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.

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Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Adam's picture

I couldn't agree more. Technology is changing the face of every classroom. I hope that I can develop a way to use all these new things and make them productive in my classroom.

laura bannach's picture

I would like to pilot a program in Northern Virginia using iPads in my classroom to help with special education students who have reading disabilities. Can anyone suggest a place I could get more information or funding?

laura bannach's picture

I am interested in piloting the use of iPads in my classroom to help special education students with reading disabilities. Does anyone know where to get more information or funding for this?

Claudia Newbern's picture
Claudia Newbern
Spanish Teacher, TESOL to Adults

Thank you for posting this information. I have taught English and Spanish for a while and I have heard of teachers using iPods in their classes to improve students' motivation and performance. I read an article a couple of years ago about a teaching in New York using this technology in her Spanish classroom. Since then, I have wanted to use it in my own classrooms but the present economic situation does not allow it. Schools do not have enough money to buy new technologies like this one and my last resource is a grant. I wanted to be able to explain to the ones offering the grants how useful this technology can be. Now with this information I can write a grant and maybe get my own set in the near future.
Thank you again.

Marisela Gomez's picture

I think this is a good step in the right direction of bringing modern tech into the classroom. Students are already familiar with the iPod interface and it's so engaging as well. Besides that it's so much more engaging because now the student won't be filling out some worksheet but actually touching the material as well.

Melody's picture
Career Counselor / Instructor Post Secondary

Finally! Educators are catching on to how Social Media can be used in the classroom. I have been looking forward to using these tools since I got my first I pod 5 years ago! Pod casts , ichats, ebooks, itunes university ..etc are all tools that I personally have used for my post secondary education. It would be grade to use for grades k-12. The use of social media in the classroom has endless value. I am also in northern Virginia , are there any workshops near here ?

LouellaWoods's picture

I'm absolutely for the new technology in education, while it makes students to be interested in the education....other main point is that not every student can afford him/herself to have good iphone something like this/
Thank you for the article| convert avi to mp4

Mohamed Abdelmagid's picture
Mohamed Abdelmagid
Head of Staff/ Jahra, Kuwait

I really could not agree more on using new technology in our classwork. Making use of new electronic devices like iPod in learning school subject matters is indeed a noble approach aiming at exploiting the new technology in what is useful for the students rather than wasting time and efforts in just playing or chatting. We, in Kuwait, are extremely suffering from the excessive use of new gadgets in just games and fun; but from now on I do believe that using new devices especially iPod in my daily lessons would motivate and inspire my students as well as save both my time and efforts.

Thank you very much

bhammett's picture

I agree that there has definitely been a paradigm shift in learning with the new generation.
As educators we need to be able to meet the needs of these student s though the use of advance technology as well as educating ourselves to be able to effortlessly understand and utilize new technology.

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