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The Power of Podcasting

The Power of Podcasting

This new technology is revolutionizing the way faculty and administrators interact with students

By Lydia Lum

Most years in Dr. Kevin M. Gaugler’s Spanish civilization class, the students were so focused on note-taking that they rarely uttered a word. Then last fall, he decided to do something a little bit different. He started podcasting his lectures, which are in Spanish, hoping to take pressure off his students.

Before long, his once silent class was erupting into lively discussion on Spanish literature, geography or Spain’s civil war. “Once I offered the podcasts, class time stopped being so one-way,” says Gaugler, an assistant professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “Students began commenting on what they’d read. There was a more active type of learning, and their vocabulary and spelling improved.”

All over the country, college faculty and administrators are plugging themselves into one of the newest — and hottest — technologies in an effort to better connect with students. Although it’s easy to understand why many people mistakenly believe podcasts are strictly associated with Apple’s wildly popular iPod, they are actually homespun broadcasts that can be listened to on any portable digital music player, including iPod. The podcasts can also be accessed on any computer with audio and video downloading capabilities. Podcasting’s syndicated audio feed makes for a greatly simplified delivery system. While the word “podcast” certainly works to iPod’s advantage, some pioneers of the medium insist the term should stand for “personal-on-demand” or “personal option digital.” Podcasts can be automatically routed through cyberspace to subscribers’ personal media devices and consumed at their leisure, like a digital audio version of hard-copy magazines. And like magazines, podcasts can be shared and swapped over and over again. But unlike magazines, podcasts don’t require any physical space, making the medium even more appealing.

National studies show that more than 80 percent of college students own at least one device that can download and play recordings. The iPod’s characteristic white earbuds can be seen nestled in the ears of students on any campus in the country. Like cell phones, digital music players have gone from techie toys to must-have fashion accessories. And it’s the popularity and portability of the devices that proponents of podcasting as a teaching tool point to. Students are listening to class podcasts in the car, at the gym and often more than once, they say. Critics, meanwhile, say it merely spoon-feeds a generation that has grown dependent on entertainment-driven gadgets at the expense of reasoning, creativity and problem solving. Some faculty also fear students won’t go to class if they know they can rely on recorded lectures. During conversations with faculty elsewhere, Gaugler emphasizes that they should “approach podcasting as a way of interacting more with students, not avoiding them.

“I saw no difference in class attendance,” says Gaugler, who warned students he would quit recording lectures if they dropped out of sight en masse. Although he didn’t require them to tune in to his podcasts, all of his students ended up sampling at least one. The experiment drew rave reviews on the end-of-semester evaluations, prompting Gaugler to resume podcasting his lectures next fall.

A Classroom Adjunct
Duke University’s faculty podcasting efforts offer another illustration of how this new technology is blanketing campuses at a pace rivaling the broadband Internet revolution of the late 1990s. In a widely publicized move, Duke handed out about 1,600 iPods pre-loaded with orientation material to its entire incoming 2004 class (see Black Issues In Higher Education, Nov. 18, 2004). Among other things, students used them to gather field notes and conduct interviews. Engineering students even used the iPods as signal generators in some courses. This academic year, the university’s Center for Instructional Technology is coordinating with faculty to develop more iPod-friendly courses. Any student in those courses who did not receive an iPod as a freshman got one as part of the new courses. Duke currently has 47 such classes, ranging from Indian cinema, medical physics and scandal and reform in U.S. politics. Faculty are using the devices not only to record lectures, but also to encourage students to edit video and record critiques of one another’s work.

And faculty aren’t the only ones trying to appear more hip to students. At Arizona State University, President Michael M. Crow has begun podcasting a few times a month, in addition to the blog (or “Web log,”
another rapidly increasing technological phenomenon) he already posts online addressing student concerns. Crow’s first podcast, for instance, dealt with the prospect of a 3.5 percent tuition increase for the fall semester. He also introduced the “student office hours” initiative, in which he will periodically meet with small groups to talk about what’s on their minds. So far, ASU students “appreciate the president engaging with them in a way they’re comfortable with,” says Denise Quiroz, communications manager for Crow’s office. Crow, who owns an iPod himself, was inspired to take to the microphone partly by what’s been happening at Duke, and hopes his faculty will dive into podcasting, too. “He’s trying to lead by example,” Quiroz says.

