At its Macworld Conference and Expo Jan. 11, Apple Computer announced two new products of possible interest to educators: a computer meant to compete with budget desktop PC providers and a less expensive version of the popular iPod music player.

The iPod shuffle music player is already shipping, while the Mac mini CPU goes on sale in the U.S. on Jan. 22 and worldwide on Jan. 29. It’s unclear how these lower priced Apple alternatives will affect budget decisions in education–but their release brings two new Apple products, traditionally more expensive than PCs, within range of the smaller school and university budgets.

The stripped-down Mac mini CPU is sold at a standard retail price of $499 for the 40-gigabyte (GB) version. An 80 GB version costs $100 more. The unit comes with the Mac OS X Panther operating system, a combination CD/DVD drive and CD-only burner, and the Apple iLife software bundle that includes music and movie-making software, Quicken 2005, and AppleWorks 6 “to compose a spreadsheet or write the next literary classic,” as the company puts it.

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  • The mini, however, does not include a monitor, keyboard, mouse, or any peripherals at that price. Selecting the cheapest monitor shown on Apple’s web site and the recommended mouse and keyboard boosts the system’s price to at least $700 with any education discount.

    Apple says it will sell the Mac mini at a discount of $479 to educators via its web site. That price does not appear to include any education-specific software.

    Jai Chaluni, senior product manager for consumer desktops for Apple, said that the Mac mini was inspired entirely by customer feedback. “It is our universal product,” Chaluni said. “Customers want a full-feature, powerful Mac, with up to a gig of memory. You can add many features, airport, and BlueTooth [wireless technology], at a price comparable to many PCs.”

    The new Mac mini, Chaluni said, “allows schools and institutions to squeeze out everything they can get from systems they already own,” adding that educators will be able to re-purpose all of their existing peripherals for the mini.

    The company, however, says the mini should be of great interest to educators who are frustrated with viruses, spyware, and other problems specifically targeting PCs. Apple says schools can buy the Mac mini as is, use previously purchased monitors, keyboards, and other gear, and affordably solve such problems.

    The mini costs $120 less than Apple’s entry-level eMac, the company’s signature desktop machine for schools, which starts at $599 for a 40-GB version but also includes a built-in monitor and student software bundle. A CD/DVD burner costs extra for the eMac.

    The iPod shuffle is a $99 alternative to the model in the next price category, the iPod mini, which retails at $249. Given the recent interest in iPods as educational tools, the shuffle could prompt educators to take a closer look at the technology for their schools.

    Described by Apple CEO Steve Jobs as “smaller and lighter than a pack of gum,” the standard shuffle model has 512 megabytes (MB) of flash memory and holds about 120 songs–or up to 12 hours of continuous playback time. A 1-GB version of the shuffle with twice the memory is available for $149. Space can be made in the device’s memory to store other types of files, providing students and teachers with just as much memory for transporting homework and other documents.

    Unlike other iPod models that feature a display screen, the shuffle includes only a circular control switch on one side with options to play, pause, skip, repeat, and hold. A toggle slide on the other side of the device permits the user to reset the device’s “random” feature and change the order of the songs. The user must either listen to the songs in random order or arrange them on a Mac or PC before uploading them to the device.

    Last August, Duke University gave its incoming freshmen new fourth-generation 20-GB Apple iPods as part of a project with Apple to study and promote “creative uses of technology in education and campus life.”

    Duke’s iPods were uploaded with campus maps, school contact information, calendars, and other useful information for students. Students can update this information from the Duke web site, and the university also has started a program to loan out iPods to upperclassmen.

    Spanish instructor Lisa Merschel has used the iPods extensively with her introductory Spanish students. According to Duke’s web site, Merschel has students listen to digital recordings of excerpts from Spanish-language books; review the pronunciation of each week’s vocabulary words; and listen to audio exercises inside and outside of class. She also provides students with Spanish-language songs for additional instruction on anguage and pronunciation.

    Other students and instructors at Duke are using the iPods for various purposes in classes ranging from introductory economics, to music and writing courses, to a German-language course called “Berlin in the 20th Century.” Students use the iPods to listen to music, record lectures, download and listen to digital recordings of historic speeches, do language exercises, and even to “collect and analyze pulse rate data.”

    High schools might not want to give their incoming freshmen iPod shuffles. But a loaner program similar to the one Duke has established for upperclassmen could be useful in secondary education. While the shuffle’s limited playing options and memory could pose a problem for obsessive audiophiles, the device gives educators and students plenty of memory for downloading exercises and assignments onto the devices for use and transport. The devices also could be issued to students with special needs who, for whatever reason, need to listen to lectures from a remote location.

    The shuffle’s lack of a display screen will not permit students to download visual information as they can with higher priced versions. The absence of a screen also limits an educator’s ability to give an assignment that must advance sequentially from one exercise to another, because students would not have the option of scrolling through labeled files. But teachers could have students download exercises onto the shuffle in order, followed by copies of homework assignments and other materials.

    As is the case with iPod, Apple has not developed its own recording feature for the iPod shuffle–although other companies might eventually offer a compatible product. For its part, Apple has not announced whether it will develop additional accessories for the iPod shuffle in the future.

    Related story:

    Duke to provide freshmen with iPods

    Links:

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

    Duke University’s iPod initiative
    http://www.duke.edu/ipod