Open Menu Close Menu

Hardware Devices >> iPods at the Gate

Like little armies dragging their downloadable ammunition behind them, Apple’s iPods are poised at the juncture of teenworld and your campus,just waiting to invade. Can this be a good thing?

On a warm August evening in Durham, North Carolina, Duke University’s entire incoming freshman class celebrated the beginning of the 2004 fall term by stampeding the Distribution Center to receive what was described by Duke’s administration as a hot new item of pedagogical technology. Preloaded with welcoming speeches (by various Duke officials) plus assorted information about the campus, and slated for use in four course offerings, the fourth-generation iPod ( giveaways represented a Duke investment in equipment and supporting infrastructure of about $500K. Of course, the euphoric reaction of Duke’s freshmen may have had more to do with the prospect of endlessly downloadable rock than with the device’s promised contribution to a first-year learning experience.

“It was just a zoo,” reports David Menzies, News and Information Manager for Duke’s Office of Instructional Technology. “We had five local television stations here, and an AP reporter covering the story. Everybody was friendly, though it was pretty intense. The actual distribution went flawlessly, but we’re talking about 1,650 students.” Indeed, campus staff had set up staggered schedules for the handouts, with a little corral that was roped off like the rides at an amusement park. The planned orderliness didn’t last long, however,” Menzies acknowledges. “As soon as they got their tickets, they literally ran to the distribution center. The line went all the way down East Campus Quad.”

In addition to the free iPod, the incoming freshman class members were alsogiven a free voice-recorder accessory to increase the capabilities of the unit. But while the students were clearly delighted with their new acquisitions—as was the university with the
initial reaction to its program—in the distance, groans of “Oh, no—not another technology lure,” could be detected in some quarters of the higher education community.


One of the more pointed criticisms has come from the CIO of another university. “I see Duke’s actions mostly as a publicity stunt,” notes Thomas Skill, of the University of Dayton (CH). “They’re moving forward with widespread adoption without first clearly and effectively articulating the educational applications, outcomes, and assessment mechanisms.

Do you have a Dr. 'iRob' at your school?

What do songs like Tori Amos’s Crucify, or The Perfect Drug Medley by Nine Inch Nails have in common with JS Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, and/or Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1?

According to Georgia College and State University Professor “iRob” Viau, all are examples of Gothic-themed music, and so he includes them in an iPod playlist he created for his honors classes on Utopian/Dystopian Studies and The Gothic Imagination. The institution’s catalog declares the primary purpose of such courses is to “engage the students in lively and intelligent conversation on a wide variety of subjects that find expression in the texts and films selected each fall by the facilitators. The course intent,” it g'es on, “is to promote reason, respect, and responsibility, and to deepen students’ understanding of ways that societies might nurture what is essential to human life.”

Viau supports those assertions, but, “before the iPod, I had serious problems finding a way to provide a variety of musical texts for my students to listen to at home and discuss online or in class,” he recalls. “Since my working definition of ‘gothic’ in music includes everything from medieval chant, Beethoven, and Nine Inch Nails to Tori Amos, over-the-counter CDs didn’t work; it was too much material to put on a single CD, or even a couple.” Enter the iPod, whose capacity and compact size made it possible for Viau to “simply hand my students 10 to 15 gigs of music to take home, listen and respond to, and then discuss in class.”

Student response “has been enthusiastically and uniformly positive,” says Viau. Adds student Rachel Hotchkiss, “The iPod helps me understand the way music is connected to everything—literature, history, architecture, our culture. It has exposed me to new kinds of music that I now listen to all the time.” Another student, Kevin Bustabad, agrees. “This class is totally different from any other I’ve ever taken. It has so many more elements to help us understand ideas about the course and think critically.” Says Viau: “Give me a hundred more iPods and I’ll transform interdisciplinary studies in the humanities at this school.”

“It just strikes me that listening to King's ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on an iPod offers less than 50 percent of the potential impact, compared to watching the speech with streaming media on a wirelessly-connected notebook,” Skill continues. “I wonder how many of the students who listened to the speech on their iPod can identify the location where King gave it? When I consider the relative value of a notebook computer with a wireless data connection, compared to an iPod, I have a hard time understanding why we would want to move to a narrow-use appliance when the notebook computer d'es everything an iPod d'es.” Skill d'es, however, acknowledge the iPod’s potential in areas such as language immersion, wherein students can continually hear and record the language as part of the learning process. This, in fact, is one area where Duke intends to employ its distributed iPods: One of the four classes is an intensive course in Spanish.

