iPods in schools, revisited

The New York Times just featured a story on the use of iPods in Union City, New Jersey. This urban district has 11,000 students, 94% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

The New York Times just featured a story on the use of iPods in Union City, New Jersey. This urban district has 11,000 students, 94% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches. One third of the schools in the district have been identified as underperforming. Teachers are obviously trying through whatever means they can to reach out to the students, particularly the immigrant students who make up a quarter of the population. Enter iPods.

The iPods were introduced primarily to assist children learning English as a second language and were piloted by a teacher who developed a curriculum around the English songs she loaded onto each iPod (hopefully nobody from RIAA is reading this or ever reads the New York Times...I see a lawsuit brewing). Despite the questionable fair use of the music she placed on the iPods, anecdotal evidence suggests that it has actually helped these kids learn English. Great...but are there cheaper alternatives than the $250 video iPods? Any other ways to stretch a poor, urban district's dollars a little farther?

I think the short answer is "Yes". iPods are expensive, easily broken, easily stolen, and easily used for lots of things not the least bit related to school. The iPods in the program noted above are collected at the end of every class, solving the problems of theft and non-school use, but adding the problem of underutilization. However, adding inexpensive headphones and microphones as well as software for teaching English as a second language (and whatever music one might like to add) could turn an existing computer lab into a language lab easily and cheaply. The problem of underutilization is eliminated as the lab could be used for other computing needs throughout the day.

Most language experts will tell you that the best way to learn a language is through immersion, i.e., constant use of and exposure to the language. While iPods loaded with American music can certainly increase exposure to a language, so can streaming audio, videos, and countless bits of media available online and off. Newscasts are available online, American television shows are posted frequently, and YouTube is crawling with video in English (some of which is actually engaging and appropriate). Content that kids, regardless of native language, find interesting and relevant is not limited to files stored on iPods.

I'm certainly not suggesting that districts don't use technology to supplement ESL curricula. On the contrary, many resources are readily available that use existing resources to their full potential. On the other hand, the district (along with many others across the country) is now looking at ways to incorporate the iPods in other instructional areas. Should we really be handing kids iPods loaded with podcasts of chemistry lectures to which they won't listen so that they don't need to take notes? According to the Times piece,

In North Plainfield, N.J., the district has supplied iPods to science teachers to illustrate chemistry concepts, and it is considering allowing students in those classes to use iPods that they have brought from home.

I'm sure that if I tried hard enough, I could rationalize the use of portable MP3 players with kids enrolled in ESL programs or those with specific learning disabilities, for whom note-taking in class was not feasible. Posting notes and podcasts online can be a real boon to kids for review and study purposes. However, widespread distribution of iPods for use in the general curriculum smacks of technology for the sake of technology, rather than well-planned uses of scarce technology resources.

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