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Learning with Personal Media Players

iPods and handheld computers are emerging as sound investments to help special needs learners.

EVERY MONTH A NEW PORTABLE MP3 PLAYER IS ON THE MARKET and they're not just for music. Known more as personal media players than music players, their use transcends age, lifestyle and social class, and many people are relying on them more as compact troves of information rather than strictly as toys to rock out to. Educators are aware of this phenomenon and are exploring the devices' potential as teaching tools.

Robin Foley, director of special education projects for the Federation for Children with Special Needs, says that portable music players like the iPod-and handheld computers like the Palm Tungsten-give special needs students greater flexibility in how they learn.

"Assistive technology like the iPod is really bringing new, creative ways to help special needs learners," she says. "Parents of these children look to the schools to address their challenges, and using something like the iPod can make a big difference in engaging students, accelerating their learning, and helping any child that struggles with reading."

The use of these devices in such a way is a fairly new phenomenon, primarily because Apple only released a video-capable version of its music player in late2005. Although many MP3 players and handheld computers have the potential to assist special education students, it's the video iPod that really stands out, primarily due to its ease of use and "hip" factor, but also its excellent quality and wealth of online content geared for students.

According to Steve Noble, a national board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, assistive technology products are being supplied in increasing numbers to individuals with disabilities to give them a competitive edge over students without any disabilities.

We tried to think of different ways to use the devices to expose students to English as often as possible.-Niki Konecki, coordinator of bilingual and ESL education for the San Marcos (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District

Teachers are searching the online Apple iTunes Store and the Internet and finding free content: NASA podcasts are available in the iTunes store;, a site specializing in educational audio, has posted lectures and audio books; and SAT prep companies are posting podcasts online. These programs can be downloaded onto iPods by teachers.

Students are often deterred from downloading onto these iPods content unrelated to their studies, since teachers are usually in charge of syncing the devices with a computer, and all downloaded material is easily visible.

Although iPods and other devices are not ubiquitous yet as pedagogical tools, Foley believes that more and more success stories will lead many districts to consider iPod programs for their own schools. "Special education teachers already have a wide variety of strategies for helping students learn," she says. "Bringing in this kind of technology is an excellent supplement."

ELL and iPods

For some districts, iPod programs function as a strategy to accelerate English Language Learning (ELL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. San Marcos (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District began using video iPods in early 2006 as a platform for accessing English language songs and educational videos. Teachers searched media libraries such as Discovery Education's united streaming, a video-on-demand and online teaching subscription service, and other Web sites for educational videos on topics from all their students' other classes. If students were learning algebra, for instance, teachers looked for videos about linear equations as a way to increase their understanding of the English language and math at the same time.

The district has two academies for recent immigrant children in grades 6- 12 that teach everything from English to science and math, says Niki Konecki, San Marcos' coordinator of bilingual and ESL education. As part of a pilot project, Konecki and instructional technology coordinator Ronda Stonecipher purchased 25 video iPods for the immigrant students and used them for four months.

Stonecipher worked with teachers to create PowerPoint presentations to use in class, which they also put on their students' iPods so they could review the material at home. Every week, the coordinators searched the iTunes store for free podcasts that would be relevant to class lessons. Konecki, for example, encouraged students to consult NASA-produced podcasts when studying astronomy in science class.

Konecki ordered iPod microphones manufactured by technology company Belkin so students could record teacher lectures. One ESL teacher now asks students to read their textbooks aloud at home and record themselves so she can synch up the iPods with her computer the next day to better assess their reading abilities.

"Basically, we just tried to think of different ways to use the devices and get [students] exposed to English as often as possible," says Konecki. She adds that since San Marcos is a rural district, some students are on the bus for two hours every day, and giving them the option of practicing English and doing other homework on the iPod while they commute has been a success.

The results were even better than the coordinators expected. A recent report by the district showed that nearly 70 percent of the academy students went up a whole letter grade in math and science, and Konecki has noticed that the iPod users' language skills have developed faster since the iPods were brought into the classroom.

"A big difference we're seeing is attendance," she says. "They want to come to school now because they're engaged in classes; they don't feel like they're struggling to keep up. This year, we're hoping to see even more gains and roll [the program] out eventually to other special needs students."

The iPod also demonstrated its potential for English language learners at Jos? Mart? Middle School in Union City, N.J., when media specialist Grace Poli initiated a pilot program in 2004. She started a small group called "iPod People," an assemblage of bilingual students that met twice a week after school.

