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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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iPod, iListen, iRead

Milton Chen

Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

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