The pod people

Douglas Blane reports on a school where pupils have been given individual iPods to record homework and other assignments

More abstract than speech and learned later in young lives, written English is a hard language to master. So the school jotter is far from ideal as a medium for homework and pupil-teacher communications. It is not easy to sound smart when you're struggling with the language.

At Gracemount High School, Edinburgh, an entire class is using more natural forms of expression - speech and images - in almost every subject. The second-year pupils and their teachers have each been given an iPod, the stylish digital music player, to carry around in school and take home in the evenings and at weekends.

Contributed by Apple on the strength of an action research proposal that Gracemount High devised with the help of the eTeam (Edinburgh's ICT support service), these iPods are fourth generation, with photo and audio capability and "just enough features to make a useful tool for learning,"

explains principal teacher Steven Moore who leads the project.

"You can record bits of lessons, transfer files from school to home, make notes, keep a calendar. Then there's podcasting, where you set up files of images and audio and distribute them to subscribers."

It is the week before Christmas, and in David Russell's music class, 20 glockenspiels and a piano are jingling all the way. "Get your iPods out and put them on your music stands," the teacher tells the class, and they all do so.

"Now we'll rock it up a bit and I want you to record what we're playing and listen to it later." This time the one-horse sleigh fairly dashes through the snow, propelled by snappily tapped wooden hammers hitting tunefully cut wooden keys.

"Put the instruments on the floor, but keep your iPods out for homework. I want you to listen to this musical scale." He plays five notes up, down and up again, evoking images of doves in blue trees and delicate, decorative oriental gardens.

"It sounds Eastern, doesn't it? There are just five notes in this scale - the pentatonic scale. Now listen to this tune." He picks out the opening notes of a traditional Scottish song.

"Was that Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer?" asks one lad. "No it was the Skye Boat Song," the teacher tells him. "A lot of Scottish music also uses the pentatonic scale.

"Now I want you to listen to a piece by Debussy called Voiles, which uses a different scale, the whole tone scale. Can you hear the difference?" As he plays the iPod recording through the sound system, hazy impressions of sails at sea seem to swirl and eddy in the air.

"Still recording with your iPods, listen to The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, which uses the pentatonic scale. For homework I want you to listen to both these piano pieces, then record on your iPods your thoughts on the very different atmospheres or moods they create.

"Press Stop now and take your homework diaries out. I want it done for this time next week, when we'll play your thoughts through the stereo and share them with the class."

As she puts her iPod away and prepares to move on, Adjana Mason (13) explains how the little device is used in other subjects: "We put historical facts on them and people talking about being evacuated in the Second World War, for instance. Our teacher records things, then we download them from Studywiz (the school's learning platform) in school or at home."

Listening is easier than reading, says her colleague Lewis Watson (13):

"You know what you're listening for and can replay certain bits. In art we download paintings to our iPods and look at them, then answer questions and record what we think. It's useful too to record what teachers say during lessons, because you can go over it at home. Every day is unpredictable now with different things to do which I really like."

The school calendar on the iPods is a feature that appeals to Adjana: "It lets you see right away, any time you want, when the exams or the school concerts are on. The only downside really, apart from the fact that the iPods scratch easily, is that we're getting a lot more homework now."

For a music teacher there is no downside, says David Russell: "I can just scroll around and access all the little bits of music, the listening samples, I use in every class instead of hunting for tracks on maybe 1,500 CDs. It gives me easy access to the curriculum, and the kids easy access to the music.

"Recording their thoughts doesn't seem so much like homework, because they express themselves more naturally in speech than writing. Also it means as teachers that we're entering their world, which we should be doing."

iPodagogy at Gracemount High is a 20-week project that began last November.

Learning and teaching outcomes will be evaluated by Edinburgh's eTeam using MIICE, the standard for assessment of educational ICT in Scotland.

During the project, study and homework materials are being downloaded to iPods through Studywiz, a virtual learning environment that is widely used in all subjects at Gracemount and is now being rolled out in other Edinburgh schools: "We use Studywiz for teaching, homework, discussions, tracking pupil progress," says Steven Moore. "It's very good."

"Subject teachers are moving at their own pace with the iPods: music, art, history and modern languages use them a lot. Good materials for maths are becoming available. The PE and English departments and the library are getting into podcasting.

"That has a lot of scope, even for teachers' professional development. We want teachers and pupils to feel comfortable using iPods in whatever way suits them, whether it's sound, images or text, podcasting, recording lessons, downloading resources or developing their own materials. You can do so much more than just 'Download this stuff, and go away and learn it.'"

* Other projects using iPods for learning and teaching: Duke University, North Carolina Grand Island Public School Studywiz: virtual learning environment (price on enquiry)

Audacity: free open-source software for recording and editing sounds, available for Mac, Windows, GNULinux

iWriter: build simple or elaborate interactive text documents using iPod Notes ($12).

Podcaster: software for publishing podcasts and enhanced podcasts ($29.95)

MIICE:Measurement of the Impact of ICT on Children's Education

At Gracemount High School in Edinburgh, iPods are used in many subjects and are an important resource for students and teachers alike

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