Podcasts: Classrooms Use Latest Web Technology

Article by Sally Hritz
Originally published in a different format

Astronomy Professor Richard Pogge shows the recorder he uses for creating podcasts.

Educators, including a few at Ohio State, are starting to adopt podcasts as another way to enrich the learning environment. The technology lends itself to academic purposes, and the ubiquity of portable MP3 players makes it inevitable, even more so now that the latest iPods are video-capable.

What's the buzz? Podcasting—the web-based delivery of audio and/or video files—is a new buzzword for what is essentially a slight twist on downloading MP3 files. Podcasts evolved from the web technology that delivers syndicated, subscription-based text files called RSS feeds, such as the latest headline news. The term podcasting became associated with radio programs and music videos delivered on the RSS standard.

Despite the name, which arose from the concurrent popularity of Apple’s player, podcasts do not require Apple equipment, nor a particular player. You can download podcasts as digital MP3 files to a Windows or Macintosh computer and you can transfer those same files to portable players of any type, although some file formats may be proprietary. All you need to receive the files is reader software called a podcatcher. iTunes is a popular podcatcher that works on both Macs and Windows computers, but is not the only software available for this purpose.

Podcasts are the same as any downloadable MP3 files; you can play them as often as you like on your player of choice. They are different in the way they are made available, which is more like the way television or radio programs are broadcast. You subscribe to (or catch) the podcasts when you set up your podcatcher to sync with a web site that delivers podcast feeds that you want. Whenever you open your podcatcher software, it automatically downloads new content from the site. Some sites may let you review and download all the programs in a series, but in other cases, the latest edition may replace older ones.

Podcasts on campus. Browsing the list of hundreds of educational podcasts available on the iTunes Music Store shows that schools from Amherst College to Western Kentucky University are already using the technology. Content is accessible 24/7 and ranges from lectures, speeches, interviews, public event videos, conference presentations, and art guides—virtually anything recordable in audio or video format and of interest to a particular audience.

iTunes U. Deputy CIO Susan Metros, executive director for eLearning on campus, said Ohio State is exploring options with Apple for building an OSU brand of iTunes U to distribute podcasts customized to local interests and needs. The demand is here, noted Metros, who said that Apple contacted her after receiving 148 requests from the Ohio State community requesting such a service within two days of Apple announcing the iTunes U program.

Searching on podcast on the OSU web site turns up a number of organizations producing podcasts, including WOSU stations, Moritz College of Law, Horticulture and Crop Science, and the Undergraduate Chinese Student Organization.

Adapting the idea to the classroom, a few faculty and staff have begun exploring or are already podcasting to vary and enhance the learning experience. They've been recording lectures and making the digitized files available to students as podcasts or are asking students to create podcasts to fulfill assignments.

Podcasts of the stars. Astronomy Professor Richard Pogge experimented with audio podcasts for his winter quarter Astronomy 162 class and credits Justin Troyer on OIT's staff for his assistance. Pogge decided to host the podcast RSS feed on his own web page rather than use OIT's streaming services. He recorded the audio portion of his lectures and made the digitized MP3 files available as both straight downloads and podcasts for students who might have missed lectures or wanted to review them. He said it worked "amazingly well" and he did not noticed any drop in attendance. "I got the same steady-state attendance fraction after the second week that I got 13 years ago when all I taught with was an overhead and plastic sheets and colored markers," he said.

Surprising fanmail. Pogge was surprised to learn, after receiving fan mail from a listener in South Australia, that his digitized lectures had turned up on Apple's iTunes Music Store as free educational podcasts, submitted by someone unknown to him. "Rather than asking iTunes to take down the feed," he said, "I decided in the interests of the experiment to let it stay, and modified my feed to conform to their recommended style so that the podcasts wouldn't appear as Artist Unknown. I also added a logo, the same Hubble Space Telescope galaxy image that graces the top of my class web pages, and otherwise found that making it more informative was quite easy." He surveyed the students and reported that "overall, the response indicates a great interest in the medium, and many expressed the wish that other classes would do the same."

Podcasts as good medicine. Associate Professor of Anatomy Robert DePhilip said he is considering podcasts as another way to introduce students to the language of medicine. "With podcasts, we can lead students on a tour of a medical lab, present them with a preliminary lecture before the start of a course, and provide supplementary information such as interviews with medical specialists." He likes the idea that students can take advantage of these enhanced learning opportunities when they want them, often when they are working independently outside of scheduled lab classes.

Do it yourself. The Digital Union hosted an eLearning event on podcasting in December to respond to the growing popularity of this technology on campus, and followed it with a series of free hands-on workshops on how to create and distribute an audio podcast accessed with iTunes. The staff is offering two more workshops spring quarter on May 1 and May 24; check the website for details.

Get help. To learn more about producing podcasts for lectures and other educational applications, visit OIT's Classroom Digital Media Distribution web site, send e-mail to streaming@osu.edu, or call 292-9689. Read the onCampus article for more information on campus podcasting activities.

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