I teach, therefore iPod
By Jean-Claude Bradley
Experimentation with several new technologies in the classroom is bringing a kind of renaissance to the educational world. Podcasting stands out as one of the popular new teaching strategies to enter the scene. It generally refers to the distribution of mp3 audio files to portable audio devices like iPods or computers.
Making audio available on the Internet is nothing new. What makes podcasting different is that the distribution is made by a subscription process. Users subscribe once and from that point forward the files are automatically downloaded onto their computer or audio device when the files become available on the server. Before podcasting, users would have to keep checking for updates manually, which was just not practical for most people.
This subscription process is built on RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. With the tools currently available, creating and subscribing to RSS feeds really is simple. Some universities have created a central service to handle the recording, hosting and creation of lecture podcast feeds. Purdue’s Boilercast is a good example of this strategy.
For universities that do not provide a central service, teachers are still able to podcast their lectures by using easy-to-use and, for the most part, freely available resources. For example, a podcast can be created by using the services offered online at Blogger.com and Feedburner.com. Even the mp3 files can be hosted for free at sites like Archive.org.
Although a handful of teachers conducted podcast pilots in early 2005, the podcasting of lecture audio recordings really took off in the fall of 2005. Both university-initiated top-down efforts and individual teachers started to provide lecture recordings to students via podcasting, and these efforts happened in conjunction with Apple’s release of a version of iTunes that simplified the podcast subscription process. In fact, browsing the educational section of iTunes is a good way to assess the courses now available as podcasts. Most of these are freely available to anyone.
For the most part, podcasting involves the distribution of audio files only. It is certainly possible to podcast video (vodcasting) but this may not be practical for long lectures due to the large files involved. One option is to podcast small pdf files to provide material to follow along with the audio. Video also can be hosted on a streaming server to circumvent downloading large files. Videotaping the teacher is one way to obtain video, but it requires a video camera and an operator with sufficient technical knowledge to see clearly what is drawn on the chalkboard or displayed by a projector. A much simpler alternative is to run screen capture software that records whatever appears on the screen of the teacher’s laptop or TabletPC along with the audio during a lecture. When distributed to students, the resulting screencasts provide a very similar experience to being in the classroom, with the added control of being able to replay any part of the lecture at any time.
The arrival of this technology is forcing some teachers to re-evaluate their role as educators. If the recorded lecture is available online, why go to class? This concern is voiced in much of the dialogue taking place online over this topic (see, for example http://drexel-coas-elearning.blogspot.com/2005
One approach to deal with attendance is to only give partial material so that the students still will have to come to class for the full benefit. But if an archived lecture is just as effective as a live one in transmitting the basic subject matter, that can be an opportunity to shift the role of the teacher to a higher, more interactive level. Lectures can be assigned and class time can be spent integrating knowledge through conversation and creative assignments that deal with real world applications of the subject matter. We have only begun to see what this technology will make possible for the future of education.