Still, “I remain skeptical because the uses are narrow and limited,” insists Skill. He adds, “Given the limited discussion of the educational benefits and lack of data showing measurable positive learning outcomes, I continue to question the strategy [of Duke’s program]. My sense is that a series of iPod pilots that test learning-centered strategies on groups of 30 to 40 students would be more appropriate for gaining useful insights as to the potential of the technology.”

This is precisely the way that administrators at Georgia College and State University chose to test the applicability of the iPod to pedagogical use: The school launched its own experiment back in 2002 and proved the iPod to be a valuable tool for instructional use.


“We started playing this tune two years ago,” says Jim Wolfgang, GC&SU’s CIO. “We took a different approach in addressing it from a proof of concept position before investing heavily, and we are very confident that what we are doing will be a part of higher education for the next generation.” The institution’s program was initiated by its vice chancellor for Information and Instructional Technology, Randall Thursby—himself an early iPod adopter.

“I drive to work over 100 miles each way,” says Thursby. “My assistant converts memos and documents from text to speech through translation software, and I listen to them via the iPod on the drive home, rather than wait until I arrive to read the hardcopy, as I did in the past. I also use the iPod to make verbal notes and then send them to key staff via e-mail the next morning, without needing to re-key them.” It was Thursby’s own experience with the iPod’s portable delivery of content that alerted him to the possibilities of using the device to make a variety of materials available to students anytime, anywhere, as part of their courses.

“When I approached Jim Wolfgang about the possibility of using the iPod in instruction, I had seen that most of the classic materials used in a humanities curriculum were available in a format that could be easily loaded onto the unit,” Thursby recalls. “In the hands of knowledgeable faculty members who could exploit its capabilities, I thought the iPod had great promise.”

Several members of GC&SU’s faculty quickly rose to the challenge. According to Hank Edmondson, professor of Government, “My first vision for the iPod was to integrate music into a couple of my classes, so I started with War, Politics, and Shakespeare, downloading songs about war—from patriotic to protest—and adding some Elizabethan music. We also used the iPod to record the students presenting speeches they had chosen from one of the plays we were studying. After each reading, all of the iPods were updated for the benefit of the entire class; all of the students were made responsible for the material recorded by their peers.”

“Next,” Edmondson continues, “I incorporated the iPod into my freshman Ethics and Society class where I cover, in an historical organization, the leading moral philosophies. A big challenge in such a class is to convince the students that the material is relevant. The iPod is a tremendous help because I can choose a lot of popular music and associate different songs with different philosophies, showing the students how their own music reflects the ideas we are studying. Jim Morrison and the Doors were, by their own admission, influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.”

iStudy Abroad

GC&SU’s iPod program was quickly extended far beyond the boundaries of the campus itself. Led by Edmondson and others, groups of students took iPods overseas to Ireland, Spain, Germany, France, and England. As students hiked the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland, for example, they listened to works by the Nineteenth century Irish p'et Gerard Manley Hopkins (only one entry on their iPod playlists), and savored their taste of what life might have felt like, in Ireland of the 1800s.

“I took two study-abroad courses,” reports GC&SU student Kelly Littleton. “One involved the European Union and the other was a study of the governments of Spain and Ireland.” The iPod proved useful in both, she reports. “It enabled us to learn while traveling, which worked out perfectly for our group since there wasn’t enough time for a traditional lecture. While we rode to our destinations, we could listen to our professor on the iPod and not waste learning time sitting in a van. We listened to short stories, lectures, and music of the country.”

Cassie Hester, a third-year GC&SU student, also appreciated her iPod while overseas. “Its compact design, combined with its massive capacity for audio storage, helped greatly with our light packing restrictions,” she recalls. “We didn’t have to pack printed readings or numerous CDs.”

And Wolfgang points to another advantage of iPod use abroad. “In the European Union course, the professor suddenly got access to a renowned expert for a seminar—but it was on a Sunday, when most of the students were out exploring on their free time,” he remembers. “No problem: The professor and five students took the opportunity to meet with the expert, and recorded the session on an iPod. That evening, the other students were able to download the recording to their own iPods, and listen to it.” Wolfgang adds, “That’s the sort of thing that frustrates me about some of my colleagues who have the “It'll ever work’ mindset: Without the iPod, that opportunity would not have been available.”

Linking to Help

Linking for Help

Thinking about starting your own iPod program? Try these URLs for help.

More about the Duke iPod program

More about the Georgia College & State University iPod program:

Additional examples of course descriptions, tools, and assignments:

Helpful explanations of copyright law and TEACH Act provisions:

comments powered by Disqus