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iPod Course Design

iPod Stands for: Absorb, Engage, and Matter!

Do you have effective pedagogical strategies for the iPod? Do you know how to plan and design content for the device? Start here.

iPod Course Design

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the sigh of relief today, as more and more students review course requirements and see that they will be learning, creating, and presenting with their iPods, as well as reading text and listening to course content with them. The Apple iPod and its related set of technologies are bringing a freshness, spontaneity, and engagement to learning experiences that we haven’t seen in a while; possibly, ever. Why are these small devices having such an impact?

The iPod’s almost overwhelming popularity probably stems from the combination of power, size, convenience, and flexibility inherent in the devices; they fit into arm bands during jogging, ride in jean pockets, and swing from belt loops. They’re small enough to easily be tucked into purses and backpacks, even large pockets. They are so compact, in fact, that they can be sneaked into exam venues and, not surprisingly, they now are being banned from classrooms during tests.

MP3 devices play music, audio, and even video podcasts; they display photos, PowerPoint lectures, and other complex data, as well; and they’re as cool as they are convenient and useful. Yet, what are effective pedagogical strategies for the iPod, and how do we plan and design content for this device?

For insights into where teaching and learning is headed, it is worth watching the evolution of iPod use at Duke University (NC), well known for its 2004 iPod initiative. The initiative is now in its third year, the fall 2006 “standard iPod package” consisting not only of the newest 30GB fifth-generation video iPod, but also including a stereo voice recorder attachment.

Why the recorder?

Answer: As Duke students began to use the iPod for the consumption of course content, students and faculty (almost simultaneously) discovered the exciting possibilities for creating, capturing, and producing learning content, too. As with so many technologies, once the tool was ubiquitous, new uses unfolded quickly. For the students, these new uses shifted to their taking charge of their learning experiences; for faculty, the new uses meant developing new skills in preparing, using, and formatting new audio course content for the iPod.

Clearly, using and producing podcasts generates a host of design issues for content formatting as well as instruction. Following is a sampling: iPods for Language Learning Joe Fahs is director of academic technology services at Elmira College in New York, where he supports iPod usage in Spanish, French, Italian, and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. He identifies two key benefits of using iPods for second language acquisition: First, he says, students can take their language practice with them everywhere; second, the ease of accessing and downloading podcasts makes integrating authentic content into the classes both possible and easy. Free, daily podcasts from radio stations such as Radio France bring current issues, culture, and people into course dialogues, and make listening to, speaking, reading, and writing language timely and almost natural. They make it possible to discuss current world events, including popular culture, in the students’ target language. This same authentic content, while initially something students can listen to passively, provides fodder and stimulus for conversation, diaries, interviews, and projects, all of which are productive, active, and engaged learning experiences. (Other uses of podcasting at Elmira include an open series of podcasts from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.)

At Duke University, students clamor to get into ‘Radio: Theater of the Mind,’ where they examine the medium from 1920 to 1960, then, using the iPod package, create productions in vintage mode, accessible by the public. The class has been deluged with applicants.

Planning for Compression, Storage, Training

As for design issues in using iPods, Fahs notes three interrelated issues that are important yet underappreciated: 1) compression, 2) storage, and 3) the support and training of faculty and students.

While it is very easy to record interviews, journals, and lectures on the spot, such files can be quite large. So part of the recommended faculty training and support includes instructions on the process of converting WAV files into MP3 files, and provides templates for the labeling and tagging of files. Of course, as course content explodes, search and retrieval needs also multiply—especially for language students. For ESL students, in particular, the ability to download lectures onto iPods and then easily retrieve the content for multiple listening opportunities, accelerates the facility with English and with note-taking skills, too.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, educators also are focusing on the use of the iPod for language study. One of their original projects involved reformatting content from previous language study formats such as audiocassette and CD, to the iPod environment. For language study, this often breaks down into the study of vocabulary, phrases, and dialogue. According to Alex Chapin, curricular technologist at Middlebury, some of the first design questions the technologists and educators tackled were concerned with the level of granularity of the files, and the type and amount of metadata. Both of these design questions impact how quickly and easily the students are able to get to the data. In the end, it was decided to reformat vocabulary content so that each word was a single six to eight second file, consisting of the enunciation of the word, the same word repeated more quickly, and then the use of the word in a phrase or in context. As for metadata tagging, Middlebury technologists adopted the commonly used music format of tagging by artist, album, and track, and added another tag for describing the podcast content, plus a tag for the episode number of the podcast series. Following is a sample metadata tagging template for course podcasts that you may want to consider using. The template is from blogger Garrick Van Buren, who authors First Crack Podcast With Garrick Van Buren.

