It has been more than 40 years since Marshall McLuhan wrote that the "medium is the message," a lesson that Duke University has had to relearn the hard way concerning its iPod giveaway this academic year to some 1,650 first-year students. Almost immediately, the “iPod First-Year Experience” was dubbed a trendy gimmick, and the university went on the defensive, emphasizing that the Apple music player was the device of choice for a variety of educational tasks meant to keep pace with a mobile generation of learners.
After an internal review, the university recently decided  to scale back its iPod program, giving the device to freshmen, juniors and seniors enrolled in classes that incorporate it into their pedagogies. Sophomores will use the iPods they received in the 2004-05 academic year.
Perhaps the most stinging criticism came from Duke’s independent student newspaper, The Chronicle. An editorial Feb. 28 editorial  titled “iPod Program Did Not Deliver” proclaimed: "The much-hyped iPod program -- for which the University spent $500,000 on iPods for the entire freshman class -- was far from the overwhelming academic success the university hoped for, and the experiment should not continue next year."
The editorial criticized “the product itself,” noting that iPods are great portable digital music players that “do not seem to translate well into academic use and benefit few students.”
That was my initial opinion, too, along with that of a former university president for whom I used to work at Ohio University and a virtual reality guru with whom I work now at Iowa State University of Science and Technology.
Robert Glidden, who retired last year as president at Ohio, is uniquely qualified to comment on the Duke iPod giveaway. He was among the first administrators in the late 1990s to foresee the importance of technology at a residential campus and installed free Gateway computers in dormitories. In 1999, when Glidden announced the computer initiative, I was his special assistant and helped field complaints about our catering to popular culture.
In response to an e-mail asking him to comment on the Duke program, Glidden wrote, “You will recall that we had a bit of this reaction to our computers-in-the-dorms project,” that students would use the PCs more for personal e-mail and gaming than for studies. “I’m sure they still use them for that purpose,” Glidden added, “but gradually and rather quickly, actually, the computers were used more and more for serious study purposes.”
However, Glidden adds, a key difference between Ohio’s computer experience and Duke’s iPod one “is that we KNEW there would be plenty of practical, exciting possibilities for the use of computers” -- from the digital library to the Internet. Now he wonders whether someone at Duke thought the same would be true for iPods, “or were they just trying to attract students with the glitz of iPods?”
Glidden wants to know more about Duke’s rationale before weighing in on that question. He notes that we are living in a vastly different technological world. In 1999, Gateway stock was selling at $80 per share as the company rode the fast-approaching tech wave, showcasing educational clients in slick full-page advertisements and touting the PCs’ educational uses. Now Gateway sells for less than $4 per share and mobile computers fit in a shirt pocket.
James Oliver, graduate chair of the Human Computer Interaction program at Iowa State University, observes, “If Duke had distributed pocket PCs no one would have noticed. Lots of universities have given away laptops and handhelds so that kind of experiment is sort of old news. And there have been assessments of that sort of thing, too. But iPods for freshman makes news.
“Look at the hype of the iPod,” he continues. “I saw that Duke iPod giveaway story everywhere. So it really was about successful marketing.”
The question is, who is doing that marketing? Duke or Apple?
Nancy B. Allen, head of Duke’s Academic Council, writes in an e-mail, “We at Duke -- faculty, leadership in the provost’s office, IT department professionals, even our own news office -- did not anticipate the extraordinary amount of publicity about the distribution of iPods at the beginning of the 04/05 academic year.” Looking back, the “iPod First-Year Experience” may have been undermined the week it was announced when Apple’s CEO appeared on the cover of Newsweek with this blurb line: “Steve Jobs and The Must-Have Music Player Everyone Is Talking About. iPod, Therefore i Am.” As Allen observes, making reference to that cover, “Luck or some other providence?”
Bad timing for Duke, good timing for Apple.
Oliver notes that the iPod giveaway was eerily in synch with Apple’s new improved product line. “Apple got it right with a simple user interface, and it went quickly from the ‘Walkman of the 80s’” to a tool that even reporters and photojournalists can use.” But the device was being billed as a music player. “So I can sympathize with Duke’s rationale,” Oliver adds. “The iPod can become that general purpose tool, but content other than music takes a coordinated effort to develop.”
The iPod is more than a music player. It’s a storage disk, allowing downloads and uploads of data. It’s an electronic scheduler and interactive tape recorder. A 60 GB hard drive model functions as a slide projector. It’s also affordable. The closest priced pocket PC comes in at $400-500 with an additional $90 for a 1 GB storage card. That can barely handle a semester’s worth of my PowerPoint presentations with audio and animations. Technologically, Apple is on to something greater than music downloads. If the company upgrades the iPod to contain a video function with wireless card, students would have immense mobile computing power in their pockets.
A video iPod with wireless capability “would be an incredible resource,” says Scott Fiddelke, project leader of iLecture, an online tool developed by the Information Commons Production Services Team at the University of Iowa. However, he observes, “With that kind of storage capacity, Apple would have to develop more security to ensure that people with iPods aren’t running around trading music online.”
Technology aside, music downloads may make more sense (and profit) with the younger set. After all, the medium is the message, and the moral here is music: iPod downloads sell now without substantial security risk. Why upgrade at all?
That reality is undermining the Duke iPod initiative. The university has been touting the iPod’s astounding potential as an academic tool from a technological standpoint rather than a pop cultural one.
David Menzies at Duke’s Office of Information Technology explains that the university was looking for a device that featured “an audio digital capacity with a very short learning curve” for students and faculty. “The primary area that the iPods shined brightest was with audio components,” Menzies notes, despite a technical glitch concerning the clarity of the audio in large classes or events. That is in the process of being fixed, he adds.
Menzies addressed every concern that I had about the iPod program, with one exception. I prefaced my question with a reference to McLuhan, noting that the medium is still the message. With the iPod being billed as an MP3 player, I asked, “Isn’t it a challenge to change the perception of a generation reared on entertainment to use the iPod for content?”
“That’s your opinion,” Menzies replied. “I’m not interested in commenting on opinions.”
When I explained that the question was based on 40 years of communication scholarship, he still had no comment. After a few follow-up e-mail exchanges, he was more circumspect, explaining that the McLuhan reference was “more of a conceptual ‘what does Duke think about this?’ question” than a news-based, factual one. Nonetheless, the overlooked McLuhan maxim turned the “iPod First Year Experience” into an ‘iPod Public Relations Experience” at Duke.
As Jim Oliver puts it, “Properly used, a technology like the iPod can be a medium that is its own message. But in Duke’s case, the only stream of content readily available for this medium was music. Without a plan for a steady stream of academic related content, the iPod as an academic medium was destined to fail.”
The moral here is the power of marketing and how that put Duke in the media spotlight, beginning with the Newsweek cover of Steve Jobs and continuing with this column. In actuality, Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology should have faced only one challenge -- how to integrate the device with a short learning curve into the classroom -- and instead faced two additional challenges: How 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? How to overcome the iPod’s perceived singular use as a popular MP3 player for personal entertainment?
Having worked in a president’s office, I vouch there is little time to plot publicity ploys. That said, the iPod experiment should continue at Duke in a more selective manner aligned with lesson plans that provide a steady stream of innovative, educational content. Nothing on the market at present is as mobile or versatile as the iPod. However, even the power of this compact device -- its incredible storage and future academic potential -- may not be enough to overcome the message of music downloads at $1 per pop.
Michael Bugeja is director of Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, at Iowa State University. He is the author, most recently, of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005). This article is the debut of "Inside Tech Ethics," a monthly column on technology and ethics in higher education.