Duke University made headlines in 2004 when it handed out Apple iPods to every incoming freshman. The Durham, N.C. school began giving away the popular digital music players to see whether it made sense to record lectures and make digital copies available outside the classroom.
The university still provides iPods to students who need them, but in most cases, first-year students already have one when they arrive, says Julian Lombardi, Duke's assistant vice-president for information technology. "Back then, it was still a little bit of an exotic item," Lombardi says. "Now they receive one as a high school graduation gift." In fact, many get their first iPod long before that.
Now Duke is considering a new tech experiment to aid learning. The school may soon dole out handheld video cameras, such as Pure Digital Technologies' Flip Video, to students in courses where creating video can be used as a teaching tool, Lombardi says. The school already has 100 of the easy-to-use Flips and other video cameras that students and faculty can check out — and they're borrowed regularly, he says.
Far from banning tech from the classroom as potential distractions, colleges across the country are toying with an array of cutting-edge products and services for entering freshmen, who have grown up immersed in technology and rely on all manner of advanced tools to collaborate and learn.
Like Duke, Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., is also experimenting with video as a learning tool. Last year, communications professor Michael Scully added the $150 Flip camera to the requirements for his course on digital journalism.
"When I first showed them the camera and how easy it was to put a video on YouTube, they looked like I had just pulled a rabbit out of my hat," Scully says. By the end of the day, students had produced their first video news story and started posting items on a class YouTube page called The Feed.
A later class project shed light on a controversial new campus smoking policy. "A lot of students watched, and we got a lot of feedback from people who were angry about the policy," says Lorin Richardson, 20, one of Scully's students. "A lot of kids told me later they used that video in discussions in other classes."
'A part of their lives'
Richardson and her peers were in kindergarten when e-mail and the Internet started gaining cultural currency. For most of the time they've been able to type, the Web's trove of information has been a mere Google search away.
Friends and family have always been as close as an e-mail, instant message, or a text. Many gave presentations using Microsoft's PowerPoint in high school. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
By the time they arrive at college, they've already amassed hundreds of friends on their Facebook and MySpace accounts. Some have been blogging for years and even experimenting with Twitter and other microblogging tools. Viewing video online is as normal as watching TV.
"This is a generation that has never known anything else," says Kenneth Rogerson, a professor of public policy at Duke who teaches a class on technology and politics.
"Technology is so much a part of their conversation and their understanding, and they expect people to understand what they're talking about. It's as much a part of their lives as dinnertime."
Profs with Facebook accounts
For college administrators and faculty members who grew up before the Internet, keeping pace can be a challenge.
"I had a student who said he thought e-mail was really old-school. He mostly used Facebook to communicate with his friends," Rogerson says. Those same administrators and professors are quickly creating their own Facebook accounts, joining the students (whose addiction to technology they'll never be able to beat).
Jen Golbeck, an assistant professor of information at the University of Maryland in College Park uses Facebook to interact with students in all her classes. Faculty are also organizing their own Facebook groups at such schools as Columbia University in New York, or organizing students according to major, at such places as the Economics Dept. at Georgetown University.
Connected by 'Internet2'
But adapting the university to the tech needs of Generation Y takes more than giving Flips to freshmen and befriending students on a social network.
More than 200 universities — from Brown University in Providence to Washington State University in Pullman — are part of a consortium connected by Internet2, a fiber-optic network begun in 1996 that allows downloads and uploads many times faster than over the commercial Internet.Corporate backers of Internet2 include Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., is among several schools using a package of interactive tools from Dell that includes PCs and handheld devices that link to digital projectors and electronic whiteboards.
UVA recently said it's embracing the Sakai Project, an open-source system at Yale, Stanford, Northwestern, Georgia Tech, and other schools.
Sakai lets students collaborate on group projects using chat rooms and wikis; keep up with class assignments via announcements from instructors; and even submit homework, all from within a single Web-based application. Instructors can use Sakai to manage assignments, grading, and course planning.
'Media assignments,' not papers
But does all that tech fluency make today's students better learners — or does it simply make them easier to distract with every instant or short-text message that pops up on a handheld?
Cara Lane, a researcher who studies learning and scholarly technologies at the University of Washington in Seattle, says all that time spent searching for Hannah Montana videos on YouTube can help make teens better at searching the databases, including Lexis-Nexis and J-Stor, they'll need for academic research — those IMs, texts, and status updates are a primer for participation in online forums related to classwork.
"Students usually arrive not knowing how to use education-oriented technology tools," Lane says. "But they quickly surpass their instructors in their ability to use them effectively."
And what about the writing and persuasive skills students need to sustain an academic paper or master's thesis? Instructors can cite students who insert smileys and other text-message abbreviations into homework assignments.
At the same time, research projects that used to be called "papers" are morphing into "media assignments," containing audio and video presentations given by students, says Duke's Lombardi.
"There's a lot of writing and preparation that goes into them," he says. "In fact, a media assignment can be a powerful writing assignment. It turns out the students do a lot more revision and rewriting, on average, than they would have done writing a conventional paper."
Few would doubt the academic merit of the work being done by Meredith Barrett, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at Duke, who's researching the health of lemurs in Madagascar and producing a regular blog, complete with videos shot with a Flip camera.
The benefits of experimentation aren't lost on the administrators at Duke. Today, some 100 of the university's classes use recorded audio lectures, all available for download to an iPod, Lombardi says.
Much of what was gleaned from Duke's iPod project laid the groundwork for a section of Apple's iTunes store called iTunes U, which provides recordings of lectures from hundreds of other colleges that, like Duke, are willing to take a chance on tech.