Oct 31 2006

How Campus IT Departments Can Support Podcasting as a Learning Tool

Before podcasting can become an important teaching and learning resource, IT managers will need to inform, proselytize and offer support to instructors.

Now that the tidal wave of attention caused by podcasting's appearance on campus has subsided, it's time to figure out what lasting value this technology holds for higher education.

Podcasting, a name combining “broadcasting” and “iPod,” is a trendy new media technology that allows people to download audio content to an ultraportable device (not necessarily an iPod), to be played wherever and whenever they wish. Podcasting emerged from the convergence of easy-to-use audio software, the MP3 file format, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds and MP3 players. Add to that the emergence of podcast directories and Web sites that host podcasts and make feeds easy to find and download. All of these trends led to this superstar phenomenon.

Podcasting was an entertainment rage before educators discovered it. As is often the case in education, its initial adaptation, course casting, was a literal translation of a standard practice into the realm of technology: live lectures to podcasts.

While course casting may be the most common campus application so far, its enduring significance has not been proved, and it may never be widely adopted. In fact, some educators believe this approach has significant drawbacks, such as a potential decrease in classroom attendance.

Consequently, the future of podcasting as an important teaching and learning resource depends on the development of more sophisticated applications. For that to happen, campus technologists will have to inform, proselytize and offer support to prospective podcast-using instructors. The technologists have two missions: the continued promotion and support of course casting (fine-tuning it while maintaining momentum) and the development of other content formats that create a richer educational experience.

A Continuum of Strategies

In the meantime, a wide spectrum of perceptions exists about the current state of development and the unrealized potential of podcasting. Some schools have caught a glimpse of the learning-on-demand wave moving toward them. While they haven't marshaled their resources to ride it yet, many institutions of higher education are watching, strategizing and tracking this significant blip on their radar screens.

At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, there's limited podcasting activity among the faculty, but Lev Gonick, vice president of Information Technology Services and CIO, and his staff are observing the development and use of resources and materials. Gonick appreciates the potential of podcasting. “I think podcasting is part of an exciting paradigm shift in education, where we are finally in a position to attend to multiple sensory learning modalities by leveraging access to audio and video in a meaningful way,” he explains.

Anticipating an increase in podcasting, some colleges and universities are providing support for their instructors. “Our schools of Computer Science and Information Systems, Law, Library Instruction, and the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology have shown significant interest in podcasting,” says Frank Monaco, CIO of Pace University in New York City and Westchester County, N.Y. “We anticipate that roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of the total instructional staff will use podcasting in some fashion.

“If we can make the podcast-generating capability easy, more faculty will upload to their Learning Management System courses. We see this as an addition to current curriculum for certain classes ... [but] not for every class. Part of the problem will be to determine when [podcasting] will benefit students and when it will not.”

At Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Ind., Bart Collins, director of digital content, Instructional Development Center, says, “Most of our interest in podcasting is being driven by students. Podcasting fits nicely with contemporary students' preferences in media consumption.

“In its current form, it's a relatively trendy way to distribute audio content that students seem to really like. For most classes, however, it represents only a portion of the class content. So, right now, its impact is minimal.”

Collins adds, “The percentage of instructors using podcasting is very small at Purdue. About 70 faculty are recording their live lectures through a centrally supported podcasting system. This means that approximately 5,000 to 6,000 students can download lectures.”

Purdue provides significant in-house support for instructors. Its BoilerCast online resource allows instructors to podcast without getting involved in procedural and technical challenges. It directs all members of the community to a single user-friendly virtual location that explains and facilitates the program.

The BoilerCast system uses digital technology to deliver classroom audio recordings to students at their request. This enables them to review the day's material for use on homework assignments and to review lessons before exams.

Collins is concerned about how podcasting may affect learners who need social interaction. “Most theories of learning emphasize the importance of issues like faculty/student interaction, active learning and student collaboration,” he points out. “Currently, it's unclear how podcasting enhances learning in these ways.”

Innovation and Engagement

Answers to such important questions are being developed at Fordham University's Regional Educational Technology Center (RETC) in the Bronx, N.Y.

“We have four successful series,” says Kathy King, RETC director. “[They are] Podcast for Teachers [PFT], Adventures in Transformative Learning, PFT Community Podcast and the NYACCE [New York Association of Adult Community/Continuing Education] Community Podcast. The last two are particularly innovative formats that we developed to maximize learner and community participation and service.”

