More Than Music to Their Ears

When iPods first rolled off the manufacturing belt in 2001, Jim Wolfgang saw something beyond a cool, portable boombox. As director of the Georgia Digital Innovation Group at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, he instantly grasped the classroom ramifications the tool offered.

“My first reaction was that it makes a lot of sense. It’s mobile so students can listen to material while riding in their cars or working out on the treadmill or walking between classes. So it seemed like a natural extension of learning outside the classroom,” said Dorothy Leland, Georgia College’s president.

Her first challenge: Getting folks to understand what an iPod is. Administrators today won’t need to solve that problem, of course, but they do need to determine exactly where it fits into the educational experience. Georgia College initially gave the green light to just two projects: a Gothic imagination course where the instructor incorporated music into his discussion of art, literature, and architecture (remember, this was in olden times, before video iPods), and a Shakespearean course that encompassed an eclectic collection of songs about war and peace.

Flash forward four years. One professor in the school of education is requiring future teachers to use their iPods and accompanying recorders to document adolescent life, à la Ira Glass’s This American Life.“That is a lot different than students writing a paper,” said Wolfgang, especially since the class is gathering their individual podcasts into a single teaching element for future professional development training.

Likewise, the study abroad program has downloaded pertinent materials on its overseas locations so that a student may, for instance, walk through the hills of Ireland, listening to a poem written by a poet while he walked that same path. A history class put together an oral history of the Cuban population in Milledgeville.

Your Playlist

The foundation of his college’s success, said Wolfgang, is the fact that administrators insisted from the get-go that faculty focus on solving student needs rather than merely incorporating technology.“A lot of times we don’t do that. In academia, we come up with a great idea, throw it out there, and then wonder why it fell on its face,” he noted. Instead, he orchestrated the entire adoption as if he were starting a new company.

So the first stop was branding, getting his audience — the students — on board with specially designed logos, flyers, and promotions aimed at snagging their attention. The next step he dubbed “franchising.”

“Although we didn’t get out on the front lawn like Tupperware and do exercises,” he said, “we did keep people motivated.” At every turn, he put the students and faculty in the media limelight to share their excitement of discovery. The idea caught on, and soon Georgia College’s iPod classes were featured on and the Late Show with David Letterman. “I had secretaries saying their old aunt in Seattle saw it and was so proud of what Georgia College was doing,” said Wolfgang.

Another key decision in his playbook: he didn’t limit the program to just faculty. Staff, too, are welcome to dream up iPod applications. “Students have a 24/7 life — there are a lot of opportunities we could miss if we didn’t focus beyond the classroom,” he pointed out.

Finally, trust the volunteer system. “The best way to manage innovation in instruction is to work with those faculty who are really interested in it,” said Leland. Besides, Wolfgang adds, administration doesn’t go around telling them how to teach their classes in other areas — why start here? As a result, he’s witnessed an ownership mentality that has grown the program well beyond its original borders. For instance, the professors have banned together in self-help style to launch a LISTSERVE and share iPod possibilities. They call themselves, appropriately, the iDreamers as they explore everything from new pieces of software to troubleshooting shortcuts.

Ripping the Program

Currently, Georgia College owns the 800 iPods in circulation on its campuses and distributes them to students enrolled in iPod-enabled classes on a loan basis. It was the only way to launch the program in 2002 when the gadget wasn’t yet close to reaching critical mass. Now Wolfgang admits the administration is brainstorming alternative models. “More students bring their own iPods to campus, and more faculty are incorporating it, so we end up with some students getting two devices for two classes. Students are asking why they can’t just put everything on their personal iPod for convenience,” he said.

The answer in a nutshell: copyright concerns. When the college owns the material and the iPods, this sticky area falls under the fair-use clause. On the other hand, this is merely a modern twist on the same old problem. “It’s no different dealing with an iPod than dealing with a student getting a book out of the library and copying its pages,” he reasoned. “People say iPods are the problem &mdash no, copyrights are the problem we need to find a solution to.”

Currently, students sign a note at the beginning of a course taking responsibility for the device’s care and condition and agreeing not to commit piracy with it. They are welcome to download personal materials, as long as they remember the iPod is not theirs to keep. To date, students have lost just one iPod; faculty have misplaced a few more than that. “And the first one ever broken was by a faculty member,” Wolfgang laughed.

“We’re not the police. Our job is not to go out there and search kids to make sure they’re legal any more than we do that in the library. But if we do find plagiarism or copyright infringement, we deal with it.”

Because it purchased the iPods in increments rather than a single batch order, the budget impact has remained manageable. (Students also voted to use some of their technology fees toward this project.) Nor is it vital to upgrade to the latest and greatest models as they are released. “We are actually using some of the original iPods from 2002,” Wolfgang said. “It goes back to what you’re trying to do. If the professor only needs audio, they work fine. Nanos are great for dance classes because those students don’t need video and they want something to strap to their arm while they practice.”

To keep the program’s educational standards high, faculty must apply for permission to teach an iPod-enabled class. Rule number one: no re-broadcasted lectures. “Everything must be what we call value added — like getting a free Ginzu knife with the class,” Wolfgang noted. “It must enhance the class by giving other opportunities to engage the students in the topic.” And the limited number of iPods makes this application process competitive — only 10 additional professors joined the iPod ranks in the fall of ’06. Still, that means only a few didn’t get in “and part of that was that they didn’t do well explaining their concept,” he said.

Hard qualitative measurement data on the program is still in the offing — “the term ‘podcast’ is only a year and a half old,” Wolfgang explains — but he’s impressed with anecdotal materials. Those students who say they don’t like it often reveal later in the survey that they’re really more upset by the change from high-school routines to campus life. “And sometimes you have to simply take something at face value for its credibility,” he pointed out. “How many professors evaluate whether the textbook they chose is appropriate? Sometimes you have to do things because you believe there will be good and you know it won’t harm the students.”

In recent years, Georgia College has seen twice as many students apply to its campus than it can admit — an enviable situation for any higher education institution. Leland, however, refuses to pin it all on the fact they’re now known in teen circles as “the iPod campus.” “iPods are an important part of our reputation of being a university that really cares about undergraduate teaching, and is very inventive and resourceful in helping our students to learn,” she added.

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