Other Campuses: Duke evaluates iPod experiment

By The Chronicle

(U-WIRE) DURHAM, N.C. – Six months after the Duke University iPod First-Year Experience began, a stack of unopened iPods line Lynne O’Brien’s office. As the director of the Center for Instructional Technology, her office has become the temporary storage room for the leftover devices. She laughs as she recalls the plethora of square boxes that were there earlier in the year. Her horde would be depleted shortly, as CIT had just approved iPod proposals for two more classes.

As the year-long “experiment” of providing 20-gigabyte Apple iPods to all freshmen winds to an end and the media frenzy slowly dies down, administrators have begun to evaluate the future of the project. Critics ask: Have students used them for educational purposes? Did teachers find innovative ways to integrate this technology into their curricula? Was it worth the $500,000?

While administrators have no concrete answers – a thorough and systematic evaluation will be finalized within two weeks – the implementation of the program has been as hotly debated as any measurement of its success.

“We weren’t quite ready in some ways for all the things you need to make a project successful,” O’Brien said, adding that this year was an experiment and if some form of the project is continued, the necessary support would be fully in place.

While administrators agree that CIT will continue to support faculty who use technology in the classroom, the future of the iPod project is in limbo. Teachers, students and officials admit that the project has had to overcome many difficulties. From

technology problems to lack of student

academic use, the experiment, just like the unopened boxes, has yet to be fully explored.

To the public, it all started on a summer Durham, N.C., night. Camera crews, reporters and freshmen lined East Campus Quadrangle Aug. 19, 2004, eagerly awaiting the distribution of the Duke welcome gifts. Freshmen only had to sign an agreement saying they would keep the device for one year and the iPod was theirs.

– Steve Veres

But in 2001, the Board of Trustees had set aside funds for a technology initiative in the five-year strategic plan, Building on Excellence. Officials hoped to find a device students were familiar with that could also be used academically. Duke officials visited Apple Computer late last winter to discuss a possible educational initiative. Apple was interested in becoming innovative with its product, Provost Peter Lange said, and Duke administrators were intrigued. The idea gestated for four months and was finally adopted during early summer. The iPod project was born.

Officials said the goal of the project was to provide teachers with new technologies to enhance course content and provide new angles to explore the same material.

“Because the iPods have broad appeal, a request for students to use them in a particular course was unlikely to meet with resistance, as could be the case with technology that wasn’t as easy to use, or a technology that remained in students’ desk drawers rather than carried with them as part of their everyday lives,” said Tracy Futhey, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “By focusing this project around a piece of equipment that we knew people would want to have with them, we thought it was also more likely that students and faculty would use their imagination to think about what other kinds of uses they might make of it.”

Administrators budgeted the iPod initiative – the project that resulted from the funds set aside in the strategic plan – at $500,000. This money included hiring an academic computing specialist for the project, providing grant funding for faculty and giving free 20-gigabyte Apple iPods and voice recorders to the more than 1,650 freshmen.

As soon as it was announced to the public, the media blitz began. Even though officials said the project was conceived as a means to further integrate technology into the classrooms, some critics have questioned the intent, accusing the administration of creating a publicity stunt to attract attention.

“I think it was a media stunt. We are an up-and-coming school, looking for ways to promote ourselves. Apple is too, so it is perfect,” freshman Dan Cook said. He had yet to open his iPod gift as of Sunday and, as soon as the University will allow him to, will give it to his mother.

Lange said he was surprised with the media frenzy that followed distribution. O’Brien added that media outlets have primarily explored how Duke has used the new technology in the classroom.

“There has been a lot of publicity that has focused on the idea that this is a school that is willing to try something new, and they are curious to what kind of things people will come up with,” O’Brien said. “They are looking to Duke to see what our experience was.”

Futhey said the iPod project was a natural fit into academia and was impressed with the multitude of uses professors have found for the device.

“Until this project, iPods were mostly considered to be an entertainment device, but no one had explored their untapped potential for education,” she said. “The idea behind this project was to put an incredibly easy to use, highly mobile and versatile device into the hands of our creative faculty and students to find out what kinds of academic uses they would discover.”

Duke students say they both work hard and play hard.

Freshman Anita Pai loves her iPod. She records lectures and listens to her music as she walks through the Duke campus, bopping along to her tunes. She even dressed as an iPod for Halloween. But many freshmen have been less enthusiastic about the technology, using it more for entertainment than academic pursuits.