In its first half year of production, RETC's podcasts attracted more than 35,000 downloads. King says the center focuses “on content, educational programming, professional learning and the use of varied formats and instructional strategies in our podcasts.”

“We look at listeners and students as adult learners,” she explains. “With that perspective, we use adult learning principles, such as understanding audience needs, multiple instructional activities, creating relevant content and providing engaging formats.”

To achieve successful educational podcasting, according to King, the program must include content planning and content editing, recording, sound editing and production. “A podcast associated with a purpose like higher education should reflect this level of development,” she emphasizes.

RETC's program of support for instructors not only provides technology knowledge and resources, but also support in developing quality content.

An interesting example is the work of Barbara Heuer, who teaches courses in adult learning and co-produces (with King) Adventures in Transformative Learning, which is listened to by her own students, as well as many she'll never meet. Like the other RETC podcasts, its content is planned and edited with attention to detail.

“The Adventures podcast program is about transformative learning – its content, sources and theory,” Heuer says. “It's composed largely of reflective discussions with colleagues that illustrate important examples.”

Heuer believes that podcasting is inherently linked to transformative learning. It has given her a compelling way to share her experience and knowledge. She views podcasting as a modern tool to foster realization of the transformative process in which learners move from silence to creating their own knowledge and having a personal voice.

Right now, podcasting is undergoing its own transformative learning process, as educators continue to explore how this technology can be aligned with the complex processes of learning to produce an experience that won't be at odds with face-to-face student/instructor interaction. Rather, podcasting will be in full partnership with it.

Mark Gura, a former director of the Office of Instructional Technology of the New York City Board of Education, assists with outreach programs for Fordham University's Regional Educational Technology Center.

Listen & Learn

Following are some resources for educational podcasting:

• Podcast411.com: www.podcast411.com Basic information about podcasting, including tutorials and interviews with podcasters

• Podcasting Tools.com: www.podcasting-tools.com A comprehensive resource explaining how to create podcasts

• Regional Educational Technology Center (Fordham University) Podcasts: www.podcastforteachers.org Models of content-rich educational podcasts, as well as how-to and other information for podcasting educators

• Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting A detailed explanation of podcasting

Seeding the Pods

As digital music players and MP3 files have exploded into the public consciousness, many colleges and universities have discovered that podcasting is a sound idea. They are introducing portable audio files for a variety of purposes, including lectures, conferences, notifications and sports highlights.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., podcasting hit the radar screens in May 2005. The school now offers students, alumni, parents and the public recordings of lectures, reunion information, news briefs, university information and more.

The only investment was $150 for a digital recorder. The university offers the files via Web sites, RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds, the iTunes site and through links embedded in press releases. About 6,000 users per month access the content.

“It's a great way to communicate what is happening at the university and to get public lectures and events out to the public,” says Nancy Tramontin, director of Web communications services.

Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., also has embraced podcasting. In April 2005, it invested about $500 in equipment and software and now offers material in MP3 and MP4 formats (the latter allows chapter markers, art and links). The school has interviewed students, including foreign studies students, about their experiences, provided class lectures and notes, and created materials that allow alumni to reconnect to the college.

Last year, Allegheny counted nearly 33,000 downloads through RSS and Web sites. While podcasting does require staff time, “It is a very cost-effective way to market ourselves … and keep people informed,” says Mike Richwalsky, the college's Web administrator.

A year and a half ago, professors at Duke University in Durham, N.C., began providing content for podcasts. “Some professors feel this frees students from having to concentrate on taking notes and following every word the professor says in class, so they can focus on getting the concepts,” says Rebecca Miller, an information technology analyst at Duke.

Presently, the school is piloting DukeCast, which allows anyone at the school to become an administrator of his or her own podcast from any computer, regardless of operating system, Web browser or software.

“Podcasting is making the learning experience at Duke better,” Miller says. “It is a powerful and flexible way to distribute content.”

– Samuel Greengard

Creating Podcasts

Here are some points to consider when developing podcasts:

• Plan, plan, plan before you jump. Consider the needs of your students, which may vary from course to course, and from one major to another. Plan content that relates specifically to each group.

• Use varied formats to keep students listening.

• Make your formats interesting. Consider whether a lecture is boring, and whether there are other ways of presenting the material that's geared specifically for a listening audience.

• Although content planning is vital, so is content editing. Consider lecture length, word use and spoken language principles, which differ from those the students see on a page or a screen.

• See if music can be woven into the content.

• Make sure the sound is clear and crisp so listeners don't need to strain to grasp the words.

– Claire Meirowitz