The iPad and the Listening Post

Sissel McCarthy

The iPad has been called a “transformative technology,” which means it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we work, learn, communicate, and even live. So when the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching’s Chris Fearrington approached me last year about using the iPad2 as a teaching tool in my Journalism 301: Advanced News Writing and Reporting class, I was both intrigued and skeptical about how this 9" by 7" tablet could enhance my teaching and advance student learning. 

I decided to incorporate the iPad into an existing assignment called “The Listening Post.” This exercise is designed to teach students to use all five senses to come up with three story ideas without asking anyone a single question. This is one of my favorite assignments because students are required to go off campus and out of their comfort zone for an encounter with people outside their normal routine. 

The possibilities are infinite, and for the most part, my budding journalists, like the pro-choice student who went to a right-to-life rally or the evangelical student who attended a service at a local synagogue, do challenge themselves. I tell them to approach the exercise with an open mind and open heart and to use their powers of observation to learn about what is going on around them. This time, in addition to a reflection essay, I also asked them to tell the story of their listening post visually by filming their experience and editing it into a two minute piece—all on their iPads. 

One of my main concerns with this trial was making sure everyone had the technological skills to complete the assignment, but my fears were unfounded. After a 15-minute session with ECIT, these digital natives knew how to record video and edit their clips using iMovie. With their iPads, students fanned out all over the country during Thanksgiving break to complete their assignment. One spent the day with the Occupy Movement at Berkeley; another attended a Freethinkers meeting in Dothan, Alabama. 

Upon their return to Emory, each student presented their listening post to the class. From a pedagogical standpoint, I can say the iPad not only enhanced but transformed this assignment. In the past, students would simply describe their experience to the class in a five-minute oral presentation. This time, we watched their videos, which brought these experiences to life and reinforced effortlessly the main objective of the exercise: how attention to detail is paramount to reporting any story. I could see that students were much more engaged in both their own learning and that of their classmates—thanks to the visuals. Students relished the opportunity to express themselves on a multimedia platform. Many added whimsical music and fancy editing transitions. They raved about how intuitive and practical the iPad is in my post assignment surveys, noting they only needed one device to shoot, edit, and upload their stories. 

The iPad may or may not be a transformative technology, but it turned my students into quite accomplished “prosumers”—the latest buzzword coined to describe producers and consumers of media. This is the future that awaits all our students and a trend I do embrace . . . almost as enthusiastically as my students did their iPads.