Duke's iPod Experiment Evolves

April 7, 2005

Last summer, in a move watched and copied in broad outline by several other institutions, Duke University gave iPods to all incoming freshmen, in the hope of stimulating technology use on the campus. Wednesday, based on the results of a preliminary review of the program, the university significantly altered its approach, while declaring the iPod experiment over all to be a success.

Instead of providing the digital audio and text devices to all freshmen, Duke will in the 2005-6 academic year make iPods available to undergraduates in any course for which Duke's Center for Instructional Technology has approved the professors' use of the devices. "This will enable faculty members who see uses for iPods in their courses to build them into their course plans with the assurance that all students, regardless of class, will have iPods available for their use," Peter Lange, Duke's provost, wrote in an e-mail message to faculty members announcing the change Wednesday. 

Duke announced its iPod First Year Experience last August, noting all along that it was a one-year experiment that would subsequently be reviewed. At an estimated cost of about $500,000, the university provided the nifty little white devices to all entering freshmen, with the goal, it said, of encouraging "creative uses of technology in education and campus life."

In addition to giving students the ability to download course content such as recorded lectures and music, it also came with information aimed at helping new students navigate Duke, such as the freshman orientation schedule and the academic calendar.

The program produced excitement among many students and skepticism on the part of some faculty members and other commentators, and Duke officials undertook a study this spring to try to cut through the hype and gauge its actual impact. Although the review won't be completed and released in full until mid-June, an FAQ posted on Duke's Web site described some of its preliminary findings. Among them:

  • Students said the iPod had enhanced their academic experience, with three quarters of them reporting that they had used the device for at least one academic purpose.
  • The iPods were most useful in making audio recordings (with the help of voice recorders also given to students) of interviews and other conversations (though less successful in recording classroom lectures).
  • Professors reported improvement in the quality of students' work, including better field notes, more effective presentations through use of audio clips, and more accurate quoting of sources because of the recording of interview notes.
  • Negatively, faculty members and students reported a "lack of specific ideas for academic uses" when the program was launched.

Citing those and other factors, Duke officials said they had decided to alter the iPod program in several ways, while acknowledging that it will continue to be a work in progress. In 2005-6, the iPod effort will be called the Duke Digital Initiative instead of the First Year Experience, and the "campus life" element of the program will be deemphasized to sharpen the focus on academic enhancements. Faculty members who wish to use iPods in their courses next fall will submit a Statement of Interest to the Center for Instructional Technology, and students in courses that gain approval will receive their iPods.

A spokesman for Duke, David Menzies, said that Duke had seen an "uptick in the number of faculty who have submitted proposals to incorporate iPods into their courses'; the instructional technology center approved use of the devices in 11 courses in the fall and 17 in the spring, and the survey revealed that an indeterminate number of other professors had used the devices on their own.

Lange’s memo to the faculty also said that the Duke Digital Initiative might expand beyond the capabilities of the iPod. Lange said that Duke may loan digital video cameras and tablet computers to professors and students next year.

"What we intend for the Duke Digital Initiative is to encourage innovative thinking and support compelling proposals across a range of technology uses," he wrote.

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