The iPod iDea

Wired for Scholarship
Writer: 
October 1, 2005

The "noble experiment" that provided the Class of 2008 with the latest techno tool/toy is considered successful, depending on whom you ask. Whether this will become a continuing trend or a passing fad is still being debated.

A student's reflection in his newly received iPod

Jim Wallace.

"Shakespeare on the iPod, calculus on the iPod," Peter Jennings quipped last fall at the end of an ABC TV news report featuring Duke.

Jennings was musing on Duke's decision to issue Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod digital music players to every member of the freshman class in hopes of harnessing a new medium for class and campus life.

"We wanted to show ourselves to be adventurous in the area of the utilization of technology in teaching and learning," Duke's provost Peter Lange said about the iPodding of the Class of 2008. "The iPod is such a pop-culture phenomenon that we wanted to see if there was a way to use it to enhance the academic experience," Tracy Futhey, head of Duke's Office of Information Technology, told USA Today.

ABC and USA Today weren't the only news media to notice that the iPod phenomenon of techno-chic and mega-profitability was taking an intriguing turn toward the elite academics and prestigious reputation of a university such as Duke.

"Dude, I just got a free iPod!" MTV News began its report on Duke's program. "The 'kudos factor' is unmistakable on campus," a BBC TV reporter pronounced. And a CBS News segment cut from a scene of Duke students demonstrating an engineering experiment with iPods to a flurry of lights and rock music at an event in California where Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Irish rocker Bono introduced the "U2 iPod."

"It was sort of an iPod moment," says Steven Levy, chief technology writer for Newsweek and author of a cover story, "iPod therefore i am," that came out a week after Duke announced the program. "If you're going to make a timeline of important iPod events, the Duke purchase would definitely be on it."

"People have accused us [of] or admired us [for] having been either incredibly manipulative or prescient with regard to the publicity that it got for Duke," Lange says. But "the one thing we most clearly did not anticipate was the degree of attention and publicity we got from the iPod experiment."

The cause for all the attention was Duke's deal with Apple to buy 1,800 iPods--enough for all 1,650 members of the Class of 2008, plus 150 extras to loan staff and upperclassmen involved in the program--in exchange for help from the company in adapting this new generation of Walkman to the classroom. It was the first deal of its kind for Apple, as well as Duke. The purchase price was kept confidential, but Duke's cost for the entire program--the iPods engraved with the Duke shield, additional technical staff, and supporting equipment--was announced: $500,000, drawn from a university fund designated for technology innovation.

The idea was that iPods could be used to record lectures, store computer files, and listen to course-related audio segments. The university even set up a website with the idea of posting talks given on campus, which anyone at Duke could then download and listen to at their leisure. But Duke's efforts to surround the iPod with an aura of academic seriousness are being played out against the powerful image created and backed by Apple's marketing muscle: iPods as sleek, sexy, must-have gizmos for pumping out music--rock music, really, if you've watch the ads with the gyrating silhouettes.

How is Duke going to "deal with the perception that one of the country's finest institutions -- with selective admissions, a robust enrollment, and a plush endowment -- would stoop to a publicity ploy?" wondered an editorial in Inside Higher Ed. Yann Chong Tan '08 says that even some of her friends back home in Singapore who wished they could have gotten in on the high-tech giveaway "see it as a publicity stunt."

The Chronicle was more pointed. In an April 11 editorial, the student paper declared, "The University seems intent on transforming the iPod into an academic device, when the simple fact of the matter is that iPods are made to listen to music. It is an unnecessarily expensive toy that does not become an academic tool simply because it is thrown into a classroom."

Toy or tool? That's what a committee of faculty and administrators tried to discern last spring. After an evaluation of the iPod project, they decided not to supply every freshman with an iPod this fall. (Sorry, Class of 2009.) Instead, only students taking classes that officially require the device will be issued one. (It will be theirs to keep.) There are more than thirty such courses this semester--including Spanish 1, the "Portraying America" writing course, "Intro to Jazz," and "Principles of Computer Science"--that are using some 700 new iPods.

The decision to make iPod distribution course-specific was based, in part, on a report by Duke's Center for Instructional Technology. The center found that only forty-eight of the approximately 2,000 courses offered last year incorporated iPods into assignments. By way of comparison, 1,150 Duke classes last fall used another technology, a course website provided through the university's online course management system.

However, a survey in the report showed that three-quarters of students in the Class of 2008 used their iPods at least once for class, mostly for recording lectures or transporting computer files. The report found that the other main academic uses of the iPod were distributing audio materials, such as famous speeches; recording interviews and field notes; and facilitating oral exercises, such as repetition of Spanish vocabulary words.

