Duke's Ever-Evolving iPod Initiative

April 28, 2006

Given some of its recent publicity, this might not have been the best time for Duke University to announce that it was altering a highly popular student benefit. But Duke's plan to stop giving students free iPods through its path-setting Duke Digital Initiative and to instead lend them or sell them the devices for a highly subsidized $99 has even struck most students as a logical next step in the maturation of the educational technology program. The surprising headline on an editorial in Duke's student newspaper: "A Smart Change."

Duke unveiled the Duke iPod First-Year Experience to much fanfare (and a fair bit of skepticism) in 2004, when it agreed to give the spiffy digital audio and text devices from Apple to all incoming members of the class of 2008. The "experiment," as Duke called it at the time, was designed to encourage “creative uses of technology in education and campus life,” and Duke's bold stroke prompted other institutions, including Drexel University and  to follow in its wake. But skeptics derided it as a fad and suggested that while the giveaway might enable students' music-downloading habits, it wouldn't do much to promote education.

Last spring, after a review of the program's first year, the university said it would continue the program but that instead of giving the devices to all freshmen -- whether they intended to use them for educational purposes or not -- it would hand them out to any student enrolled in a course for which Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology had approved the professors’ use of the devices. The goal was to encourage faculty members to build digital content into their 2005-6 courses, knowing that all students would have iPods.

This week, a review of the second year of the Duke Digital Initiative, as the program is now called, suggests that the changes largely worked. Forty-seven courses were approved for iPod use this spring, up from 19 in the spring of 2005, and the university gave out more iPods to students this academic year than it did to about 1,600 freshmen in 2004-5, Provost Peter Lange said in a letter to faculty members on Monday.

"The big change in the second year is that use of the iPods is driven by faculty desires," says Julian Lombardi, assistant vice president of academic services and technology support. "We had 100 faculty each semester that assigned iPods, and demand for iPods is going through the roof, as driven by the desire of faculty to engage."

While demand for the iPods has grown, Lombardi says, the funds available for the program are remaining constant. That meant that if Duke wants to continue to provide devices to everyone who wants one, and to expand the offerings of the digital initiative in other ways, it needed to find another way to "provide as great a value as possible to as many people as possible," he says.

So beginning this year, to "maintain access of this technology to any student free of charge," says Lombardi, any student in a course for which Duke has approved iPod use can borrow one of the devices free of charge for the term. And any student who wants to own instead can one for $99, about a third of the price of the audio/video iPod. Duke will keep refreshing the "loaner pool," Lombardi says.

The change will not only allow Duke to meet the growing demand for iPods, he says, but also free up funds for other purposes, such as buying microphones for each iPod so that students can record their own digital material.

That will enable some of the more creative uses of the iPod that Duke has begun to see, Lombardi says. He cites one professor who required students to fulfill one assignment by creating an audio podcast instead of a written paper. When Duke officials analyzed the results, they found that students had actually written more (in terms of drafts, scripts, etc.) than they would have for a traditional report. And because students shared their podcasts not only with the faculty member but gave them to other students to listen to, "we're finding the overall quality increase, because of the whole peer dynamic," Lombardi says.

"We're tapping into whole different kinds of dynamics that we never expected, or that weren't patently obvious."

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