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February 9, 2006 6:39 pm

Podcast pedagogy divides opinion at US universities

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For Kathryn Bowser, a 19-year-old biology student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, the
best time to sit through a lecture on organic chemistry happens to be when she is riding the exercise bike at the gym.

Ms Bowser’s chemistry class has no scheduled meetings. Instead, students download recorded lectures from the internet on to their computers or other portable gadgets and listen to them at their leisure. Ms Bowser, who watches the lectures on her video iPod, says: “I like to have them portable. That way whenever I have free time, I can flip through charts or problem sets.”

US university students are increasingly shunning traditional classroom lecture courses in favour of others that offer lectures via podcasts and vodcasts (downloadable audio and video files).

Last month Apple Computer introduced iTunes U, a service that enables select universities to put course lectures and other educational material online via its iTunes software. Students can either download files singly or transfer a series of recordings to their players.

While iTunes U is free, Apple hopes it could make students regular visitors to iTunes. It takes only a mouse click to move from iTunes U to the commercial site selling songs and television shows.

To some, Apple’s move represents the future of higher education. “I think you will see professors in the future using a more diverse set of technological strategies,” says Don Knezek, head of the International Society for Technology in Education, a non-profit org-anisation. “No matter how outstanding a professor may be, he’s going to lose this new generation of digital natives unless he moves into the digital age.”

Podcast proponents say the technology helps the flow of information. Harry Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvard University, is teaching the school’s first podcast class this semester. His lectures are immediately available to students via a password-protected web link and then released to the public via iTunes on a delayed schedule, free of charge.

“My hope is that if I can reach a few people inside the college or out who learn something because we are distributing information this way instead of the old way, that’s a good thing,” he says.

Recorded lectures also enable professors to use their time more efficiently, says Jean-Claude Bradley, chemistry professor at Drexel University. “What I have to say about organic chemistry has not changed much over the years, so rather than me repeating it over and over again, students can watch my lectures and then I can deal with students one on one.”

Students can replay lectures to improve their understanding of tricky concepts, says Prof Bradley. He says the performance of his current students matches the performance of those taught the old-fashioned way.

But others in education are sceptical. Perhaps the biggest fear is that college students will skip lectures altogether, leaving professors with empty classrooms and undergraduates without the critical student-teacher dynamic.

Romina Barber, an English major at Harvard, says attendance in courses that offer recorded lectures has noticeably declined: “Everyone goes to the first few, but you do see a drop-off. It’s sad because you miss the interaction and the class dynamic.”

Those concerns have so
far not been borne out at
the University of Missouri, says Keith Politte, development officer at the school of journalism.

He says podcast lectures used as a supplement to classroom lectures liberate students from taking notes. “Students are more likely
to go to class and participate in the conversation because they are not worried
about writing everything down.”

Some, including G. Marc Loudon, a professor of med-icinal chemistry at Purdue University, have also ex-pressed concerns over the technology’s intellectual property implications.

“The philosophical question is: who owns classroom content? Is it the professor, the university or a combination of both?” says Prof
Loudon, who has posted lectures as both audio and video files.

“A university wants its faculty to be creative eng-ines and creative course content is potentially copyrightable,” he says, adding that the school’s administration has formed a faculty committee to examine intellectual property implications.

But Prof Bradley is not worried about intellectual property infringements. “People have always been able to go to the library, take out a book on organic chemistry and learn it that way. I don’t see what I am doing as all that different.”

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