Play Time

Just when you think your district has technology figured out, innovation strikes again. Case in point: the new wave of portable media players that can do anything from recording audio files to playing your favorite episode of Law & Order. While it's no secret that these pint-size devices have been embraced by the consumer world, they also have serious pedagogical potential. Is your district ready to invest?

1. What are portable media players?

A portable media player, or PMP, is an electronic device such as an MP3 player that is based on a hard disk or flash memory and is capable of storing and playing files in one or more media formats. The devices are everywhere — you'd be hard-pressed to walk down the street without spotting at least one or two of them.

Photo courtesy of Apple
The new iPod holds up to 15,000 songs, 25,000 photos, and 150 hours of video.

2. What media are compatible with these tools?

What makes media players so attractive is their versatility. Most devices are able to load and play different formats of video (including MPEG, DivX and XviD); audio (including MP3, WAV, and Ogg Vorbis); and digital images (including BMP, JPEG, and GIF). Portable media players capable of displaying video and images typically feature color LCD screens. Some portable media players also include the ability to record video and audio, while some others sport card readers, which make it more convenient to store audio, video, and photos on the road.

Portable media players are good for just about any kind of digital media you can think of: audio files, video files, even electronic books. If you can save and access a file on a traditional desktop or laptop computer, chances are you can save and access it on a digital media player, as well. Some consumers even use these devices to back up their hard disks.

3. How many kinds of portable media players are there?

There is no shortage of portable media players on the market, with more than two dozen varieties at last count. Of course, the most popular device is Apple's iPod. Other big sellers in the digital media player world include the Digital DJ from Dell, the Zen Vision line from Creative Technology, the Rio from Rio Audio, the U10 from iRiver, and the new Gigabeat S from Toshiba.

4. How do I distinguish between players?

No two portable media players are alike, but most boast many of the same features, like 30 GB storage and lithium ion batteries that can last for as long as 20 hours. Most players on the market connect to traditional computers with the help of a USB cord. Most come with a docking station where users can sync up with a desktop or laptop computer and charge the media player's battery at the same time. Because so many media players come with these features, you probably shouldn't purchase devices that don't have them.

Another factor to consider is size. While many of these devices are roughly the size of a deck of cards, some players are available in a slimmer form. These smaller devices are lighter and easier to transport. The downside is that a smaller chassis means a smaller engine, which in turn means the device has less storage and battery life.

5. How are educators using these devices in the classroom?

Educators are using media players to supplement classroom education with the use of digital audio and video files. Much of this learning happens at home. If, for instance, a teacher wants students to listen to a particular radio broadcast that amplifies a lesson, the teacher can have students download the broadcast onto their players before they leave school.

The Palm Treo 700w smartphone starts at $399.

6. I've heard a lot about podcasting. What's it all about?

Podcasting is the distribution of nonmusic audio or video files such as radio programs or music videos over the Internet for listening on portable media players, mobile devices, and personal computers. Subscribing to podcasts allows a user to collect programs from a variety of sources for listening or viewing offline, whenever and wherever is convenient. In contrast, traditional broadcasting provides only one source at a time and the time is broadcaster-specified. In many cases, podcast files are downloaded by an automatic Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed to a device. Generally, podcasts arrive on a user's computer in archived form, making them easy to catalog and save.

Despite what the name suggests, podcasting does not require an iPod or other portable player. The name association came about simply because the iPod was the most marketed, and therefore the best-selling, portable digital audio player when podcasting began, so it was used by early practitioners. The truth is that you don't even need over-the-air broadcasting to engage in podcasting. Quite literally, anyone with a computer can do it.

Podcasting is becoming increasingly popular in higher education, but it's still a novelty in the K-12 environment. Many schools that use the technology do so on an individual or class-by-class basis. At Willowdale Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska, for instance, students and teachers get together every month to podcast radio-style reports. At Countryside Elementary School in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, fourth graders recently created podcasts of their 2004/2005 third-grade book curriculums. In an innovative application of podcasting, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Carrollton, Texas, is offering a podcast off its Web site to connect with the community.

7. Do I have to worry about my students playing video games?

A handful of the latest media players are equipped with the bandwidth and graphics capabilities to play sophisticated video games. The most popular device in this category is the PlayStation Portable from Sony, which incorporates standard digital media player functionality with restricted functionality from a Sony PlayStation. The Zen Vision products from Creative Technologies also boast video game capabilities. As of January 2006, software giant Microsoft was mulling a device that would extend capabilities of its Xbox product into the portable realm. Stay tuned.

Matt Villano is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in educational technology.

Other Gizmos

Smartphones and handhelds are taking K-12 by storm.

Portable media players are handheld devices in that you can hold them in your hand, but technically, products known more colloquially as handhelds are a different breed altogether — miniature computers that run on their own operating systems and offer much of the same functionality as regular PCs.

By and large, these devices come in two types: generic handhelds and smartphones, which mix features from portable media players, handhelds, and cellular phones into one device. While the former are used predominantly by students in the classroom environment, the latter are more common among staff members to facilitate communication across a school or district.

Also known as personal digital assistants, handheld computers operate with the help of plastic, pen-like styluses and can usually store files of just about every type. The group includes devices from vendors Palm, HP, TRG Products, and Psion Teklogix.

Many software developers have written education-oriented software for handheld devices. For example, Wireless Generation, a formative assessment company, recently debuted a version of its m:CLASS application for handhelds that tests student performance in math. Other academic software for handhelds can be downloaded at Handango.

For those districts looking for PDAs that also function as phones, there are smartphones. Big vendors in this category include Research In Motion, which makes the Blackberry; Helio; Sony Ericsson; Fujitsu-Siemens; Kyocera; and Palm. Perhaps the most ballyhooed smartphone in recent months has been the Treo 700w, the latest offering from Palm, which is the first of its smartphones to run the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system.

Many smartphones come with standard software packages, but few of these applications are optimized for use in the K-12 environment. Several vendors have just started developing products to meet this need. Among them is TruSmart Technologies, whose ScheduleFinder software provides school administrators and staff with access to student schedules, parent-contact data, grades, photo IDs, and medical alerts on a variety of handheld and mobile devices.
— MV

Who's Who

Portable Media Players


Creative Technology




Rio Audio




  • Research which media are compatible with portable media devices before making the investment.
  • Choose a portable media player with the memory size, battery life, and flexibility that matches the tasks you need to accomplish.
  • Remember that smaller portable media players generally don't offer as many features as full-size ones.
  • Rest assured that you don't need an iPod (or any portable media player, for that matter) to podcast.
  • Be aware that some portable media devices are designed for video games.