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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The learning landscape is shifting under our feet. It's an exciting and momentous time for technology advances in learning, from the explosion of interest in online courses to free videoconferencing to powerful new devices at lower cost, such as the iPod. Having worked in educational media and technology beginning in the 1970s, I dare say that more change has happened in our field in the last four years than the last 40.

Last fall, I presented our Digital Generation project at a conference in Hangzhou, China, organized by professor Michael Searson from Kean University, a leader in providing teachers-in-training with global perspectives, curricula, and study abroad. There, I learned about a creative use of the iPod for helping young students master reading, writing, and much more. I tell this story at greater length in my upcoming book, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools (Jossey-Bass, June).

In 2005, Kathy Shirley, technology director for the Escondido Union School District near San Diego, observed a teacher conducting "fluency assessments" of her students, spending a full day in individual sessions with students, marking on worksheets the pace, accuracy, and expression of each student's reading. The school had to hire a substitute teacher for the day.

Shirley, an Apple Distinguished Educator, had been using an iPod to record her own voice memos. The light bulb went off: Why couldn't students' readings be recorded on an iPod, on their own time, and reviewed by the teacher, on her own time? More importantly, could the act of students recording and listening to their readings improve their skills? Escondido's majority of 53 percent Latino English-language learners made the search for a better way even more urgent.

In 2006, the iREAD (I Record Educational Audio Digitally) project started as a pilot program in Escondido, with six teachers of English language learners working with low-performing readers, content experts, and IT staff. This year, more than 100 K-8 classrooms are using 1,300 iPods, and the program has expanded to include readers at all levels. Students use the iPods with external microphones to record their reading practice and assessments. The iPod Touch, with its larger screen, Internet access, and applications, enables a better multimedia experience, as students download audiobooks and songs and read along with the text of stories and lyrics.

Teachers are trained to use the iPods, microphones, iTunes, GarageBand for audio production, and other digital tools. Student and teacher recordings are uploaded to iTunes, where teachers create playlists for each student. Students, teachers, and parents can then review progress, creating a powerful learning loop between all three.

The "Missing Mirror" in Language Instruction

As Shirley describes it, "Voice recording using the iPod provides that instant feedback loop, as students can easily record their fluency practice and listen immediately to the voice recording. It's difficult, especially for struggling readers, to 'step outside themselves' during the moment of reading. They are concentrating so hard at the act of reading that they have no idea what they really sound like. The iPod does something that even the teacher cannot do, provide a means for the student to receive feedback by listening to their own recordings. The iPod is very much like a mirror for students."

In 2008, the Canby, Oregon, district also began experimenting with the program, led by technology director Joe Morelock, also an Apple Distinguished Educator. Canby, a district of nine schools and about 5,000 students, now has about fifty classrooms using iPods of various types and the project has extended into high school, where students are listening to audiobooks and using video cameras to analyze their presentation skills.

Evidence of Student Outcomes

Escondido and Canby classrooms are seeing large gains in the speed of student reading, one part of reading fluency. In a Canby fourth-grade classroom of sixteen students, from the fall to mid-year assessment of reading fluency, when average increase in word count per minute (WCPM) is 12, the average in the iPod classroom was close to 20. (WCPM measures the pace of reading; accuracy is another component of fluency.) Most students achieved more than double the average expected.

In an Escondido fourth-grade class of ten students, average increase was 48 WCPM in just six weeks. At the start of fourth grade, all of the students lagged behind the 120 WCPM goal for third-grade completion. Within the six-week period, more than half of them had caught up and surpassed the goal for fourth-grade completion, making more than a year's progress in that period.

A pilot study of reading achievement using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills also showed impressive gains. A group of 12 fifth-graders in Escondido using iPod Touches averaged 1.8 years of reading progress in six months, compared with a matched group of students at the same school who averaged .25, a quarter of a year's increase. Both districts are planning larger-scale studies of reading achievement.

Reading Success Becomes Contagious

I had a chance to visit Central Elementary in Escondido this May and was bowled over by the level of student enthusiasm for using iPod apps for reading, writing, geography, mathematics, and more. In these classrooms, students are leading their own reading. They want to practice their speed, accuracy, and comprehension. The iPod makes personal a process that has been painfully public. No struggling reader likes to have his or her weaknesses exposed in a group, in front of the entire class or their reading circle. The iPod enables more intimate, 1:1 reading instruction between a student and a teacher listening to each other's voices in audio files.

As the students get excited, teachers get excited, too. Success becomes contagious for everyone involved. As Morelock puts it, "This is the secret sauce to all of this: teacher motivation. We have heard teacher after teacher say, 'This has totally transformed my teaching!' 'I'm having more fun and being a better teacher.' 'I'm never gonna retire.'" One teacher told Shirley, '"Using iPods with microphones has engaged students more than anything I've ever experienced! These tools allow even the softest speaker to be heard and motivate even the most reluctant reader." Another said succinctly: "There's less of me talking and more of them doing."

