Freshmen showing up at Duke University this year will get their own Apple iPod, part of an experiment by the school to see if the popular portable music player can double as a learning tool.

In a first-of-its-kind deal for Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL), the university will distribute 1,650 iPods for the pilot program. Duke would not say how much it will pay for each 20-gigabyte iPod (search), but said it will receive a discount from the retail price of $299.

The program fits into university plans to use more technology in teaching, said Tracy Futhey, Duke's vice president for information technology.

Since its introduction in 2001, the iPod has taken off as the trendiest gadget for storing and playing digital music.

IPods can store other kinds of data as well, and Duke students will receive models stocked with school-related information, including freshman orientation details, the academic calendar, campus tours and even the school's fight song.

The university also will create a Web site modeled on the Apple iTunes (search) online music site from which students can download songs and course content from faculty, including language lessons, lectures and audio books.

Lisa Merschel's Spanish class will use the iPods to listen to textbook exercises and Spanish songs. Sally Schauman plans to have students record field interviews on the ethics and science of urban water conservation.

The university will spend $500,000 on the project, which also includes hiring an extra technology specialist, giving grants to faculty, and studying the outcome. The program is a one-year experiment, but could be renewed.

While it might sound like an extravagant gift for incoming students, Duke students pay a premium — about $39,240 a year for tuition, fees, room and board.

Schauman isn't worried that students will start listening to music in class.

"If you're in a class so boring you need to do that, then I encourage you to do so," Schauman said. "Or if your need to learn is so low, you shouldn't be here in the first place."