Video: Happy Birthday, iPod!

By Michael E. Ross Reporter
updated 2/26/2007 6:58:25 AM ET 2007-02-26T11:58:25

When they aren't dancing, those familiar iPod silhouettes are probably hunkered down in the classroom, where the devices have become a common learning tool.

More than 70 million iPods have been sold since they were introduced by Apple more than five years ago. Now, with the MP3 player's foothold in academia,  universities and companies are quickly expanding the amount of study materials students can use with them.

Duke on the cutting edge
In 2004, Duke University gave all freshmen iPods as part of a one-year program to determine how iPods could help students learn.

The pilot program gave way to the Duke Digital Initiative, in which faculty encourage students to use hand-held technology such as iPods, tablet PCs and video cameras to collaborate on projects and in other coursework.

“You've got students creating podcasts as assignments,” said Jessica Mitchell, a project manager for the initiative. “Instead of writing a two- or three-page paper, they're doing a video exclusively in French. It requires you to use different skills than if you're just sitting in class. It has the potential for major changes in the way we're teaching and learning.”

Other colleges involved
This year, Stanford University launched Stanford on iTunes, which provides alumni and the public with Stanford-specific audio content, including lectures, campus events, book readings, and even podcasts of Cardinal football games.

Students at the University of Washington can download lectures. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, school President Mary Sue Coleman invites students to “think of the university as your intellectual iPod.”

And Mansfield (Pa.) University uses the iPod as a recruiting tool by offering podcasts that show off the campus.

Learning by graphic novel
As schools embrace the iPod, companies are jumping in to provide content.

IPREPpress offers a range of downloadable documents, including travel guides, a 40,000-word version of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the Encyclopedia Britannica and biographies.

The bios are designed like graphic novels or comic books, with text hyperlinked to full-color images on subjects, from sports figures to scientists.

The cost is something even the financially strapped student can manage: Some dictionaries and encyclopedias cost less than $4, and graphic biographies sell for between $10 and $15.

Pearson Education, a business and educational publisher, and Audible, which makes spoken audio entertainment, recently launched VangoNotes study guides.

Textbooks a la carte
VangoNotes is building a library of guides that includes marketing management, psychology and art history, and plans to stock 100 titles by year's end.

“Our goal is to take out most popular textbooks starting with the freshman and sophomore course levels so we have offerings for most of the major courses students are taking in college,” said Sandi Kirshner, chief marketing officer for Pearson Education

The notes sell for $2.99 per book chapter, or $19.95 for an entire book. “We just completed a survey of student buyers, who said the price was about right,” Kirshner said.

Kirshner said students are using the guides to supplement their coursework.

“We've found that only 4 percent of students who purchased VangoNotes this term used the product as a replacement for the textbook," she said. “Ninety-six percent told us that the product was used to reinforce textbook reading.”

Pros and cons
Not all students totally buy the idea of iPod as educator.

“Giving an iPod to everyone seemed to be overkill, to put it mildly,” said Stephen Miller, a senior who was at Duke during the iPod giveaway.

“It was an early Christmas present for a class of freshmen,” he said. “It almost became laughable with teachers bending over backwards to find a way to put iPods into a course. I feel like it was a promotional gimmick.”

Miller said the devices could be useful — within limits.

"This allows students to engage in activity that has a lot of potential, but it’s worrisome if you’re trying to decorate a course with technology a course doesn’t need,” he said.

Other students, and teachers, believe there is a place for the iPod in the classroom.

A Grecian formula
Christopher Ayers, a Latin teacher at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, a private school in Wilbraham, Mass., favors content from EF Educational Tours for learning foreign languages, citing a trip to Greece last year.

“Learning Greek is a very, very humbling experience, much more than Latin,” he said. “Having me standing up there having kids repeat certain phrases can only go so far.”

“When we got to Greece, many of the ones with the podcasts were much more confident in speaking it,” Ayers said.

Kellsey Wuerthele, a student at the 325-student school, agreed: “The iPod has been a very good learning tool for me. I was able to understand what some of the people in Italy and Greece were saying. I was also able to talk with them in their own language.”

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