The campus of Georgia College & State University boasts traditional college fare — spacious greens, historic architecture and a steady stream of students with the familiar white headphones of iPods dangling from their ears. But here in the antebellum capital of Georgia, students listening to iPods might just as well be studying for calculus class as rocking out to Coldplay — after the school's educators worked to find more strategic uses for the popular digital music and video players.
At least 100 of the rural school's employees are turning iPods into education or research tools — impressive for a college with only about 300 faculty. But it's more than simply making class lectures available — a practice now routine at many colleges and even a few high schools.
History professor Deborah Vess asks students to download 39 films to their video-capable iPods so she doesn't have to spend class time screening the movies. Psychology professor Noland White has found a new-age answer to office hours: a podcast of the week's most asked questions.
And the 5,500-student campus has organized a group of staff and faculty to conjure up other uses for the technology. Called the iDreamers, the team bats around ideas that could turn iPods into portable yearbooks and replace campus brochures with podcasts.
"The more you free up your classroom for discussion, the more efficient you are," said Dorothy Leland, the school's president.
Campuses throughout the nation have transformed the gadgets into education tools, a trend iPod maker Apple Computer Inc. hopes to capitalize on with "iTunes U," a nationwide service that makes lectures and other materials available online. And GCSU isn't the only school that wants the music players to be more than just a tool for catching up on missed lectures.
At North Carolina's Duke University, where incoming freshmen have been handed the devices as welcoming gifts, foreign language students use iPods to immerse themselves in coursework.
Administrators at Pennsylvania's Mansfield University want to use podcasts — broadcast messages that can be downloaded to iPods and other players — to recruit high schoolers to the 3,000-student campus. The school also used a podcast to address student and faculty concerns after a New York man who had contracted anthrax visited campus with a dance troupe.
Yet few campuses have embraced the new technology as doggedly as GCSU, which was rewarded for its iPod ingenuity when it was chosen to host Apple's Digital Campus Leadership Institute in November.
The school has been a leader in "integrating the iPod into the curriculum to enhance teaching and learning in creative ways going all the way back to the original iPod," said Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of iPod product marketing.
After Leland and Jim Wolfgang, the school's chief information officer, began seeing iPods around campus in 2002, they decided to explore educational applications for the devices. They started by farming out 50 donated iPods to faculty who offered the best proposals.
Soon Wolfgang's office was flooded with applications from educators suggesting new uses. Now some 400 college-owned iPods are floating around campus — some loaned to students in certain classes, others available for checkout at libraries.
The iPods run the technology gamut, from the bulky first-generation devices to the latest video-capable models.
Hank Edmondson, a government professor known around campus as "The Podfather," was among the first to use iPods to supplement his course lectures. Edmondson now makes lectures, language study programs, indigenous music and thumbnail art sketches available for download to the iPods of students in a three-week study-abroad program he leads.
During a recent visit to the Prado in Madrid, he recorded a 20-minute lecture on the museum's artwork. Downloading it in advance will let students spend their time at the museum exploring, not listening to Edmondson talk.
"You want to pack everything in, but you've got a lot of travel time," he said.
Vess said having her history students screen films on their iPods allows her to dedicate class time to discussion and analysis. Ditto for the weekly graduate course on historical methods that she teaches.
"Now I can devote my whole three hours to Socratic dialogue," she said with a grin.
While iPods can be useful tools for reviewing coursework, some critics argue donning a pair of earphones is not the same as actively engaging with material in a classroom.
"Learning is through interaction, discussion, critical questioning and challenging of assumptions," said Donna Qualters, director of the Center for Effective Teaching at Northeastern University in Boston. "Those cannot be duplicated on an iPod — you have to be there to experience that learning."
GCSU officials say the school makes sure its iPod lessons supplement classroom work.
"We don't have any project that repeats what's going on in the classroom," Wolfgang said. "All this is value-added."
He said the school's iPod ingenuity is helping promote GCSU's decade-old effort to remake itself as Georgia's only public liberal arts college. Long a school that attracted a regional crowd of students who often left for other schools after a year, Wolfgang believes the focus on iPods is helping retain more students.
This school year, it started iVillage, a virtual community that encouraged incoming students to start communicating before the start of classes. The first dozen freshmen recruited for the effort were asked to think up innovative uses for the iPods.
The team is creating an iPod-based freshmen survival guide that includes advice on classes, dorms and nightlife in this sleepy community 100 miles south of Atlanta.
Bobby Jones, a freshman from Rome, said he's found life in a "virtual community" surprisingly satisfying.
"(You) think it will never get the same sense of community living together, but we definitely found that sense of belonging," he said.
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