Turn on your iPod and learn

Anywhere can be a classroom when you download the lessons to a media player.

Matthew Symonds
Thursday 01 October 2009 00:00 BST

If you ask a college student about the current favourites on their iPod, you might expect to hear of artists such as Lady Gaga, British Sea Power, or maybe even Michael Jackson for the newly nostalgic. Ask the same question on the campus of the Warwick Business School and you might be surprised when students remove their earphones to tell you that they are catching up on macroeconomics and analysis of the credit crisis, or that they are reviewing the latest thinking on creative management.

Warwick is among a number of pioneering institutions that are transferring their teaching from the lecture hall to the media player in your pocket. The courses and research material of the business school's professors have found a new home in the iTunes University, a free education area within the Apple iTunes online music and video store. Warwick, Stanford, MIT, Oxford and University College London are signing up to provide mobile learning in the form of educational audio and video files, or podcasts, that will play on a computer, music player and now your phone. So students can study at their own pace, wherever and whenever they want.

Not only does this sit well with a millennial generation who have grown up with digital libraries and Wi-Fi hotspots, new research suggests that university students who learn by downloading a podcast lecture achieve significantly higher exam results than those who attend the lecture in person. Dr Dani McKinney, a psychologist at the State University of New York, led a study of two groups of students who were asked to listen to an introductory psychology lecture. One group attended the live class, the other listened via podcast. When given a test on the subject a week later, the podcast group scored 71 per cent while the in-class group scored 62 per cent. Within the podcast group, those who took notes and listened to the lecture more than once came away with an average test score of 77 per cent.

McKinney now intends to evaluate students over an entire term of lectures. In her research paper, on whether podcasts can replace professors, she sees a supporting role for such technology. "The results of this study are in no way an indication that audio copies of lectures could or should replace actual professors," she says. However, the idea of following courses on your phone appeals to students. "The current generation of college student has never known a time before cell phones and personal computers. They are eager to use technology to enhance their learning."

At France's leading business school, HEC Paris, students are taking the idea of iPods in the classroom a step further, with what associate dean Valerie Gauthier describes as "technology in the pipeline that will set the standard for the use of quality education tools". As part of an exclusive partnership with Apple, the school issues students with the latest iPod Touch loaded with dedicated browsing software and podcasts. They can then preview courses from a browser menu, and put together a personalised programme to review at their leisure. "Millennials are accustomed to receiving the exact information they want, when and where they want it," says Gauthier. "The podcast of tutorials gives them all the information for review whenever they want."

The technology also helps to minimise time-wasting questions. HEC professors have identified and pre-recorded responses to questions that are frequently raised in the classroom. "Making these answers available in podcast format outside the lecture or workshop is an enormously productive enhancement that focuses classroom discussion on case material. Technology makes the exchange between faculty and students even more productive and effective."

So whether it's marketing design or garden design, the blending of traditional and technology-driven learning tools can be applied from Paris to Penzance, or at least as far as the Cornish coast. University College Falmouth offers a growing portfolio of art, media and performance courses using online teaching materials. Their latest blended learning course is a Masters in garden design. In addition to residential study blocks in Cornwall and overseas, students will become part of a design community that is continually supported through a virtual studio, where they will be able to share in lively debate, test emerging designs with other students, tutors and practitioners through video links and web-based learning opportunities.

The school already offers a professional writing distance-learning course, and recognises that online education involves more than just putting lecture notes online. According to Falmouth's director of the School of Media, Paul Inman: "Successful courses incorporate multiple teaching and technology tools, such as online workshops via a wiki, cyber discussion boards, web-enabled chat sessions, blogs or whiteboards. Use of well-planned interactive multimedia, audio and video also helps create greater student engagement."

It's up to you, then, to decide whether your next business presentation is going to be written in the local café or in the garden shed. Of course, no amount of technology will replace the fundamental need for great teachers, whose content and delivery can bring a subject alive. But the relationship between teacher and students is changing. As Valerie Gauthier says: "The dynamic classroom is leading to a dramatic shift in the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship. Collaborative, multidirectional learning is replacing top-down pedagogy." But do you still need to bring an apple to class?

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