The holidays came early to 125 high school students when Microsoft gave Zune players to students in exchange for research data, in hopes of expanding its products into schools across the country.
Devices were given to 100 Fort Sumner High School students in New Mexico and 25 at South Valley Junior High in Liberty, Mo. The idea was for students to watch videos and listen to podcasts recommended by teachers and fellow students with the expectation of enhancing their educational experience.
A Zune player is similar to Apple’s iPod, but Zune is synced with Windows software. The device includes portable media players, client software, and the Zune Marketplace online music and video store. There are three styles to choose from, all of which play music and videos, display images, and receive FM radio. They can share files wirelessly with other Zunes or by using a USB with XBOX 360.
Because the Zune’s software allows users to share content wirelessly, students are encouraged to interact and integrate themselves into the program. Teachers can develop and record their own podcasts using a basic video camera and save the file on their computers. The Zune’s wireless feature makes it possible for students to get a podcast directly from the teacher’s Zune. They can also upload the content using school websites and a PC or access free podcasts on the Zune Marketplace.
The idea to bring Zune players into schools came from Eric Langhorst, a history teacher in Missouri. Langhorst had been incorporating technology into his lessons for some time and pitched the idea at last year’s National Educational Computing Conference. Microsoft liked the idea and gave Langhorst’s classroom Zune players. He puts his lessons on podcasts, making it easy for students to listen, at their leisure, to his lectures.
"Right now we’re at the point where most students already have some form of MP3 player but with the pilot, I can assure that all of my students will have the same device so I can give audio, video, and then visual content," says Langhorst. "I don’t know that in three years every kid will have a Zune, but so many of these devices are available I think as educators we can look at it as another way to give content to our students."
Fort Sumner teacher Pam Richards says, "I will be creating some podcasts to try with my students. My hope is to … re-teach material where students have a gap." This 27-year veteran teacher has not been convinced of the tool’s efficacy, however. "Truthfully, I am not sure if it is going to be time effective for me … [I] feel the best way to reach students is by quality teaching. …"
Some do worry students will use the players for personal use. There is no lock feature on the device to prevent students from downloading their own material. Microsoft and school officials hope the students will use good judgment, though faculty sporadically checks the devices. There is also a campuswide "grandma rule" keeping students from uploading anything their grandmothers would not. Teachers can also designate "No Zune Zones" and tell students to turn off their devices if necessary.
"Overall, the program has been really well received," says Kathy Richardson, manager in partner marketing at Microsoft. "Many of the teachers who aren’t usually early technology adopters are incorporating it in their lesson plans with ease." One group of tech-savvy students at Fort Sumner even started a group called the "Zunies." When students and teachers have questions, they turn to this group for troubleshooting advice.
Microsoft has said it will publish a case study on the pilot project following this past summer’s National Education Computing Conference in San Antonio, Texas. So far, though, there is no real data on how the project faired. Some point to improved Spanish language scores as evidence of the Zune’s benefit. Before students started using the devices, vocabulary scores had been lackluster, but the test results rose to more than 80% after the Zunes.
"We’re still shaping the next steps, but we’re really excited by the way Fort Sumner has embraced the program and has done some really incredible things," says Richardson. "Patricia Miller, Superintendent at Fort Sumner High School, would ultimately like to get devices into the hands of every student."