Sample Metadata for Podcasts

  • Title [Your Podcast Show Name] [Episode Number] [Episode Name]
  • Artist [Author]
  • Album [Your Podcast Show Name]
  • Track [Episode Number]
  • Comments [Episode Description]
  • Genre: Podcast

The iTunes application has a different set of metatags for various formats (music, podcasts, television shows, radio shows, etc.). If the provided metatags are not a good fit for some of the recommended data, this metadata can be added within the description tag.

At Middlebury College, the iPod format helps students increase their ‘time on task,’ interacting with language. Minutes previously lost in transit, waiting, talking with friends, etc., suddenly become added practice time, and students now create their own language recordings, too.

Increasing Time on Task—and Interest

According to Chapin at Middlebury, he saw immediate changes due to the language content being in the iPod format: Students increased their “time on task,” interacting with the language they were learning. Minutes previously lost in transit, waiting, talking with friends, etc., suddenly became additional practice time to spend with course content. Now, he reports, faculty regularly prepare new language recordings two to three times a week, which keeps content current. And students can create their own recordings, including poetry readings and (in the French language class) foreign-language songs. Not surprisingly, shifting to the iPod device has made listening (a necessary part of language study) more convenient and more “immersible” for Middlebury language students, and has added the punch of being able to quickly create and use language naturally and spontaneously. (To find out more about academic iPod use at Middlebury, go here.)

Returning to the evolution of iPod use at Duke University, Lynne O’Brien, director of academic technology and instructional services, notes the curriculum freshening that is occurring. For example, she points to the class, “Radio: Theater of the Mind”, in which students examine the radio decades from 1920 to 1960, and then create their own radio productions in various broadcasting modes of the past. Because the radio productions are made available to the public, students are compelled to create productions that will be well-received and appreciated by that larger audience. Production of the radio projects involves extensive use of the iPod package, including the voice recorder. Students also become skilled with audio editing. Needless to say, the class has been deluged with applicants.

What’s Next

In what looks to be the rapid ascent of re-integrating audio into course content, we can’t help but wonder what might be the most significant and long-term impact of the availability, ease of use, and ubiquity of the MP3 player/ recorder. O’Brien believes the tools have sparked a faculty interest in exploring digital media as an alternative to text, helping educators to take students beyond the written word with new ways of visualizing content and modeling the virtual world.

But the quest to integrate podcasting into the college or university course management system (CMS) is strengthening, too, as educators seek tools to streamline that process and increase ease-of-use, and the vendor community rises to the need. Wimba, for instance, recently announced Wimba Podcaster, a new podcasting tool that makes it easy for faculty to create podcasts within their CMS environments and also upload audio from digitally recorded lectures. Faculty and students subscribe to the podcasts with just one click on the Podcaster interface. And Angel Learning has announced new podcast support capabilities such as a “course syndication” folder. (Faculty simply add a file to that folder and students can subscribe to it as an iTunes podcast or RSS feed; more here.) These new tools are only two of many being designed to make the process of creating and distributing podcasts even easier, so be sure to check them out!

:: web extra: Learn more: Jim Wolfgang (Georgia College & State U), Keith Politte (U of Missouri-Columbia), and Frank Lowney (GC&SU) will present the session, “Social Software and Academic Podcasting: Your Blueprint for Success,” at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2.

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