iPods as study aids

America's Duke University is now giving iPods to its students. Amazingly, some are even using them to study, says Jimmy Lee Shreeve

It was the first day of the college year at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, part of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Professor Kenneth Rogerson blurted out the big news to his journalism class: "We got the grant," he told them. "You all get iPods." The students couldn't believe their luck. Courtesy of the university, each of them would receive an Apple iPod.

Last August, Duke University became one of the first universities to provide all first-year students with their own 20-gigabyte iPods - enough space to store up to 5,000 songs. The devices came pre-loaded with orientation content (in both spoken and text form) about Duke's academic environment, and information about student life and activities.

Not surprisingly, the students wasted no time in downloading music. But then something unexpected happened. They started using the devices for coursework. They took notes, recorded lectures and interviews, and used them as portable hard drives to ferry research materials and written work from one computer to another.

Provost Peter Lange freely admits that staff weren't sure what to expect, but considers that it is proving to be good value for the $500,000 (£275,000) investment. This autumn, Duke plans to expand the scheme to the whole undergraduate student body - but only for classes in which tutors have requested iPods, targeting the giveaway.

As the Duke University programme has revealed, iPods can do a good deal more than play music. With an additional microphone attachment, they can be used to record anything from lectures and interviews to live music. They can also be used to store and organise documents of any type, including image and text files.

iPods make it possible to learn on the move. "The mobility of digital media really seems to add to the academic experience, by allowing students to listen to lectures or other educational material while riding on a bus between classes," says Tracy Futhey, the chief information officer at Duke.

The portability of iPods was used to good effect when students from Georgia College and State University (GCSU) toured Europe. "We used [our] iPods to create a kind of mobile classroom," says Jim Wolfgang, chief information officer at GCSU. "We loaded lectures, audio books, music and orientation, along with language dictionaries for the non-English speaking countries. Students were then able to do class work on the plane or train, or sitting in the park."

Using iPods also meant the students were able to take in the sights while keeping up with lectures. "At one point, we had an expert on the European Union give a lecture to one group of students, while the others took time off for tourist pursuits. The lecture was recorded on an iPod and those that didn't attend were able to revue it that evening," recalls Wolfgang.

Some, however, are concerned that recording and sharing lectures using iPods might be an infringement of copyright. "Do they have permission from the person who wrote the lecture?" asks Alan Albright, a specialist in intellectual property litigation at the Texas law firm Fish & Richardson. "That would be a copyright concern."

Another concern is that students will spend more time using iPods to listen to music than doing academic work. But 75 per cent of first-year students surveyed at Duke said they used their iPods for coursework. Others are more candid, however: "I'm not using it for academics," says first-year student Michael Sori. "No one really is." But Carla Ranno, a sophomore , swears the only time she uses her iPod for music is at the gym.