The iPod of the Beholder: Can MP3 Players Enhance Learning?
First it was cell phones, and now it’s iPods. K-12 schools around the country are beginning to ban students from carrying MP3 players, fearing they may use them for cheating. Yet at least one university is embracing the exact opposite approach - giving every incoming student an iPod to enhance educational practices and promote academic responsibility.
Because I write a blog about education technology, it’s pretty common for people to email me story suggestions. Sometimes they’re useful, other times less so, but generally I never get the same idea submitted simultaneously by multiple people. All of that changed this weekend when numerous people emailed me with the same question: “Did you hear about the schools that are banning iPods?” Even my wife got in on the act, asking me last night, “Did you see that story about the iPods?”
Why the sudden interest? It’s due to an Associated Press story that’s been making the rounds on lots of news websites. The article, Schools Say iPods Becoming Tool for Cheaters, paints a picture of clever kids running amok with their MP3 players, sticking it to The Man by using the devices to cut corners on tests, all under the not-so-watchful eyes of teachers too technologically illiterate to do anything about it.
The dateline comes from a high school in Meridian, Idaho:
“It doesn’t take long to get out of the loop with teenagers,” said Mountain View High School Principal Aaron Maybon. “They come up with new and creative ways to cheat pretty fast.”
Mountain View recently enacted a ban on digital media players after school officials realized some students were downloading formulas and other material onto the players.
“A teacher overheard a couple of kids talking about it,” Maybon said.
Shana Kemp, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said she does not have hard statistics on the phenomenon but said it is not unusual for schools to ban digital media players.
“I think it is becoming a national trend,” she said. “We hope that each district will have a policy in place for technology — it keeps a lot of the problems down.”
Using the devices to cheat is hardly a new phenomenon, Kemp said. However, sometimes it takes awhile for teachers and administrators, who come from an older generation, to catch on to the various ways the technology can be used.
The article goes on to describe some of the techniques apparently used by students, such as using MP3 voice recorders to pre-record possible test answers and play them back during a test or hiding potential answers in the text of a song’s lyrics.
Even with the ban in place, though, students are finding ways to get around it. “You can just thread the earbud up your sleeve and then hold it to your ear like you’re resting your head on your hand,” explained senior Kelsey Nelson. “I think you should still be able to use iPods. People who are going to cheat are still going to cheat, with or without them.”
One thing that strikes me about the article is how the school apparently stumbled onto the practice, overhearing students talking about it. Meanwhile, the principal admits that teachers struggle to keep up with student technology use, which certainly isn’t unusual. Before the ban, they didn’t anticipate the devices would be used for unethical purposes. But now that they’ve discovered instances in which the MP3 players were used for cheating, they’re enacting a zero-tolerance policy - not regarding the students’ behavior, but the technology itself.
It would be naïve to not see this coming, given all the attention there’s been around schools banning mobile phones. Granted, mobile phones have champions among some parents, educators and politicians because they’re seen as emergency communications devices, but one can’t make a valid argument for allowing MP3 players on campus, right?
Well, don’t tell that to officials at Duke University, because they’ve headed full-throttle in the exact opposite direction. Duke entered uncharted waters in August 2004 when they distributed iPods to every incoming freshman. The goal, you can imagine, wasn’t to bridge the digital divide between those students who could download music illegally and those who couldn’t. Instead, Duke had a bigger goal: to explore the potential of digital music players as an integral part of the education process.
The program, part of the Duke Digital Initiative, has been running for three years now. This semester, more than 1,300 students and 85 professors are using iPods in 71 courses, with a heavy emphasis on language and the humanities. Professors can use the iPods to deliver copies of lectures, books on tape and other course-related electronic materials, including video. And everyone who gets an iPod is encouraged to participate in iPod training seminars so they learn the ins and outs of the device.
In their most recent annual evaluation of the initiative, Duke researchers noted several promising practices:
Faculty continued to use iPods to support their teaching, most commonly by listening to student recordings; recording student consultations or oral exams; preparing original recordings for student use; recording lectures or course discussions; and in-class display and playback of audio, image and video materials…. … In the iPod program, the potential to make digital video and enhanced audio files accessible to students in downloadable format has allowed faculty to increase dramatically the multimedia materials that are integral to the program of study in a number of different disciplines, including Languages, Theater Studies, Film and Video, Documentary Studies, and Public Policy. Students continued to laud the benefits of portable audio recording technology in their course experiences and are very interested in exploring more in-depth the potential uses of image display and video playback in portable formats.
The initiative, however, hasn’t been without its challenges. Researchers have cited barriers such as the difficulty of obtaining course-related multimedia content in a timely and cost-effective way, as well as the rapid pace of device obsolescence. They also cite concerns from some professors who worry they’re not using the devices as effectively as they would like. One concern you don’t see voiced in the report, though, is the possibility that students will embrace the device as a cheating tool. Perhaps that’s because the university is making an effort in training students and teachers alike in terms of how to use the device both effectively and responsibly, a point echoed by Tim Dodd, executive director of Duke’s Center for Academic Integrity:
“Trying to fight the technology without a dialogue on values and expectations is a losing battle,” Dodd explains. “I think there’s kind of a backdoor benefit here. As teachers are thinking about how technology has corrupted, they’re also thinking about ways it can be used productively.”
Would the Duke initiative work at the high school level? If done properly, I think it could. Remember, Duke is handing out the devices to incoming freshman, literally only months after they’ve left the high school environment. It’s not like these students are suddenly amping up their maturity levels just by showing up on campus. (From what I remember of my freshman year in college, I’d say the opposite is true.) So it’s not that high school students aren’t capable of using them responsibly. Perhaps they just need the right set of incentives and deterrents to encourage proper educational use, in conjunction with educators trained to recognize and apply the pedagogical value of these tools.
The fact remains, though, that it’s easier to ban a device on campus than it is to embrace it, even if that device has educational merit. The question is, are there many high schools out there ready to follow Duke’s lead? -andy