There's no doubt students use their iPods, if not always for class. Walking around campus it's easy to pick out the telltale white ear buds. Next to the cell phone, the iPod has become the most visible digital device sticking out of students' pockets, purses, and backpacks.

Walking across the East Campus Quad, Jeff Smith '08 is tuned into Ben Harper's folksy "Brown Eyed Blues." Michael Schapper '08, finishing a sandwich in the Great Hall, says he's playing hip hoppers "Black Eyed Peas." A stationary cycling class in the Wilson Recreation Center pedals to a mix of songs programmed into the instructor's iPod. Aboard a women's crew scull, a coxswain records her calls on an iPod sealed in a zip-lock bag, so that her coach can critique her later.

Distribution day: the big giveaway, 2004

Distribution day: the big giveaway, 2004. Jim Wallace.

Stephen Clark '08 sings on the bus. "Humming," he corrects. "Not singing loudly, but humming." He hums the tenor part to St. Matthew's Passion by Bach, humming along, in fact, with the singers of the other three parts, recorded on his iPod. It was part of an assignment for a music class taught by Anthony Kelley.

Kelley had taught "Theory and Practice of Tonal Music I" before, but last fall, when his students all had iPods, he was able to give a new assignment. He told the students to enter the musical notes for all four voice parts of the Bach chorale into a software program and then remove the part--bass, tenor, alto, or soprano--that they sing. Next, he said, put this missing-voice version of the song on your iPod and sing along with it--on the bus, walking to class, or in your dorm--to practice your part.

That semester, Kelley says, "I began to hear something I never heard in a Music 65 class--and I've taught this course three semesters. The students said, 'Can we sing this?' "

Students in Michele Strano's first-year writing course did interviews and class presentations before iPods arrived on campus. But the presentations gained extra weight last year, when Strano asked her students to include audio clips from interviews they recorded on their iPods. Students Rita Baumgartner '08 and April Edwards '08 brought home their point that news media sought to fit the tragic Columbine High School shootings into well-worn themes, when they played an excerpt from their interview with the school's principal.

"If we could pinpoint one thing--if I could tell you the reason that [the student killers] Harris and Klebold committed this crime was because of A, B, and C, then people can say, 'Well, we'll make sure that other students do not do A, B, and C,' " Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis says in the clip. "But we can't. We don't know what the cause was. They took that to their grave with them." The class could hear the emotion in his voice, and his firsthand account had a power that the written word cannot match.

"One thing we emphasize about academic writing is that researchers are expected to move beyond speculation and support their claims with some form of evidence," Strano says. "You make a claim, and then you give data to support that claim. Incorporating the sound files made that expectation clear."

Despite their success, Strano and Kelley remain in the minority among their faculty colleagues. "Of course, there were plenty of faculty at Duke who were skeptical, and some remain skeptical," says Lynne O'Brien, director of the university's Center for Instructional Technology. "I think that the iPod's success as a consumer item for playing music in some people's minds kind of taints it immediately."

But, she adds, "they were far more positive than I had originally expected. Many of them had ideas right away for things they wanted to do."

Indeed, the biggest challenge, O'Brien says, is not getting the iPods into professors' curricula, but getting course-related audio materials onto the iPods. For each song, speech, or reading, O'Brien and her staff have to work with an instructor to obtain copyright permission, convert it into the MP3 format recognized by the iPod, arrange for a secure website to distribute it, and make certain students have the proper connections between iPod, computer, and Internet to download it. Under Duke's agreement with Apple, the company set up a special Duke iTunes website to facilitate the process, but the corporate team at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, has not always been prepared to meet every audio need of the professors in Durham.

"The logistics around it were definitely complicated and time consuming," O'Brien says. "There were certainly [instances] where we couldn't get copyright clearance within the time frame we had or the materials were available for purchase but not in the format that could be played on an iPod."

Even so, O'Brien points out that the number of courses using iPods has nearly tripled from a year ago. And many of the professors who used iPods last year are using them again this year.

Whether this will become a continuing trend or a passing fad is still being debated at Duke and other universities. Some experts are skeptical. "The longer I'm in the field, I just see this mistake over and over again--this race to get the latest and greatest technology," says Marjorie DeWert, director of the Ohio University Center for Innovations in Technology†for Learning. "I'd rather see a race to see how people learn, and then see how we can support it."

"It looks like Duke got really excited about the technology," she says. "I wouldn't view it as a failure, but it started with the technology, instead of [with] 'What are our instructional challenges?'" Grabbing for technology first and figuring out how to apply it to pedagogy later is what DeWert calls "PowerPoint-less."

