How Duke Turned an iPod Giveaway into a University-Wide Digital Initiative

Photo: Jim Wallace

Ten years ago, Apple's iPod inspired Duke University to hand them out to incoming freshmen so that they could listen to recorded lectures and other material. But what began as an iPod-giveaway has since morphed into the Duke Digital Initiative (DDI), a program that embraces technology in many forms to better the education process.

In 2004, "the iPod project" was started by CIO Tracy Futhey, Provost Peter Lange and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III,  who dedicated funding to the project and decided to explore the academic applications of the new wave of consumer technology.

When this initiative first started, it was big news not just in the tech press, but in mainstream media too. Luckily the program went well, and DDI is still active today, looking for emerging technology to deploy and developing programs around that tech. If it's new and interesting, DDI doesn't care where it comes from.

One of the earliest uses of the initial iPods was actually content creation: Belkin donated recorders to go along with the iPods. Students were able to record lectures for better notes and review, and even record themselves. One of the language departments started sharing audio of faculty demonstrating language, then students shared their own for feedback. Thanks to the iPod, those students could then listen back to this content on the go, anywhere, a novel concept at the time.

Some of the other notable projects that have come from DDI are those that streamline "admin" work. Instead of a science class writing down information in a notebook and then entering it all over again into a computer, all of the data entry can happen once, using an iPad or an iPod touch. That single device can also take photos and record specific location data as part of the observation work, eliminating the use of multiple devices and repetitive entry time and effort. Another interesting use of the iPods was a theater class who studied classic radio dramas, and then created their own.

Apple is still the prevalent technology partner at Duke. As one of the earliest additions to iTunes U, it was already distributing classes to iPods on a large scale before iTunes U even existed. A member of Duke's Chemistry faculty was also one of the earliest users of the iTunes U Course Manager.

While the iPod has given way to iPhone, iPad, and Android devices—and most incoming students today are pre-equipped with their own mobile devices—it was the iPod that started it all. Since then, DDI has become a collaboration between several departments within Duke working to "drive innovative uses of technology in innovative ways", according to Lynne O'Brien, Associate Vice Provost for Digital and Online Education Initiatives.

In 2012, DDI partnered with Coursera for online classes, creating high quality video courses and making them available through Coursera's services. Video is a trend that is becoming more prevalent, and has slowly grown over time, with the DDI now looking at 3D and 4K video as possible new technologies to investigate further.

Ultimately, the goal is to offer students more ways to engage with course material. DDI also tries to give faculty an opportunity to figure out how to teach students who have already integrated some of this technology into their lives.

Now DDI is an integral part of Duke's infrastructure, a wide open door for the kinds of technologies that could end up becoming part of the landscape at the university. What's interesting is that it started with the iPod, the result of Duke's CIO and CEO seeing potential in what everyone else thought of as an "MP3 player."

Duke University Students in class, 2004. Photo: Jim Wallace

Today DDI still looks for what's coming up on the horizon and how they can implement it. Duke's approach is to make it easy to experiment with technology, both for faculty and students. If a DDI program is deemed a success, that technology becomes part of the regular offerings at Duke, through student loaner programs and faculty requests.

Its latest program is a new proposal system for accepting faculty and student ideas about the direction of DDI year-round. This way, on the off chance a major technology announcement happens in, say, early September, there's no reason for Duke to miss out.

It's a remarkable evolution in ten years, particularly for an organization that is not only large, but educational, neither of those being known for being on the front edge of any adoption curve. From mainstream news coverage of iPod deployment to not even a mention in the tech press of the DDI looking at 3D printers and Google Glass and other tech to see how it might impact higher learning.