A classroom set of thirty iPod Touches and a cart costs about $12,000. The iPods can be supplemented with five desktop or laptop computers for students to produce media, such as podcasts. It is a less costly model than the 1:1 laptop classroom and right-sized for elementary students, who can hold the key to their literacy in the palms of their hands.

Resources on iPods in Literacy

Shirley and Morelock have created a Web site and a third-grade classroom blog from Canby, including how her students downloaded Yoga for Kids podcast and the Pocket Yoga app to relax during test preparation.

The iRead project in Escondido was covered in a May, 2010 story in the local North County Times. The photo shows a student showing me her iPod screen, but it should have been a photo of superintendent Jennifer Walters, who joined the classroom visit that day. Her advocacy for this cutting-edge application of technology has been a critical factor in its success.

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Luis George's picture

I teach English in Venezuela and my ipod has become the best help when it comes time to practice reading/listening. In addition to apple apps I also use iTunesU with excellent results.

Benjamin Thornton's picture

Thank you for the ideas. I've been trying to find ways of bringing portable electronics into a math classroom. While reading, I realized that an iPod system would allow students to ask questions about their homework as soon as they occurred as opposed to possibly forgetting them later.

Amy Carter's picture

Thank you for your post on using ipods in the classroom. It is amazing how just the introduction of an "cool" electronic can completely transform student motivation. My school received a Mac laptop cart for our fifth graders to use. Once I introduced them to create imovies, PowerPoint presentations, and voice recordings, my students were hooked. I found that the subject matter rarely had an effect on their excitement to use these machines. My students created "radio broadcasts" from the 1920's incorporating important concepts we have learned. They made slideshows about the animal kingdom, and even recreated a conflict or climax of a story using iphoto and imovie. I love the idea of student recordings on ipods and the intimate student-teacher instruction that takes place. I am still struggling with the amount of time it takes to incorporate these electronics in the classroom, but it sounds like your idea allows each student to use their own ipod at their own pace. It's a great concept!

Liz Delmatoff's picture

Dear Colleagues~

We are excited to offer our "Social Media In The Classroom Workshop" to you in conjuction with PSU.
This is a one day, hands on workshop for those interested in learning to tap social media and technology for improved teaching and learning, K-12. Please share with teachers and staff.

Register at: www.edsome.com Click: workshops/conferences

Portland State University Credit will be posted for Summer Term as "Improving Classroom Instruction". Workshop pre-registration is required, and the PSU fee is payable upon completion of the course.

Elizabeth Delmatoff, MA LSC
Karl Meinhardt, Educational Strategist

Greg Reiva's picture
Greg Reiva
High School Science Teacher

This past year has been one of the most invigorating and most exhausting experiences I have had in the past 15 years as a science educator. I have witnessed breakthroughs in technologies employable in the classroom and I have been given access to a flood of new and exciting educational resources, online, to be used as assets in teaching to help students learn.

On summer break I now ponder what I will now face this fall as challenges to employ new methodologies in teaching and learning. These challenges, that if met, will greatly enhance, through online resources such as information, data banks, collaborative networks and multimedia digital presentations, the learning in the classroom.

The 21st century classroom is being thrust upon us at breakneck speed. How am I going to keep abreast and be effective without constant updates, research into best practices and continual experimentation in the classroom? I am a huge advocate of inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning science. This year I made great strides capitalizing upon new curriculum designs and I have implemented many many science projects using cutting edge technologies in the science lab. Still, I feel like I am losing the race in understanding of how new ground breaking technologies like iphones, ipods, social networking, educational networking and access to collaborative inquiry projects spanning all across the face of our planet. The international classroom is already here. Teachers that are confined within the four walls of their classrooms are relics and the smell is becoming noticeable.

I can only hope that the few months that I have to consider my course of action will be productive. Few peers at school acknowledge or discuss any of these seismic changes taking place and administrators are not even in the same universe as teachers with respect to galvanizing efforts to meet students needs.

It is at times like being whipped sawed by changes in our world that demand innovation in pedagogy, only if our children are to remain competitive in the world they will soon work in. I can also, at the same time, feel like I am the lone wolf crying in the wilderness. Is anyone really hearing you? Does it even matter?

The one think I know from over 15 years of teaching is that as an educator you must be able to adapt to change or you will not be teaching much longer. Even if you would continue you will be ineffective. I want to stay in the game and produce as long as I can so I choose to push forward even if it means that I am a lone wolf.

Dr. Sonia Rodriguez's picture

Great article, Milton. But I was caught by surprise to see your title: "emeritus?" Really? Congratulations. I'm really glad to see that you are actively engaged in the work of GLEF and Edutopia.

Leslee's picture

Thank you for sharing this information. I would love to try this approach to help with reading fluency. I am going to share this article with my colleagues. I think the students would enjoy using the iPod as many of them are familiar with them. Being able to go back and listen to themselves is a plus. It would spark great conversations between a teacher and a student. It would also be a tangible way of showing them their progress. Where do you buy the supplies? Do you have any suggestions on how to get funding for them? I know budgets are tight this year at many schools. Thanks!

Adam's picture

I couldn't agree more with your idea. We need to try and stay with the times and create a new learning classroom to go with all this new technology.

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