Duke University Spends Big Dough To Give Students Free iPods

Devices integrated into coursework in some classes.

“Dude, I just got a free iPod!”

That’s likely what many of the 1,650 new students at Duke University were thinking when the college distributed new 20GB Apple iPods to its incoming freshman class during orientation. The unique one-year experiment, which cost the school more than half a million dollars to fund, is the latest attempt to inject new technology into college classrooms.

“People were eager to see whether such a popular device could be used in an academic setting,” said Tracy Futhey, Duke’s vice president of information technology. “We thought about different technologies, but really saw the iPod as the ideal one because it was so popular with students. We knew there would be no challenge in getting them to use it. The [real] question was what other creative academic uses we could put it to.” The groundbreaking initiative is part of a pilot-program joint venture between Duke and Apple.

The portable digital devices come preloaded with content from the university, including an academic calendar, orientation information and faculty-provided course content through a special Duke Web site modeled on the Apple iTunes Web site.

Freshman Morgan McGhee uses her iPod to study for her foreign-language course and views the device as an efficient study tool. “You can record vocabulary words and listen to them on the bus instead of having to use flash cards,” she said. Meanwhile, freshman Katherine Lee uses her device to listen to recordings for her musical theater class. “We have to listen to different musicals, and we can put all the CDs from the music library onto our iPods and listen to them around campus.”

In addition to the iPods themselves, the university also provided students with a special microphone called an iTalk that allows them to record into the device for up to 30 minutes. The files can then be transferred into the appropriate file types on students’ computers for access later on.

Before the iPods were handed to students, however, they had to sign an agreement stating they will not sell or give away their iPods during the trial period. If they pass, students are rewarded by getting to keep the device after the semester is over (a $300 value). Upperclassmen, who may have started a few years too early, can still enjoy some of the rewards of the project by borrowing an iPod from the university if their class incorporates it into the curriculum.

However, the new innovation may still be a bit too progressive for some professors on the Duke campus. Last fall, in its roster of more than 1,000 courses, only 10 have fully integrated the iPod into the coursework. This spring, the number grew to just 16.

Lisa Huettel, an engineering professor at Duke, is one of the few faculty members who has embraced the new idea. “I was actually working on developing a new laboratory for my new course, and I thought this would be a great way to use the technology,” she said. Huttel collected data in the field by connecting the iPods to an adapter in order to let students record their own heart rates. “Basically, an impulse and pressure from the finger translate into a heartbeat.”

But despite some innovative uses for the portable pocket device, student reaction regarding the success of iPods in the classroom has remained split. “I would say up to this point, I have not used it enough for academics to legitimately justify spending that much money every year,” said Kaitlin Ridder, who admits she uses hers mainly to listen to music.

“We haven’t in any way tried to make this a required project, but rather something that if you’re interested in it and want to try it we’d be happy to support it,” Futhey said. Right now, the fate of the iPod initiative remains uncertain, until a committee reviews the success of the project at the end of the academic year.

Still, freshman Duy Nguyen remains optimistic about the future of the digital devices and the positive press it has garnered the university since it launched. “The reason I came to Duke is because of its innovations and the iPod program is really a pilot program. Obviously, there will be criticism, but I think it was well worth the money and the hype that the university got over it.”