“I could count on one hand the amount of freshmen I saw recording classes last semester. Nobody uses them for academic purposes,” freshman Janie Lorber said, adding that her recording device has never been opened. “I think it is kind of embarrassing that every freshman got an iPod. I think it makes us look rich and silly.” Several students agreed with her sentiment.

But many teachers have embraced the iPods, integrating them fully into the curriculum. Futhey said CIT assisted 11 classes last fall with technical support and loaner iPods, given to upperclass students without iPods, but more than 30 courses used the devices to varying degrees. This semester, O’Brien said 17 classes have been approved for support from CIT.

“We certainly had enough faculty that, with very short notice decided to jump in and try things, and I was actually very pleased with the response rate,” O’Brien said, adding that she thought even more faculty would have added the devices into their curricula if this was not advertised as a one-year project. “We have a lot of faculty already who had been experimenting with digital audio and video, so it was a way to try something new and see what type of uses would develop.”

Of the teachers that adopted the new technology, some have taken to heart the spirit of the initiative, fully integrating the new devices into their curricula with original projects. Projects have ranged from developing new engineering software to taping ambient sounds and recording tutoring sessions.

Anthony Kelley, a professor in the Department of Music, used the new technology to let students interact with the music on a more personal level. He gave students a Bach chorale with all voices except the one within their range-soprano, alto, tenor or bass. He then required students to fill the missing pitches with their respective parts.

“The iPod is a happy medium that made the material more convenient,” he said. “I thought it was a daring venture for Duke to at least try something different to make the first year experience something memorable. The project definitely succeeded – you can see all the white cables dangling out of ears.”

Lisa Merschel, visiting assistant professor in the department of romance studies and one of the first teachers to sign up for the project, has provided her beginning Spanish students with audio material to help students master pronunciation. She also requires students to turn in recorded diaries so she can monitor their speaking progress throughout the semester. She said the iPod is convenient and allows for expanded course content. For instance, she said, students can download their audio listening exercises to the iPod and do their homework anywhere instead of relying on language lab hours.

Merschel also said she recorded native Spanish speakers of different backgrounds reading the course literature. Students could download the audio files to their iPod and listen to the different pronunciations any time. She said these uses would not have been available without the iPods, which she has used both semesters.

But the experience has not been free of struggle. She had six students in her class the first semester, while this semester, she is working with 34 students in two classes. The increase in students has made the integration of the technology fully into her class more difficult.

“Sometimes the iPods weren’t charged, or they would forget their iPods. If that was happening with a group of six, you can imagine for 16,” she said. “I think that I wold definitely use them in the future, but I would have to rethink how I would incorporate them in the syllabus when I have a large group of students.”

Freshman Aaron Markham, a student in one of Merschel’s classes, enjoyed using the devices and thought it added a different dimension to the class. “The iPod facilitates learning and makes it a better overall experience,” he said.

Markham, however, said freshmen were primarily using the iPods for recreational and entertainment purposes. “Honestly, I definitely think the iPod experiment did not pan out how the administration hoped,” he added.

A full report detailing the project will be available within two weeks, and administrators will decide the future of the project in a few months. For now, the real test of the initiative will be how effective the iPods are in furthering technology in the classrooms for students who received them.

Some students have learned to rely on their iPods for educational uses. Lori Leachman, professor of the practice of economics, records her lectures with an iPod and then posts them to a shared server. She said that in her class of 300 students, about 40 record her lectures on a daily basis.

“I have a number of foreign students that are not totally fluent in English, and they find that recording the lecture and relistening to it is essential to them grasping the material,” Leachman said.

Leachman, a proponent of the iPod project, said regardless of the amount students are using the iPods recreationally, innovations like the ones in the music and language departments made the project successful.

“Those things never would have happened without this project. Nobody would have thought about approaching their material that way until the University says, ‘Lets see where we can take this,'” Leachman said. “We need to start thinking about how we can better integrate the technology out there into learning. While not everyone is using it, it is pushing everybody a little bit, slowly into that direction.”

Although it is uncertain whether the incoming Class of 2009 will receive a similar gift, officials, professors and students hope there will still be opportunities available for those who embraced the project.

“I don’t really know the outcome, but I hope that faculty who know that iPods will be in their sophomore students’ hands next year will feel they have the opportunity to try some new things also,” O’Brien said, adding that CIT will at least keep the loaner pool of iPods available for next year. “I’m sure there will be some continued opportunity for people to experiment.”