Your Teachers May Be Conspiring Via Podcast

Technology allows professors to trade lectures, assignments.

While many college students turn up their iPods as a diversion from homework, an increasing number are turning to their MP3 players to complete their assignments as academic podcasting continues to expand its scope. Now professors aren't just uploading lectures-to-go, they are seeking out new ways to use the technology to connect with students and share their work with other educators.

Schools such as the University of Florida and Vanderbilt University have adopted news-based podcasts so that students can remain informed despite their hectic schedules. Ohio University provides a podcast tour of the university library. And while some universities are wading in the podcasting pool, others have already taken the plunge by integrating iPods directly into lessons.

In the 2004-05 school year, Duke University supplied more than 1,600 members of its freshman class with iPods for academic use, spearheading educational podcasting (see "Duke University Spends Big Dough To Give Students Free iPods"). Building on the feedback received from the experiment, the university established the Duke Digital Initiative, a program designed to incorporate technology and digital media into education over a three-year cycle. In addition to iPods, the school will examine the educational benefits of digital images and video, as well as tablet PCs and collaborative technologies.

Multimedia, radio and foreign-language teachers have seamlessly integrated podcasting into their curriculums, and now science and math teachers are quickly embracing the technology as well.

"It takes the pressure off of students with respect to note taking, so they can feel like they can actually listen and not always be worrying about writing everything you say down," said Lori Leachman, a professor of economics at Duke. Leachman also counts podcasting's appeal to auditory learners and convenience for absent students among the technology's strengths (see "Coursecasts Could Mean More Truancy — Or More Homework").

Like Leachman, many professors record lectures and post the podcasts for students to download as study aids or to use in order to catch up on missed classes. However, others are opting for a more involved application of the modern technology.

Michael Cheney, a professor of communications, served as a technical trailblazer at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Engaging his students through podcasting and vodcasting — the same idea using video or still images — Cheney is able to supplement assigned reading with comments, clips and video for his online course. He notes that accessibility and variation of content are key issues for online courses. Furthermore, he feels that podcasts featuring his voice give students across the country a sense of who he is, personalizing the online experience.

"The students who have had other online courses before really appreciate the variety and the difference," Cheney said. "They really like the notion that we're trying to use different technologies to convey the material and they think that it brings a certain freshness to the course content that would not perhaps be there if everything was simply read off the screen."

According to Cheney, the only drawbacks to podcasting were stabilizing formats and the initial questions about how to create and launch the broadcasts. However, he points out that the availability of what is essentially a "podcast-in-a-box" prompts a smooth transition for teachers to the technology.

In addition to using podcasting in the curriculum, the University of Illinois at Springfield has also established the Higher Educational Podcast Repository, a virtual centralized location housing academic podcasts. The expectation is that the online searchable database will enable instructors to upload and download educational podcasts. Theoretically, teachers could share lectures, media and exercises with other faculty across disciplines.

Apple has unveiled a similar repository for universities. iTunes U serves as a hosting platform, content management tool and distribution system for a school's media files, and functions in the familiar format of iTunes (see "Sleep Through That Lecture? Miss That Ballgame? Grab Them On iTunes"). Approved users can log in to the site and download content at their leisure. Stanford University and the University of Michigan, among others, employ iTunes U.

While students seem to enjoy the use of modern technology for academic purposes — and you'd think Duke students wouldn't be complaining about receiving a free iPod, regardless of its intended purpose — not all are convinced it's a program that's working.

"Presenting information from a variety of sources in a variety of formats definitely enhances education, and podcasting is a simple and effective way to do that," said Mike McGahan, a senior electrical engineering and psychology major at Duke.

But while McGahan supports podcasting and technology in the classroom, he questions the success of the iPod initiative, noting that most of his peers simply download podcasts to their computers without transferring them to their mobile devices.

"While I do believe that competence using a variety of technologies will be more and more important in the future, the iPod should not be the primary gateway to that across the curriculum," McGahan said.