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U.S. Colleges Turn Portable Music Players Into Education Devices

  • Bill Zeeble

Digital mp3 players like Apple's iPod can download and play hours of music and thousands of images. It's not surprising that they are among the nation's most popular entertainment devices. Now, a handful of U.S. colleges and universities are using them as education devices.

When El Centro Community College in Dallas, Texas, introduced iPods to its classrooms in January of this year, instructor Cathy Carolan wasn't excited. But she dutifully recorded her lectures and diagrams for downloading to computers and iPods. And she went along with the plan that made her students long-distance learners - meaning they rarely had to show up in class for lessons.

"I was the biggest cynic going," she admits. "I didn't trust it. Because I [wondered], what about the connection with the students? I like to see the whites of their eyes. I want to see them understand it." So in a small panic early on in the download experiment, she called the students back to the downtown campus.

She recalls the meeting vividly. "I said 'Ok, you haven't sent me e-mails of questions, whatever. I don't care, I want to see you, come up to class.' I sat with them and in the end I said, 'So you're fine?' They said, 'Yes, we're fine.' And I said 'So you're really just here because I had separation anxiety?' They said 'Yes Miss Carolan. Can we go now?'"

The students in Carolan's yearlong, intensive medical technology training program are not the typical undergrads. Many are professional nurses and work full-time. They're usually older, and have families, homes, and other responsibilities. Sharla Scovel, 52, who lives nearly an hour away from the downtown campus, explains that the iPod lets her listen to lectures in the grocery store line, or study diagrams while commuting to work. "I watch them as I travel by train. This morning I drove, but I was able to listen to the lecture that I had previously watched. I was able to review it as I'm driving. It was great because we have such a volume of material that we have to learn, that one pass doesn't do it. This gives us the opportunity to review without having to sit down in front of a computer tied to a desk."

That chance to listen as many times as necessary makes a difference, according to Cathy Carolan. "Back in the dark days, when students came to class, they got one shot. They hear what I say, rely on their notes that they take, and then it's one shot." With the lectures on iPods and on-line discussion forums when requested by students, Carolan says her pupils grasp the material more quickly.

And there may be additional benefits for shy students. "They actually begin to shine in an on-line environment, where the fear of raising their hand and perhaps the ability to come up with an answer on the fly is just too daunting," according to Jan Poston-Day. She is Director of Standards at Blackboard, one of the technology companies making this educational revolution possible. "In the on-line world," she says, "they're able to compose thoughts, write them down, spell-check them, and post them to class where they can be a full participant."

Poston-Day says this technology is doing more than giving students the flexibility to listen and learn anytime, anywhere. She suggests it's empowering them as education consumers, and colleges and universities are paying attention. "They really need to focus on the student experience and make the entire teaching experience not about the professor giving their lectures. It's about how can we reach out to the students in a way that meets their needs, because so many of today's students are not the so-called traditional learners."

That philosophy seemed to drive the iPod experiment at Philadelphia's Drexel University. Instead of downloading and replaying classroom lectures, Education Department chair Bill Lynch says iPods are used to encourage creativity. For example, students have gathered interviews from prominent educators for on-line distribution to other students. He calls it "a catalytic technology, one we can use to think with, to think about what educational problems might we find solutions, or at least partial solutions, for. And to get the students used to the idea that they're responsible for creating knowledge as well, not just being a consumer of knowledge."

One of the most exciting aspects of this technology for El Centro's Cathy Carolan, a native of Australia, is the chance to spread that knowledge around the world. "I've been trying to start a program over there, have someone enroll in our program, in Australia," she says, ticking off the possibilities. "In fact I have a student in the general ultra sound program at the moment who's from Zimbabwe. She had to come here, and leave her children, to do the general ultra sound program. I'm working with her, and hopefully, when she's finished with the general ultra sound program, we might be able to arrange for her to go back to Zimbabwe and do the program from Zimbabwe."

That would let her -- and her credit-card sized device -- stay in Africa, with her family. As digital media technology further extends the reach of long-distance learning, it's demonstrating that education can, indeed, be entertaining.

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