This fall, Duke University plans to give incoming freshmen a trendy item the school hopes will be a cutting-edge learning tool: portable digital music players from Apple Computer.

Duke announced a deal with Apple to distribute 1,650 iPod devices to its first-year students. Duke will get a discount from the computer manufacturer, then give the players free to freshmen.

The iPods generally are used to store and play music. The 20-gigabyte model, which the students will get, can hold about 5,000 songs.

But the ones Duke will give out will come stocked with school-related information, including information for freshman orientation, the academic calendar, campus tours, and even the school’s fight song.

The university also will create a web site modeled on the Apple iTunes site from which students can download music and course content from faculty, including language lessons, lectures, and audio books. The iTunes site allows users to download music legally.

The program is a one-year experiment but could be renewed. Although it is limited to freshmen, underclassmen enrolled in a class where the devices are being used will receive a loaner. The school ordered 150 additional iPods that can be loaned to those students or faculty members.

The university will spend $500,000 on the plan, which includes hiring an extra technology specialist, giving grants to faculty, studying the outcome, and buying the iPods.

Duke would not say how much it will spend for each iPod. The retail price is $299, according to Apple’s web site.

The program fits into university plans to use more technology in teaching, said Tracy Futhey, Duke’s vice president for information technology.

“This was a project aimed at satisfying those goals through a device that is immensely popular with students,” Futhey said.

Students in visiting assistant professor Lisa Merschel’s elementary Spanish class will use the iPods to listen to audio examples of textbook exercises and hear Spanish songs.

“The iPod will provide students with a much more rich multimedia experience,” Merschel said.

In adjunct professor Sally Schauman’s class, students will use their iPods to record interviews while out in the field for her freshman seminar about the ethics and science of urban water conservation.

It might sound like an extravagant gift for incoming students, but Duke students pay a premium to attend the Durham, N.C., school. It costs about $39,240 a year for tuition, fees, room, and board.

Schauman doesn’t sound worried that students will start listening to music in class.

“If you’re in a class so boring you need to do that, then I encourage you to do so,” she said. “Or your need to learn is so low, you shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Although Duke is the first university to distribute iPods widely to students, it is not the first school to test the educational use of iPods.

Four enterprising professors at Georgia College & State University began integrating the devices into some humanities courses in 2002 as part of a pilot project.

Rob Viau, an English professor at Georgia College & State University, made the iPod an integral part of “The Gothic Imagination,” an interdisciplinary class that explores everything gothic, from the middle ages to present day.

From Beethoven to Nine Inch Nails, Viau loaded the students’ iPods with 5 gigabytes of gothic music for students to study and experience. “There’s no marketed CD that has the variety and diversity I was looking for, so when I came across the iPod I jumped on it,” he said.

As students listen to sounds outside of their norm or lyrics they might find offensive, Viau encourages them to discuss censorship and other issues.

“I used the iPods to get [students] to think deeper,” he said. “It really pushes their threshold on comfort. I’m trying to force them to push the envelope. I’m trying to get them to question their assumptions.”

For another class, called “Utopia/Distopia: Studies in No Place,” Viau provides students with recordings of inspirational speeches and a variety of music, including popular, modern, folk, African, Indian, and Turkish songs.

One of the assigned projects asks students to create their own imaginary world complete with a national anthem and inaugural speech that students record and share with each other via the iPods.

“I think 60 percent of the iPod usage is just fun and entertaining, and 40 percent is directly related to the core subject of the course,” Viau said. “And the students just love having them.”

The novelty of the devices contributes to their effectiveness as a learning tool, the professor acknowledged, but they’re practical, too. Viau says iPods provide access to more resources than do the music CDs that typically accompany music history textbooks. The CDs often contain only 30-second snippets of each song, he explained: “With a 15-gig iPod, I can get a whole shelf of music on it.”

Viau is also exploring the possibility of using the iPod to distribute pre-recorded lectures to students who participate in Georgia College’s study aboard program. In Turkey last year, he said, he ran into trouble with law enforcement when he tried to lecture his students in front of the Acropolis of Pergamon.

With the pre-recorded lectures, Viau could offer students a personalized, guided tour they could access again and again.

Links:

Duke University
http://www.duke.edu

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

Georgia College & State University
http://www.gcsu.edu