Today was my first day at IALLT, and I attended the pre-conference workshop by Samantha Earp, Implementing an iPod program for language learning. Samantha is the Project Manager of the Duke Digital Initiative.
The workshop was great, and it covered just about every aspect of planning, technology, and pedagogy that such a program can touch on. Having been part of a much smaller, yet similar program, It was helpful to get some insight on how those who have travelled the same road have coped with the various pitfalls of using the iPod for language learning. Samantha continually emphasized that they most important thing to remember is to always keep in mind what practical use the iPod can be, and not to simply hand out iPods for their own sake. While students like the idea of having free iPods, if the class they took to get those iPods does not effectively use them then it will not go down well.
Projects like these always have the capability to seem easy in the outset, but can soon turn into a nightmare, especially if you’re giving iPods out to over a thousand students. The initial planning and faculty support phase can be long and involved in and of itself, even before putting the iPods in students’ hands. You have to know what the capabilities of the technology are, and how to present those capabilities as useful tools to faculty who might be interested in building coursework around the iPod.
Samantha also pointed out one area where iPod programs in general could be improved, and that is in the area of published research on the effectiveness of such programs in students’ learning. What is useful, what isn’t, and why? What sort of improvements do you see over classes who do not choose to use iPods? However, a good point was raised about what issues such studies might raise in the sense of students crying foul when they receive an F in a non-iPod class, and blame it on not having equal access to the right tools.
Overall, I’m still a bit on the fence as to the real effectiveness of iPods as a teaching tool in language learning. On the one hand, the convenience factor is huge. I know that being able to have resources with me wherever I go is very handy. I can watch that clip I need for my film class while taking the bus to class, or listen to my lab audio during lunch in the cafeteria. The ability to listen to music in Japanese or Chinese is also a big plus, since it creates a sort of “immersion” (an iPod may be the single greatest tool for blocking out the world around you, for good or bad). However, beyond convenience, I’m not sure the iPod adds anything novel to the mix. If Apple had published its development platform for the iPod games, or made the interactive features more robust beyond the clickwheel menus, then it could be much more effective, but as it stands the iPod, in my view, is best seen as a portable extension of the language lab (and even then only a partial subset of a labs functions) as we currently see it, and not a redefinition. Samantha underscored a similar point when talking about how some administrations might see the iPod as a replacement for a traditional lab.