IT: Technology, Language, and Culture

Duke and iPods

You’ve probably heard about Duke University giving its incoming freshman each a 20 gig iPod, a Belkin Voice Recorder and a fifteen dollar gift certificate to the iTunes store. If not you can read about it here, here, and here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a series of articles about the iPods and Duke and a discussion forum where they ask

Are the purchases of gadgets driven by educational reasons, or are they marketing ploys—or both? Do colleges compete in offering the next must-have gizmos for their students? What is the best way to evaluate and purchase useful electronic devices?

If you persevere and read the entire discussion, you’ll notice, as I did, a certain hostility towards other discussants (if these people were posting in a discussion I moderated, we’d have a conversation about civility and online etiquette). You’ll also likely be struck by the references to iPods as “toys,” a reference that the Chronicle makes in the initial query. I find it a little difficult to see a 20 GB iPod that costs around $300.00 a “toy.” I supposes that’s my middle-class New England frugality speaking. But I also find it odd that something so useful is regarded as a “toy.” I see the iPod as an example of Shaker design in digital technology. It is beautiful as well as practical. I’ve got one of the original 5 gig iPods, and I’ve used it well, and continue to find it useful and enjoyable. Sure, I have lots of music on my iPod. But I also have my d*ss*rt*t**n files, including scans of the manuscripts, my bibliography and other related files. I used my iPod daily when I taught, keeping class and course materials on it, but also, using the iPod to play back audio files, to store image and video files, and to transfer files to and from computers on campus. I’ve posted an edited version of my Chronicle Colloquy response below.

It would have been even better if Duke had also given faculty and T.A.s iPods. They’re wonderful assets for teaching and learning. I use mine fairly often, and I’ll list some of the ways I use it in teaching, and some that Duke could take advantage of. Remember that the iPod not only plays and records audio files, it’s also a FireWire/USB hard drive, with some ability to display text, and function as a calendar and alarm clock.

  1. Backup—I have a portable easy to connect and fast way of backing up everything, including the class web site, I use for a class. Students could easily do this too. It’s fairly easy to store addresses, for instance, or class rosters, as files that display on the iPod screen.
  2. File transfer—you can use the iPod to carry data to place on a server, whether it’s a handout, a QuickTime movie, an MP3 file, a homework assignment, or a Powerpoint (if you really must use Powerpoint) presentation.
  3. Music and audio or video files to use as “authentic” language materials, for language classes. In my case I have examples of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, Chaucer, Middle English lyrics, and other poetry being read aloud. I also have short audio excerpts and QuickTime excerpts, some of them annotated with captions, for comparing and discussing Shakespeare performances. I can easily connect the iPod to a Mac or Windows computer and the iPod is perceived as an external hard drive. All I have to do is carry the iPod and a Firewire cable in my pocket. I’ve even played audio files through a video monitor using a standard stereo RCA to mini jack cable, connected to the iPod’s headphone jack.
  4. Create slide shows using digital images (on the Mac this is easily done with iPhoto and iMovie, but there are good programs for Windows users too). The iPod is much easier to connect to a built-in digital projection system with its own computer, or you can connect it to any computer that has FireWire or even, especially on Windows, USB. You can even make your slides available for students on their iPods. Why not include brief comments, either as textual annotations or record the audio?
  5. Distribute handouts, syllabi, Powerpoint files, .html files, .pdf files and even e-books on the iPod or make them available in easily downloaded archives from the web so that students have all the class materials in a portable storage device. This is particularly effective if you have materials either in compressed archives or pre-loaded.
  6. Allow students to record lectures for later review. They can concentrate on understanding during the lecture, and take notes later.
  7. The uses in musicology, composition and music history classes are pretty obvious. But think about pre-loading annotated files, either as QuickTime or as web pages, as guides to annotating and understanding the music.
  8. Take advantage of the many free tools for reading text files on an iPod.
  9. Use the Solitaire game to explain the statistics behind the game.
  10. Distribute calendars using the “iCalendar” standard, supported by Mozilla’s Calendar project and by Apple’s iCal.

There are lots and lots of other uses, but these are some that occur off the top of my head. And no, I’m not paid any extra for teaching with digital technology, but neither am I paid less for using the overhead projector or the blackboard. Frankly, as a T.A. I’m likely lucky to be paid at all, in the current economic climate. Use the technology that works for you and your students, and it’s OK if you and they enjoy it.

Like Jeffrey Feldman, a participant in the forum, I suspect, rather strongly, that part of the reason behind the iPod giveaway is the thought that the iPod and iTunes and Apple’s iTunes Music store will encourage legal MP3 purchases and ripping from legal CDs. No doubt you’ve noticed schools signing agreements with Napster and other services and even iTunes has a campus program.