders.

It still sounds silly with tape recorders instead of iPods, but the substitution helps clear the head of technology utopia and puts the focus on what is actually being accomplished instead of what devices is being used. So students are using them in their presentations. That is really nice, but I bet if they gave every incoming student a fog machine professors would start to notice the use of fog in some of the student presentations. If it was encouraged, professors would probably even say that there was a “strong use” of fog in the student presentations. This doesn’t mean that the devices are helping education.

I think that technology is extremely underutilized in education, but usually this isn’t because of lack of technology. Duke’s experiement is interesting, but without a solid infrastructure in place I’m not sure what results they were expecting. They weren’t really giving students anything that they couldn’t do with a tape recorder. Technology only becomes wildly beneficial when the infrastructure is in place ahead of time. For example, putting a computer in every dorm room would be beneficial, but it is 100 times more useful if the dorms have network wiring, access to the internet and library databases, and the college puts all of it’s class assignments and resources online. In fact if a university concentrates on the infrastructure, the students will bring their own computers.

I think Duke should concentrate more on creating an infrastructure that provides content for devices like iPods. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Record Every Lecture — These could be made available using podcasting tools, so students could “subscribe” to classes and they would be downloaded automatically. They could review it from their computer, iPod, hand held computer, etc. Students could increase the playback speed to review a lecture quickly just to refresh their memory or play it back in their sleep to try to benefit from subconcoius learning. (Ok maybe that is a stretch, but I would have tried it in college.)

    If the university made the content available to the general public, you’d have people listening to the lectures on their way to work, while exercising, etc. They could even limit it to alumni which would help keep them connected with the donor base.

  • Publish Interviews — Record and make available interviews and conversations related to the class. For example say a journalism professor posted a 10 minute telephone interview with a well known journalist for the New York Times discussing ethics. Content like that could provide a wonderful starting point for a class discussion or just as a way to introduce the topic. Over the years the school could build a very large repository of content.
  • Share Lectures with Other Universities — Imagine that biology students at Duke University are studying how DNA is formed. If they could quickly access a lecture from Princeton covering the same topic it could greatly increase their understanding of the subject just by hearing things in a different way.
  • Suggested Listening Lists — If a school built up a large repository of audio content and indexed it properly, students could be given suggestions on what to listen to. This could be based on their current classes, but it would be even more interesting if it was based on what questions they missed on quizes and exams. Students could subscribe to their personalized RSS feed with audio enclosures. As the semester progressed they would be given various items to listen to based on areas where they demonstrated a lack of understanding. They could download the items automatically to their computer, iPod, or whatever device they used and listen to them in the evenings, in their car, while exercising, etc.

All in all I think it is an interesting experiment. It is always interesting to give people technology and see what creative things they do with it. If Duke comes back next year with a solid plan for creating a better infrastructure to support portable media devices to help facilitate learning, then I’d say the experiment was a success. If not I’d say that they are chasing shiny objects instead of focusing on real improvements to the educational process.

Regardless, the iPod experiement was probably well worth it. The publicity they recieved with their target audience was worth a lot more than the cost of the iPods. If that was their intention, then the program was a great success.

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