8am Lecture? Just Podcast It!
Education at Hand: Colleges Podcast Courses to Palm-Size Media Players, and Students Skip That 8 A.M. Lecture
By Gadi Dechter, The Baltimore SunSeptember 27, 2006
Sep. 27--If they miss this morning's introductory biology lecture, Johns Hopkins University students can still catch it this afternoon -- at the lacrosse field, on the light rail, even in bed.
Or wherever they like, whenever they want, provided they have an iPod or some other digital music player.
It's called course "podcasting" -- an amalgam of "iPod" and "broadcasting" -- and Hopkins is one of dozens of universities making classroom lectures almost instantly available on personal computers and hand-held media players, of which Apple Computer's iPod is the dominant brand.
Some education experts and college officials believe that the trend could alter the college experience, from changing students' study and attendance habits to challenging the basic lecture format itself, something that has largely been fixed since the Middle Ages.
"Learning can now happen anywhere, any time," said Sarita Sanjoy, an instructional technologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which is experimenting with podcasting at several of its professional schools.
There is nothing new about the recording of lectures, a practice that dates at least to the reel-to-reel tape era. And as early as the mid-1990s, colleges and universities were experimenting with letting students hear and watch recorded lectures on university Web sites.
The difference with podcasting is that students are no longer tethered to a computer or to the Internet. They can download individual lectures or "subscribe" to an entire course and have the most recent class automatically added to their iPod or other device.
Once the file is downloaded, it can be heard or watched virtually anywhere.
That sounds pretty good to John Ji.
"I'd never go to class at all," the Hopkins neuroscience major said last week, on his way to hear Richard Shingles lecture on the ecological interaction of species. "I'd just sit on the couch and download the podcast and eat potato chips."
The only reason he does show up for general biology -- one of a handful being podcast at Hopkins this semester -- is because Shingles doles out points for attendance, he said.
Those points are awarded through the use of hand-held voting machines, or "clickers," that students bring to class. Ostensibly designed to facilitate teacher-student interaction in large lectures, the clickers also function as electronic attendance monitors, Shingles acknowledges.
"If it weren't for the [clicker], I would stay at home," Ji said.
That attitude makes some professors wary of podcasting altogether.
"It seems this would remove a reason to come to class," said Hopkins philosophy professor Sean Greenberg, who said he would be unlikely to podcast his introductory course on moral philosophy. "I'm not sure we should cater to students' desire to be doing other things during class time."
Such as sleeping in.
Harvard University sophomore Justin Becker said he had no qualms about missing about half of his freshman-year life sciences lectures, knowing he could later watch video recordings of them on a university Web site.
Before exams, Becker would review back-to-back lectures at 1 1/2 times their natural speed to maximize cramming efficiency, he said. He got an A.
Though there are as yet no comprehensive studies of the new phenomenon, podcasting advocates say students such as Ji and Becker are the exception. Anecdotal evidence, observers say, shows that most students will still show up in person to downloadable classes.
"The attendance issue is usually the No. 1 thing that people are concerned about, and frankly, it's a huge debate right now," said Obadiah Greenberg, who manages the podcasting program at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Good students will use this to supplement the class. Bad students will use it as a substitute," Greenberg said. "But the fact is that overall, it is a technology that only enhances the classroom experience."
For better or worse, campus-tech trend-watcher Kenneth C. Green believes that podcasting has shown signs of taking root in a way that previous "course-casting" technologies, such as streaming video over the Web, never did.
"It's really taken off in the last year," said Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, a survey of technological trends in higher education begun in 1990. "Podcasting has really taken it to the next plateau."
The key ingredient is familiarity, said Diana Oblinger, a vice president at Educause, a nonprofit association of about 2,000 higher-education information technology professionals.
College students are comfortable downloading music from the Web and transferring it to iPods and other portable devices. And because there's no technical difference between downloading a pop song and downloading a psychology lecture, today's college-age consumers are old hands at the new technology, Oblinger said: "It's a technology that students are familiar with, and they've already got the tools they need to use it."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple is a major promoter of the academic podcasting trend, offering free host services to campuses that distribute podcasts through a subsidiary of its iTunes online music store called "iTunes U."
An Apple spokesman declined to say how many campuses have signed up with iTunes U, but so far this year at least 10 have announced their participation, including Berkeley and George Washington University.
At Berkeley, 10,000 people signed up as subscribers and downloaded 250,000 lecture recordings within a week of the school's launch of its iTunes U service in April.
"We have students who are angry with us because we're not podcasting their classes," said Berkeley's Greenberg. "It's really become a high-demand service."
Hopkins, Loyola College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore are also in talks with Apple, according to university officials.
Apple commands about 70 percent of the U.S. digital media player market, according to a recent survey, but students who don't own an iPod, which can cost $80 to $400, can still use iTunes U on most Apple Macintosh or Microsoft Windows-based computers.
It's too early to tell whether lecture podcasts are a just a fad, said Educause's Oblinger.
"I think one of the next steps is going to be for institutions to begin looking at adoption rates: How many people are doing this, how much value do students say they place in it?" she said. "At some point, I'm sure we'll see more scientific studies about whether it makes a difference in someone's learning."
The effect on classroom attendance will also be carefully monitored, though not all universities see less-populated lecture halls as necessarily a negative.
At the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the $142 million dental school building that opened this month was designed with fewer lecture halls because the school anticipates distributing more course content through podcasts and other digital-broadcast technologies, according to restorative dentistry professor Ward Massey, who is also the school's "curriculum innovation coordinator."
While the dental school isn't considering eliminating the lecture format altogether, the number of lectures offered might decrease, Massey said, as the curriculum increasingly includes more so-called hybrid courses where smaller discussion groups are supplemented by virtual lectures that students can download or watch online.
"One option is to have a PowerPoint presentation online and simply put an audio narrative over the top," Massey said. "Or use video clips. All those things could provide an experience that is the same as sitting in a lecture."
That and a bag of chips would be sufficient for Hopkins student Ji.
But even though podcasting hasn't yet saved the 19-year-old junior from the occasional trip away from the couch, he has discovered other advantages to the new technology. For instance, Ji no longer feels any need to take notes in biology or even to crack open the textbook.
When midterms come up this semester, instead of reading the relevant chapters, he'll just listen to the lecture podcasts, following along with the instructors' own notes and slides, which are also provided to students on the course Web site.
"Reading," explained Ji, "takes way longer."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun