Students at the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry use their iPods and MP3 players for more than just listening to music–they also listen to class lectures and review notes with a student-run project that uses iTunes technology for academic purposes.

UM-Dentistry uses iTunes U, a free content-management system from Apple Computer, to post audio recordings of class lectures online. Students can preview a lecture recording, download an individual lecture, or subscribe to have downloads delivered to their computers or MP3 players automatically.

The program represents yet another example of how schools across the country are tapping into the digital music and media phenomenon created by the exploding popularity of Apple’s iPod and other portable MP3 players. And now, Apple says it is making its iTunes U available free of charge to any other school or university that wants to use it.

“We’re excited, as iTunes U allows learning to happen truly anywhere, any time, and in an environment that students are already comfortable with: iTunes and iPod,” said Apple spokesman Todd Wilder.

iTunes U is a free, hosted service for colleges and universities that provides easy access to educational content, including lectures and interviews, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Apple says. Through iTunes U, users reportedly can download content to their Macs or PCs regardless of their location. They can then listen to and view content on their computer or transfer that content to an iPod for listening or viewing on the go.

UM-Dentistry students can access iTunes U through any computer, using their UM identification and password. Under UM’s system, a designated student begins recording a lecture at the beginning of class and stops the recording when the lecture is over. That student then posts the lecture audio online as soon as possible.

“I’ve had zero complaints,” Lynn Johnson, associate professor of dentistry and director of dentistry informatics at UM-Dentistry, said of the school’s collaboration with Apple. “The students have it organized, and they’re doing it, and at the end of last semester there were more than 300 lectures on the web site.”

The project began in 2004 when first-year dental student Jared Van Ittersum wondered why electronic versions of class lectures were not available.

“He asked to have all the lectures taped, and at first all I could see were dollar signs,” Johnson said. Johnson and Van Ittersum discussed his idea with other dental school staff and decided to run a pilot to see how the program would work.

“If the students wanted this, they’d have to carry the weight of it,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a self-described techie, and a group of students worked with a pilot program consisting of three different electronic approaches. Lectures were posted online in video with audio format, PowerPoint with audio format, and as straight audio files. They then consulted download traffic on the school’s server logs to see which format students downloaded the most.

“We looked at the logs to see what the students actually used, and they wanted audio,” she said. “The server logs pointed to this, and it makes sense–they wanted the mobility.”

Dental students have no time, and their whole world is scheduled, so this allows them to review a class when they’re working out or doing other activities, Johnson said: “It’s really a time-management tool for them, very much so.”

Van Ittersum, now in his second year at the school, echoed Johnson’s thoughts, adding that graduate students need to use every free moment wisely when dealing with the school’s rigorous course load.

With that idea in mind, Johnson and her staff developed an audio-recording system using Apple’s eMac computer. Students then record each lecture via the computer using the classroom’s public address system.

“Whatever goes out over the speakers is being recorded, and at the end of the lecture that same student stops recording,” Johnson said. The audio file is posted online, along with the class title, lecture title, and professor’s name.

Students must get an instructor’s permission before recording the lecture, but Johnson said she has never heard of a faculty member saying no. She also emphasized that listening to a lecture on an MP3 player does not replace going to class–rather, she explained, listening to a past lecture builds on what the student initially learned during the lecture.

“Part of what we are here to teach is professionalism, and if they [the students in charge of recording] don’t get a lecture up, their peers wonder,” Johnson said.

There is no cost for students or schools to use iTunes U, but there is a cost associated with creating the podcast and uploading it, Johnson said. In total, equipment costs about $500, plus the cost to run network lines. This year, Johnson said, school staff spend about 15 to 30 minutes a week troubleshooting, down from several hours a week during the pilot program, which started last year.

“It’s really low-cost, and the return on the investment is extremely high,” she said.

UM-Dentistry’s library offers computer and headphone access for students without MP3 players, but Johnson said the school is in the process of getting iPods for students to check out. Johnson conducted a survey of this year’s incoming freshmen class and found that 75 percent of the 105 students had an MP3 player.

“This class didn’t know about the project, and if you have 75 percent of the students who didn’t know about the project come in with the necessary equipment, it’s going to be much easier to accommodate [students in future classes],” she said.

UM-Dentistry’s collaboration with Apple is proof that the technology could work all across the entire UM campus, says James Hilton, UM’s associate provost for academic, information, and instructional technology affairs. Hilton hopes it will be easy to take UM-Dentistry’s system and integrate it into a university-wide, web-based educational tool, if others want to try it.

Johnson said UM-Dentistry’s approach to the situation was the exact opposite of Duke University’s 2004 approach, in which Duke gave every incoming freshman an iPod and encouraged professors to incorporate the technology into their teachings. In April of last year, Duke announced plans to scale back its high-profile program after the experiment received mixed results from students and educators. The initial experiment reportedly cost the university upwards of $500,000 (see story: Duke pulls back on iPod initiative).

“I’d like people to see that we started with a learning dilemma, a learning problem, and we did research before we came up with a learning solution,” she said. “We did the research that pointed to the tech solution.”

Links:

Apple iTunes U
http://www.apple.com/education/solutions/itunes_u/

University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry
http://www.dent.umich.edu/

Duke pulls back on iPod initiative
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5618