An integral part of iPod in the classroom is the connection with iTunes. iTunes is best-known as a digital jukebox and music manager. However, it’s also an incredibly powerful database that can be used to manage curriculum content and student files. One example is the use of iTunes to create digital portfolios of student work.
Managing the Database
iTunes is an application for organizing and playing digital audio and video material. It has a very easy-to-use interface both for managing content and for transferring that content to an iPod. Adding files to your iTunes library is as easy as importing audio from a CD or downloading podcast episodes from the iTunes store.
Using iTunes you can organize digital content into “folders,” called playlists. For example, you can make a playlist for a specific student project or a playlist for a particular class. The Source list displays all of the playlists in your iTunes library. You can create your own playlists to organize the content in iTunes in the best way that makes sense for you and your students. Playlists can contain individual songs, entire albums, podcasts, audiobooks, speeches, or videos. For example, if the class is studying the American colonies, you could create one playlist with songs from that time period and specific episodes from the Colonial Williamsburg podcast to share with students.
You can also create Smart Playlists that automatically update according to criteria you set—for example, podcasts you’ve added in the last month. Note that files are not duplicated each time you place them in a playlist. They are simply aliases, or pointers, to the actual files in your iTunes library.
A little-known aspect of digital files is that they contain something called “metadata.” Metadata, or “data about data,” can be used to create digital portfolios for students. Additionally, using these specific data elements built into files or elements added to files by you allows you to use the power of playlists—particularly Smart Playlists—to manage content downloaded from third-party sources such as iTunes U, created by you for instructional purposes, or recorded by students as practice or assessment files.
Building digital portfolios
Using metadata “tags,” as they are called, one can tap into the power of iTunes to create digital portfolios of a student’s audio or video recordings. Many school districts are using the voice recording capabilities of iPod to have students practice various aspects of language, from fluency practice to oral language development.
In addition to the audio track, digital audio files can contain related text and/or graphical information. The information you're probably familiar with is in the form of song title, artist name, album name, year, and genre. This is the information displayed when you play back a digital audio file on your computer or iPod.
The process of including information other than the sound portion in these digital audio files is commonly referred to as "tagging," in which you "tag" the audio file with additional information that describes it. Using metadata, or “tagging,” can help you easily manage student and curriculum files, as well as augment audio files to enhance language acquisition. As an example, we can view a screen shot of the metadata in an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, I Have a Dream speech. This file has had additional metadata added. To access these metadata layers, simply highlight a file in your iTunes library and go to File > Get Info (⌘-I), and you will see a window pop up with tabs across the top.
You can see the various layers, or “containers” of information contained in each of the tabs. Think of a layer cake, whereby all of the layers are merged together to make the “whole” cake. The same metaphor can be used to describe an audio file containing metadata layers. The layers by themselves contain “ingredients,” or information; but together, they make up the entire song file. Teachers can use these metadata fields to customize information contained in audio files. If these are student files, valuable information that can be used as part of a portfolio can be embedded.
For example, if the file is a fluency assessment, the Info tab could be used to share comments about the assessment and to enter the year of the assessment. The Lyrics tab could contain the text of the passage that the student read. The Artwork tab can have a representative graphic of the content of the file. Similarly, student photos could be added to assist with easily identifying student work.
The beauty of this is that all of the metadata stays within the file itself, so it will “travel” to the next teacher as part of a digital portfolio. Many teachers are making CDs of student audio recordings to include as part of a student cum file, or simply storing the audio files on a server.
As mentioned previously, you can use metadata to help you create content-based playlists or, in the case of student work, digital portfolios—dynamically. One of iTunes' most powerful and useful features is Smart Playlists. Smart Playlists use metadata and are dynamic, search-based lists of content that save you the work of grouping material manually. There are almost 40 metadata fields to search against—from Album and Artist to Bit Rate and Category—so there are thousands of possible Smart Playlist combinations.
To create a Smart Playlist of a particular artist’s work, you can go to iTunes and select File > New Smart Playlist.
Type the name of the artist in the rule field, and as soon as you click “OK,” the Smart Playlist is automatically created. Now, any time you add a song where the artist is the one you chose it’ll be added automatically to that Smart Playlist!
If we now transfer that concept to student audio recordings, you can see that using a student’s name as the Artist name in an audio file makes it incredibly easy to create dynamic, digital portfolios of student work via a Smart Playlist. You only have to create the playlist one time.