Coursecasts Could Mean More Truancy — Or More Homework

American, Stanford among universities experimenting with podcast lectures.

Imagine a semester's worth of lectures at your fingertips. Imagine not having to rummage through haphazard notes or rent those crappy videos of class lectures (which are impossible to get during finals week). OK, now stop imagining, take out your iPod and download those lectures whenever — and wherever — you want.

Slowly but surely, this vision is becoming a reality as more college campuses are offering "coursecasts," podcasts of class lectures that can be accessed online and even delivered directly to iPods. Pretty soon you might be able to review for that Econ final while sweating away on your Stairmaster. Pretty sweet, right?

Podcasting has been around for a couple of years, but the notion of schools offering course material, lectures and orientations through this medium has been a bit of a late bloomer. Duke, Purdue and Drexel University have experimented with podcasting, and in October, Stanford University launched its own "Stanford on iTunes" program, where they offer access to recorded lectures, campus news, multimedia presentations and broadcasts of sporting events (see "Sleep Through That Lecture? Miss That Ballgame? Grab Them On iTunes").

Victoria Szabo, academic technology manager at Stanford, says many at the school are still wary of coursecasting.

"We're just starting to think about this," Szabo said. "The reaction from faculty has been mixed: [they're] skeptical but intrigued. A lot of people are still not convinced that this is such a hot idea."

So what's swaying these naysayers? Professors opposed to podcasting their lectures say making these files easily available may deter students from actually going to class.

"That's a real concern," Szabo said. "What we try to teach students is that there is a lot of value in attending class, both in the sense that you're paying to have this residential education, and that there are just some things an iPod can't replace."

That includes being able to ask professors questions and take part in valuable class discussions. Moreover, knowing that you have a coursecast to fall back on may make students with already short attention spans even less studious.

"Something that is becoming increasingly more difficult in our society is how to teach students to actually listen to something for an hour and be able to absorb it," Szabo said. "Playback is good to have for reinforcement, but since you now have that capability, you're also losing the ability to catch it the first time."

Not so, says Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University. He says coursecasts have actually encouraged more intense class discussions.

"One advantage is that you get classroom time back for purposes other than shoveling out information," Jackson said.

AU's Washington College of Law — the nation's first law school to use podcasts — may take full advantage of that opportunity. Director of Technology Korin Munsterman says as of next semester teachers might start assigning their pre-recorded podcasts to students before class; class time would then be used strictly for discussion.

Munsterman first brought the podcast idea to the dean last spring after she attended a technology seminar. Inspired by the idea of using iPods in the classroom, she developed a prototype iPod that professors can record their lectures into. One of the first podcasts she created was a set of speeches made when the U.S. Supreme Court justices visited in January.

Munsterman said it cost only $3,000 to create these podcasts and they take up hardly any server space.

"It's so easy," she said. "We just give them an iPod with a mic attached and they just stick it in their pocket and give it to us at the end of the lecture."

Munsterman admits that some profs were a bit wary of her plan at first, but once they saw the insatiable demand for the content, they were convinced. Fourteen lectures have been posted for WCL's Copyright course, and they've been accessed more than 1,500 times; 11 have been posted for the Evidence class, and there have been more than 1,100 views of those.

Michelle Carhart, a third-year WCL law student, says there hasn't been a drop-off in attendance in her Evidence course since Assistant Professor Cynthia Jones began posting the podcasts online last month.

"The classes are still full, and I still go even though the lectures are available," she said.

She says the podcasts have totally changed the way she preps for class and that there should be one for every class. Podcasts have proven especially helpful for working students who may be called away on business or students who return home to deal with family issues.

Carhart adds that the temptation to skip class will be present whether the podcasts are available or not.

"People ditch anyway and just get notes, but that's their choice," she said. "I mean, most students here realize they're paying $30,000 a year to be able to sit in class, so you better be there. The whole point of going [to class] is to watch the professor and if you have a question, then you can raise your hand. But if you're not there, you don't have that option."