When iPods, the popular MP3 players made by Apple Inc., first burst onto the scene, it wasn’t long before their audio capabilities were harnessed for educational purposes. College professors, for example, recorded lectures into an audio format that students could download, known as podcasts.
But K-12 education has been much slower in harnessing the learning powers of iPods and other portable devices, such as cellphones.
Marc Prensky, a New York City-based education consultant and the author of Don’t Bother Me Mom—I’m Learning!, says the use of such popular gadgets in K-12 classrooms is “very sporadic.”
One curriculum area that seems to be using iPods more and more, however, is foreign-language instruction. Because microphones can be attached to the devices, students can use them not only to listen to the teacher speak in a target language, but also to record themselves speaking alone or in conversations with others.
The same uses for iPods are being applied in classes for English-language learners and for special-needs students.
ELL students at Ross Elementary School in Pittsburgh, for instance, use iPods to listen to stories recorded in English by their teacher. And at Louisa-Muscatine Elementary School in Letts, Iowa, special-needs students use the devices to hear test questions spoken to them as they read the questions on paper.
Other schools are also putting the devices to use in practical ways.
In a language arts class at Mountainside Middle School in Scottsdale, Ariz., for example, students hook up their iPods to speakers and project the lyrics of favorite songs onto a screen during a unit on poetry. They find poetic devices in the lyrics and explain them to their classmates.
Teachers are also using podcasts to offer high school students audio study guides for tests that students can listen to at home.
Although the use of cellphones to cheat on tests has raised worries among educators and garnered media attention, Prensky advocates “open-phone tests.” Like open-book tests, open-phone tests allow students to use all the resources available to them on their cellphones to answer test questions. But the questions must be difficult, Prensky says.
“The teachers who do that say you can ask better questions, bigger questions,” he says, pointing out that the students then use their cellphones to begin researching possible answers.
Technical features on some cellphones also help make them potentially valuable learning devices.
For instance, some cellular telephones use a global-positioning system, or GPS, which can be a boon in geoscience classes. Students can use the GPS features to learn how to map coordinates for locations around the world, or for “geocaching,” a sort of treasure hunt in which searchers use the coordinates and a GPS unit to find the location of hidden items.
Learning Tool or Nuisance?
But the use of iPods and cellphones in most school classrooms remains limited, experts say, and not just because schools do not have the money to buy the devices for students. Most educators simply don’t know enough about how to use iPods and cellphones effectively in lessons.
Teachers are reluctant, moreover, to incorporate devices into their teaching that remain controversial in schools, which often bar students’ possession of cellphones and MP3 players as distractions or nuisances.
What complicates matters even more is that not every student has a cellphone, and the ones who have them don’t always own models with the same technical features.
“Until every student has one, you’re not going to find schools putting money into it,” says Timothy D. Wilson, the director of technology for the 5,500-student Buffalo-Montrose-Hanover school system in New York. “They’re more likely to buy other electronics,” such as software and even laptop computers, he says.
Laura Greifner is a reporter-researcher for Education Week.