Students at a rural New Mexico school made a unique pledge last winter: Right hands raised, they promised to take care of their Zunes.

This past semester, nearly every one of the roughly 100 students at Fort Sumner High School was outfitted with the Microsoft media player, similar to Apple’s iPod, enabling them to watch videos and listen to recorded lectures created or recommended by teachers and fellow students. Fort Sumner High was one of two schools nationwide taking part in the project.

The students were encouraged to use their devices during class hours, on bus rides home, and on school trips. Teachers got a $400 bonus for coming up with lessons to identify 20 downloadable digital lectures that supported their lessons and to develop five of their own.

"My main hope is it’s going to save us lost class time," said English teacher Pam Richards. "We are small, and the kids are involved in so many things."

For Microsoft, the project showcased its brand and technology; the aim was for more schools eventually to incorporate Zunes into the curriculum. In exchange for the donated $300 Zunes, the schools provide data to the company on whether the devices improve test scores.

The semester ended in late May. This summer, Microsoft plans to post a case study on the pilot project following the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) in San Antonio, Texas, where the idea partly originated last year.

The practice of podcasting is increasingly popular in education, with many colleges and universities making lectures available for downloading online in podcasting format free of charge. A podcast is an audio or video file that subscribers can download over the internet, and is often listened to or watched on a mobile media player such as an iPod or Zune.

For Fort Sumner Spanish teacher Sandra Wertheim’s class, the boost from the little device made it much easier to deal with weekly vocabulary words: Her voice rang through the ears of students who got the lesson through their Zune.

"No one could help them at home," she said. "Now, they don’t need anyone. They have me. They take me home."

Freshman Ashley Stinnett noted the convenience of not having to take books home and said she benefited from being able to rewind Wertheim’s podcasts and hear the Spanish words over and over.

"Instead of thinking, ‘How did she say all these words?’ I have it right there with me," she said.

Superintendent Patricia Miller said most teachers were supportive of the project. History teacher John Wootton wasn’t one of them.

He saw how digital media players might help kids learn a foreign language, but he also observed, "We think it’s the answer to everything."

"I just didn’t see where kids used it as intended," he said. "So far, I haven’t talked to one who used it for academic purposes, studying."

In fact, many students admitted the lure of the Zune was being able to listen to their favorite tunes and swap songs and pictures with friends. But they insisted they used it to study, too.

Eric Langhorst led the second Zune pilot project at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, Mo. He had been incorporating technology into his lessons for years, posting 20-minute audio test reviews, or "studycasts," on the internet. But many students didn’t have access to the internet or own a media player to listen to them.

He approached Microsoft at last year’s NECC and pitched the idea for the project, which allows 25 students in one class to have the Zunes. He now can beam notes on the Gold Rush, Power Point presentations, and Civil War battlefield maps directly to his students.

Students also created an election-year advertisement for Abraham Lincoln and had to watch each other’s productions as a homework assignment.

"We want it to become part of their lives," he says on a history blog.

At Fort Sumner, new rules came along with the invasion of the Zunes. A campus-wide "grandma rule" kept students from uploading anything that their grandmother wouldn’t find appropriate to listen to or watch. And teachers had the ability to designate certain areas as "No Zune Zones," do periodic Zune checks, and tell students when they must turn off their Zunes.

A group of tech-savvy high schoolers, known as Zunies, help teachers create the podcasts.

Miller, for one, wasn’t ready to say the Zunes would dramatically improve how kids learn.

"Is it the next great thing? I don’t know, maybe, but it is another tool," she said.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.

Fort Sumner Municipal Schools

South Valley Junior High School