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Bravo for the Duke iPod Experiment

It was a daring experiment, and one that caught immediate criticism because some saw the university as “giving away toys” to the incoming freshman class. Well, iPods are ‘toys’ in a sense, and of course they were mostly used for entertainment. But some pretty interesting lessons were learned.

And it was just the start. Next fall, incoming freshman at one university are each getting their own personal gigabyte key fob drive and there are probably many initiatives I haven’t learned of yet. There’s no doubt that we’ll all be carrying everything we have access to with us, all of the time, in the not-to-distant future. So, let’s take a look at what Duke learned before we go off doing bigger and better things.

What did Duke get for the estimated $500k that the iPod project cost? Well, if you read the entire report--Duke iPod First-Year Experience,--it’s clear that the university really got its money’s worth. Sure, some of the popular media characterized it as an unwarranted waste of money, pandering to students’ addiction to technology toys. But those same people probably don’t understand what an “experiment” is in the first place. Much of what was learned could have been predicted, but now we know. That’s worth a lot.

Useful despite inadequacies.
Experiments are learning tools. In my opinion, the most important thing learned was that despite the fact that the iPod itself has limitations as a learning tool, it was still successfully used in many ways. Sure, the only way to input data was synchronization. And, there were no pre-existing tools for instructors to load text and audio, together, into the device. And the iPod could use a better microphone for academic recording quality, d’oh! Whatever the limitations, seventy-five percent of first year students either used the iPod in class, for academic purposes, or outside of class to support academic purposes.

Five major categories of academic usages.
What did the faculty do with the iPods?

· They used iPods as course content dissemination tools--basically, virtual access to class content wherever students were.
· iPods were used in the classroom to record lectures, discussions, and feedback: “It was great. I didn’t have to write down all the comments my group said about my paper because I could just download it off my iPod onto my iTunes and listen to it from there.” (Duke report, page 7)
· Likewise, they were used in ‘the field’ to take notes, record interviews, even the sounds of various environments. (A major point: Needs a better microphone!)
· They were also used as digital flash cards for repetitive listening to audio content.
· And they were useful for backing up or carrying around large multimedia files: “I love my iPod. I had a music seminar . . . and had to memorize various symphonies and concertos for a listening final. My prof had no idea what an iPod was but I used it every day until I learned all of the listed recordings.” (Duke report, page 10)

Lack of pre-existing academic support resources.
One of the things Duke ran up against was that there were no pre-existing procedures or sources where instructors could make bulk purchases of mp3 audio content designed for academic instruction. That sounds to me like a market waiting to happen. I wonder how many startups are starting right now to fill what will be a growing demand for instructional content for handheld devices?

iPod use was greatest in music and foreign language courses.
No big surprise. After all, it is an audio record and play device, and such devices – albeit larger (but over time, at least currently, better designed for the purpose)--have been used for instructional purposes in music and language classes since the wax cylinder. Those large and expensive in-classroom devices are fast on their way to becoming dinosaurs, though, and if I had stock in a company that made them I’d be selling it fast. Those kinds of classes may well be the first on campus to redesign the learning process so that schools take advantage of the technology that students bring, or are expected to bring, with them, rather than fixed classroom devices.

Faculty interacted more with each other and with IT staff.
I remember that 10 years ago we were all taking about the “sage on the stage” and the “guide by the side.” On many campuses, progress has been made along those lines. But the barriers between faculty and various support staff are still quite high in many places. The iPod experiment at Duke inevitably weakened those barriers and is clearly a harbinger of more of that to come. Use of these devices had the perhaps weak but ubiquitous effect of focusing classroom resources on the learners.

Further, much of the increased interactivity between faculty, and between faculty and IT folks, constituted a year-long, campus-wide “conversation” about the best roles for technology in teaching. And the conversation included some of the most technophobic faculty who previously had been able to ignore these kinds of devices.

Visibility and recognition.
There’s no doubt that the Duke iPod experiment got more media play last year than any other single on-campus higher education project. We heard about it and heard about it and heard about it. And Duke, despite the drawbacks of the occasional carping report, enhanced its reputation as an institution with a commitment to appropriate information technology use for learning.

One unintended, presumably, side-effect was that bold thinkers at other campuses, such as Stanford, Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Missouri, took notice of Duke and approached Duke with collaborative initiatives that are taking root in all directions.

So, in the end: “What a deal!”
Duke spent a small bundle on a learning experiment using technology that got it great publicity, enhanced interest among future potential incoming freshmen, more inter-institutional and intra-institutional collaboration, brought uninterested professors into the technology tool fold, pointed out what some enhancements and features need to be added to such devices to make them better learning tools, and probably catalyzed some startup companies.

Not bad for $500k.

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