"Just because we can add video and animation and links--why?"

No one at Duke disputes that the iPod experiment is an example of technology outstripping pedagogy. However, Provost Lange says, citing the example of now-widely used course websites, introducing a new technology even before it is in wide demand can "open up the horizons of students and faculty" members to new ways of teaching and learning. For Duke, Lange says, the iPod is "the thin edge of the wedge" for a larger effort, dubbed the Duke Digital Initiative, to put various digital media to instructional use.

Duke's initiative fits in with a wider trend of a world going increasingly digital and mobile, says Duke research professor Timothy Lenoir, the Kimberly J. Jenkins Chair in New Technologies and Society. "The iPod fits in with the wiki and the blog," he says.

To expose students to the new possibilities of "independent alternative sources of information" that come with digital media, Lenoir asks his modern biotechnology class to draft audio essays using their iPods and then distribute audio files over the Internet to the rest of the class using "podcasting" software.

Runners use iPod to check pulse

Runners use iPod to check pulse
Jim Wallace.

Robert Wolpert is a professor of environment at Duke's Institute of Statistics and Decision Sciences and a member of the Information Technology Advisory Council. He doesn't use iPods in courses he teaches but still sees them as part of the classroom of the future in which students use handheld digital devices that combine the audio and storage capabilities of the iPod with the video, Internet connectivity, and computational powers of other mobile devices.

"In the long run, we all expect there will be technologies that will be helpful in the classroom; we don't expect it will be [specifically] the iPod," he says. But by jumping in with the iPod, "Duke is just getting a head start on learning to deal with the whole process."

The pervasiveness of portable music, and the iPod specifically, has contributed to some subtle shifts in campus culture. Settling into a seat on the bus headed for East Campus, Bryan Sayler '08 explains his iPod-listening habit. "I'll sit down on the bus," he says. "If I don't see anyone I know, I'll put them on." He then pops in his iPod ear buds to tune in indy-rockers The Shins--and tune out everyone else.

Senior Matt Pierce sees a trend. "When I was a freshman, everybody talked on the bus and now they're on their iPods or cell phones," he says. Not that he completely eschews the device--he listens to his own iPod about an hour a day and uses it to carry around a composition he wrote for a course on electronic music.

And it's not just on the bus. "I'll be walking on the quad, and I'm in my zone," says junior Zofi Osman, taking a break from listening to "One Thing" by the R&B group Amerie (one of 914 songs on her iPod) as she walks up Chapel Drive. "People will say, 'Hi,' and I won't see them until the last minute."

There is at least one kind of communication the iPod does facilitate. Marissa Seuc '08 describes the process: While her roommate was sleeping, she and a friend each inserted an ear bud from their respective iPods, then alternated playing songs from their music collections. The session of get-to-know-you-through-your-music lasted until one in the morning, she says.

In addition, giving every freshman an iPod last year helped "in terms of roommate conflicts," says Lisa Beth Bergene, assistant dean for residential life for the freshman campus. "We don't get 'The stereo's too loud!' because they're listening to their iPods."

Even the admission office has seen a reaction to iPods. "Certainly among high-school students there was a 'cool' element to it," says Christoph Guttentag, director of Undergraduate Admissions. He mentions it to prospective students among "a hundred other things" about Duke.

"It didn't really affect my choice," said Deepika Ravi of Chicago, pausing on a tour of East Campus last spring. She had already decided to enroll in the Class of 2009. "But it shows me how progressive Duke is."

"Progressive" is a good word for engineering lecturer Michael Gustafson's class, at least when comparing it to other "Computational Methods in Engineering" courses. In his class, snippets of songs--rock, rap, popular--burst from computers lined up on black lab benches. The songs are coming from students' iPods, which are wired to circuit boards attached to the computers.

Reading a frequency distribution chart on the computer at his lab station, John Pura '08 announces a discovery about the song he brought to class, the soothing "100 Years" by the band Five for Fighting. The lead singer of the band, he says, "has a really, really high range."

At another lab station, Emmett Nicholas '08 has drawn a different conclusion from data on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' song "Universally Speaking." "It doesn't have a really strong bass line," he says.

At the end of the lab period, Gustafson passes on a recipe for do-it-yourself karaoke: Break a song out into its component frequencies, filter out the frequencies in the range of the human voice, run an algorithm to redistribute the frequencies over the length of the song, and then put the resulting audio file back on your iPod. At your next party, plug your iPod into your stereo system and holler away.