At Mansfield University, administrators are piggybacking on the popularity of reality TV shows with an ongoing series of podcasts exploring student life, especially for freshmen. In the weekly podcasts, university public relations director Dennis Miller interviews students — usually the same four — about everything from their favorite Saturday night pastimes to what the seniors believe their most important lessons have been, educationally and personally. The podcasts seem to be generating a buzz. The 3,000-student northern Pennsylvania school has seen an 11 percent spike in student applications for the fall semester compared to last year’s numbers, Miller says. The statistic is even more striking when considering that the number of high school seniors in the counties surrounding Mansfield is declining. “Some of the high-schoolers have gotten in touch with our kids saying they heard them on a podcast,” Miller says.

At the University of Denver, Dr. Don McCubbrey’s students overwhelmingly believe podcasting “is a tremendous classroom adjunct,” he says, especially to gain international perspectives on class topics. For instance, the subject of exporting software engineering jobs to India generates heated debate both in the class and the community. Plenty of published articles and broadcast segments promote the pros and cons from a U.S. viewpoint, but what do East Asians think? Thanks to podcasts, McCubbrey says his students can gain some insight.

“Our students rely on news sources that typically lack sophistication,” says McCubbrey, director of the university’s Center for the Study of Electronic Commerce, and clinical professor of information technology and e-commerce. “Whether it’s USA Today or The Wall Street Journal or the local paper, the views are very limited. It’s important to get into the heads of people from other countries.” He considers podcasts legitimate substitutes for guest speakers. “I can’t get speakers directly from China, India or Britain. The value of podcasts is in the diversity of class material.”

He also believes podcasting has far-reaching educational potential for disadvantaged communities, whether it’s in inner-city schools or impoverished developing nations. “Imagine if a class in Nairobi could listen to podcasts from other countries. Podcasts can democratize learning,” he says.

Among students, those curious about and enamored with the technology include future journalists, some of whom are podcasting their own grassroots talk shows on topics such as current events, politics and sports. At North Carolina A&T State University, students and journalism educators are discussing the how-tos of podcasting, but “are still focused on good writing skills [and] developing a strong sense of ethics,” says Dr. Teresa Styles, chairwoman of the journalism and mass communication department.

“We’re sticking with our core courses.

Students should become confident in their communication abilities in order to adapt to all these new technologies.”

To be sure, there are still some bugs to work out of the system. Digital or not, podcasts are still simply audio recordings. They pick up background noise like coughing or the scraping of chairs against the floor.

“I can even hear the air-conditioning as I’m taping in my office,” says Dr. M. Ann Bock, a New Mexico State University nutrition professor whose classes in the dietetics program are only offered online. In addition to online reading material, she now provides podcasts for students who want the flexibility of learning on the go. This semester, Bock is requiring students in her diet therapy class to podcast a case study on a medical condition, like pregnancy or liver disease. Not surprisingly, NMSU information technology staff are trying to ensure that her students have adequate equipment to record that assignment. Bock also finds her podcasts “draining” to create because she painstakingly describes the graphics in her PowerPoint files. “In a face-to-face class, I could point out the molecule of glucose on the screen. In a podcast, I need to describe it, or my students will wonder what I’m talking about.”

Yet Bock is convinced the benefits for her students are worth the effort. And at NMSU, they serve more than one educational purpose. More than 45 percent of the university’s students are Latino, reflecting its status as a Hispanic-serving institution, and many of the students speak English as a second language. Because the podcasts can be played over and over, they boost the students’ command of the language, Bock says.

With so many young people open-minded to playing more than just music on their iPods, the days of professors relying on overhead transparencies in the classroom may be numbered, McCubbrey says. “I don’t think we’re doing anything different in podcasting. Students are my customers. If we use an alternative media channel that they like and they’re comfortable with, there’s no harm in that.”

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