Within the program's first year, about half of the students were able to leave the ESL program and receive instruction exclusively in English-a dramatic change, Poli says, since most students remain in the ESL program for at least four years. "It was huge, to see that kind of change," she says. "That opened our eyes to how powerful using iPods could be." Not only were students studying, but they were studying effectively, and they were enjoying it.

The district has purchased 300 video iPods for the 2007-2008 school year and has extended the program to other special needs students, such as those with dyslexia and behavioral problems. For the majority of these students, behavioral challenges and learning disabilities have often led to absenteeism and low grades, but using the iPods has instilled in them a fresh sense of enthusiasm.

"The difficulty before was motivation," says Poli. "Some should have been in high school but were still in middle school, and they were frustrated. But now they're just very engaged and very into learning with the iPod." The students love technology and get more out of video and instruction on an iPod than trying to pay attention to a traditional lecture, she adds.

Teachers who want to use the iPod in class attend a 15-week workshop with Poli, in which they develop a curriculum guide and lessons that can be ported to the digital device. For example, a teacher might receive training on finding songs that have the same words as those in a class grammar book, or recording a podcast for students to follow along with as class material is presented.

Keeping Students Engaged

One application of personal media players that is especially beneficial to special education students is in test taking, says Scott Grimes, principal at Louisa-Muscatine Elementary School in Iowa.

In 2005, while writing a grant proposal for a laptop program, Grimes learned of the release of the video iPod and immediately thought it would be useful for special needs students. The district revised the grant application to ask for video iPods instead, and when it was turned down, the school board decided to fund the program itself, putting down $10,000 for the pilot project.

The district purchased 32 video iPods, as well as a designated scanner and laptop, and began administering iPod-proctored tests for special education students, from standardized tests to subject-specific tests used by the district's teachers. Previously, special education students would have questions read aloud to them by a teacher, but using the iPods allows them to scroll through a menu to find the right test, listen to the questions through headphones at their own pace, see them on the screen, and answer on paper.

"This is definitely more than a passing trend."-Robin Foley,director of special education projects for the Federation for Children with Special Needs

For the 2006-2007 school year, Louisa-Muscatine began downloading electronic textbooks onto the devices as well so that students could go back and follow at their own pace outside of class. In addition to their receiving a boost in self-esteem, Grimes notes that many special education students are now able to be in classrooms for longer periods of time. In the past, they were be given individual instruction with a tutor isolated from their peers, but using the iPods keeps them actively involved and allows them to stay in class.

Additionally, Noble says that there are special optical character recognition programs that will not only digitize texts using an optical scanner but convert the files into audible MP3 ebooks, which can then be played on any iPod or other portable MP3 player.

"The big goal is to have [special education students] with their fellow students as much as possible," says Grimes.

"About 80 percent of [them] used to be taught in special classrooms, and we've managed to bring that number down to 20 percent. This allows them to have more opportunity to feel successful in the classroom."

Handheld Computers

Although iPods are making a significant impact in the San Marcos district and at schools such as Louisa-Muscatine and Jos? Mart?, districts are benefiting from other portable devices as well. At Central Bucks School District in Pennsylvania, Mill Creek Elementary School sixth grade teacher Jason Jaffe uses Palm Tungsten E handheld computers in addition to iPods. The E's applications are not limited to special education students, so all of his students use them for integrated learning. Jaffe, however, sees parallels between regular students and special needs students.

"Some students wouldn't be classified as having special needs, but they might not write as quickly as others, so note-taking is difficult for them," he says. "Students benefit from the Tungsten by practicing both math and language skills at their own pace with fun learning applications. This technology gets students very enthusiastic about what they're learning."

He adds that the district follows not only Pennsylvania standards but also district- wide standards that require students to be able to write in various styles in different content areas, such as science and social studies. And using the iPods to create podcasts has increased his students' skills in writing, listening, speaking and interviewing. The class finds the podcasting so compelling that some students are creating a presentation for the district's assistant superintendent and principals in the hopes that the program will be extended to other schools.

For students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who have problems keeping track of assignments and work tasks, Noble points out that any kind of handheld device-even PDAs-can be programmed to remind students of their work using alarms or songs.

Although educational programs with personal media players are just getting off the ground, students and teachers alike are actively engaged in and truly excited about the learning applications.

Noble says that different expectations and learning environments can supersede the positive educational results of using the devices, but this should not hinder educators from considering their potential impact.

"This is definitely more than a passing trend," says Foley. "This is a way to use technology for more effective education, and kids love it. That's a pretty powerful combination."

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer based in St. Louis Park, Minn.