A Model for Using Podcasts for Learning

I was pleased to read an article online about a professor at the University of Connecticut that is approaching podcasting in a way that fits well with our NJIT on iTunes U philosophy for faculty podcasts. Psychology professor David Miller didn't want to simply record lectures from his large (315 students) General Psych course. He wanted to increase student interaction.

"As the first person to incorporate podcasting into courses at the University of Connecticut in fall 2005, I decided not to simply 'coursecast,'" he says. "Though there are times when coursecasting may be useful, I felt that there was nothing particularly novel about recording lectures. Creating this simple record was not my main purpose for podcasting."

He calls his project iCube. You can sample some of his content there. He sits down for a weekly one-hour discussion of course material in which students meet with him, discuss psychology, and he records the session. It started as a way to make an exam review session accessible to all students in the class, but has gone beyond that.

"We not only discuss course material, but also any other topics of interest related to psychology," explains Miller. "Some students have even switched to psychology because of their active participation. Students who participate in the recordings get to know me very well, and vice versa."

Professor Miller also uses "precasts" and "postcasts." Precasts are enhanced podcasts (images with synchronized audio narration) to give students a preview of important points to look for in an upcoming lecture. He also plays the precast before the lecture for students who arrive early. That's what we called the anticipatory set in my K-12 teaching days when we were introduced to Hunter's direct instruction model. Then, for closure, he creates short audio recordings (postcasts) to address difficult concepts that were discussed that day.

I'm not a proponent of podcasting because everyone else is podcasting, but this approach is one that can really have a positive effect on student learning. Now, to get some of the NJIT faculty to try some pre- & post- casts.

Does Podcasting Have Any Inherent Value?

A colleague of mine emailed me the link to this online story by Paul McCloskey, "Consensus: Podcasting Has No 'Inherent' Pedagogic Value," Campus Technology, 7/9/2007. He knows that I'm involved in NJIT's podcasting efforts on campus, many of which are available within Apple's iTunes U.

"A bevy of recent studies on students' experience listening to recorded lectures via podcasts confirms what many lecturers already know: that the pedagogical value of podcasts depends almost entirely on student motivation and the learning "context" of the application.

In a comprehensive survey of the latest academic studies on the impact of podcasting on learning and teaching, Ashley Deal, a researcher in the Office of Technology for Education & the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University, found that podcasting follows the pattern of many campus technology innovations.

"As with any educational technology, whether and how podcasting impacts the quality of the learning experience and/or educational outcomes depends largely upon how the technology is put to use," Deal wrote.

So, does podcasting enhance education? "The answer to that question depends entirely on the educational context, including goals and appropriate learning activities, and on how the tool is implemented," said Deal.

"Podcasting does not contain any inherent value. It is only valuable inasmuch as it helps the instructor and students reach their educational goals, by facilitating thoughtful, engaging learning activities that are designed to work in support of those goals."

Bill Reynolds at NJIT was copied on that original email and responded by taking the online story and replacing "podcast" with "book" and said that this was an "earlier version" of the story. How does this version read to you?

As with any educational technology, whether and how books impacts the quality of the learning experience and/or educational outcomes depends largely upon how the technology is put to use. So, do books enhance education? The answer to that question depends entirely on the educational context, including goals and appropriate learning activities, and on how the tool is implemented. Books do not contain any inherent value. It is only valuable inasmuch as it helps the instructor and students reach their educational goals, by facilitating thoughtful, engaging learning activities that are designed to work in support of those goals.

The point being that none of the tools we use with our students have any "inherent" value. Books, interactive whiteboards, laptops, student response systems, video and podcasting have no intrinsic educational value. Are we surprised by that?

The Educause Teaching With Technology White Paper, "Podcasting", that McCloskey cites is and is the source of the quote used in his story. It's a catchy and seemingly provocative title. I'm going to use it myself for this post, But the paper is about much more. It really is a comprehensive look at podcasting in education with a lot of information about podcasting tools and techniques.

"Is it just a passing trend, or is there genuine potential to improve the quality of the educational experience and learning outcomes?" is one podcasting question the report asks. It looks at 1) the creation and distribution of lecture archives for review, 2) the delivery of supplemental educational materials and content, and 3) assignments requiring students to produce and submit their own podcasts.

The first two -students as media consumers - is important, but that third area interests me the most. That's where the 2.0 (Web, learning, or school or whatever the 2.0 du jour is when you read this) of creating comes in.

An example cited is "Podcasting Literary Criticism" done by Peter Schmidt and Liz Evans at Swarthmore College. They created a series of podcast assignments for Schmidt’s course, "U.S. Fiction, 1945–Present."

Students were required to produce a "podcast pair" (two 5-minute podcasts). The first has the student read a brief passage from a novel and then in the second the student was instructed to provide “discussion of that passage: why the student chose it, what details were most important, what themes and issues the passage raised, and how the passage related to the rest of the novel."

All students were then required to listen to several of their classmates' podcasts related to the current reading assignment before coming to class.

Readers of this might ask: Why not just have them do written summaries and commentary?

Well, for Evans and Schmidt, their belief is that “thinking about cultural works is a collaborative process that happens in dialogue, not only in isolation. Cultural objects (including novels) are not static; they circulate, they are events."

Obviously, having students engaged in a dialogue was also a goal. So they used a new channel for critical discussion.

According to their study, students reported "that the readings brought the passages and the novels to life—and that when they heard passages aloud, they noticed many more things than when they just read an assignment before class."

As a case study, perhaps this shows that student-created podcasts can help develop technical competence, listening (audio), presentation (verbal) skills, and an understanding of how new media can affect dialogue.

Are we discovering similar things in having students blogging, using social bookmarking etc.?

Perhaps, there are actually some inherent values to podcasting, if you are really doing podcasting (and not just making audio files as we did with students using reel-to-reel or cassette tape recorders) with subscriptions (RSS) and posting them within an interactive framework such as a blog.

So my earlier statement was just a tease. The act of creating has inherent value. Using technologies that require creation and interaction to be successful have inherent value. Even that old favorite the book has a kind of "inherent" value in that it only works if the reader becomes engaged with it - and the more engaged you become with it, the more value you take from it.

Who is downloading our podcasts?

I read an article about podcasting on emarketer.com that got me thinking about who is downloading our podcasts from iTunes U. Of course, that article is looking at this from a marketing point of view, not an educational perspective. Then again, schools are also starting to look at the marketing aspects of podcasting in the same way that they look at their Web site and their online presence.

Apple provides iTunes U schools with weekly stats on the number of downloads, subscribers etc. and you can tell how many users come from the njit.edu domain and how many are from off campus. But that's not all that helpful from a marketing perspective.

How many of those off campus users are students, faculty, staff and alumni? Where (geographically) are our users coming from? Who are they? How old are they?

According to a Pew Internet & American Life Projectstudy conducted back in early 2006, Internet users who had been online for six or more years were twice as likely to have downloaded a podcast as someone online for three years or less. Does that mean they're older or just more Net savvy?

If you look at Podtrac, iTunes accounts for 75% of all podcast downloads. How should we attract the other 25% of the crowd? I read that the general podcast downloader is a male, and educated. Half of the podcasting audience is made up of people between the ages of 35 and 54. Is that who is downloading our podcasts?

I'm not a marketing person and I don't see the university paying to subscribe to something like ComScore. So, with all my questions here, I guess what I'm asking you is for suggestions on analyzing your podcast audience.

Is anyone using a technique, tool or service that gives them what I am looking for?

iTunes U Goes Wide

Yesterday, Apple, Inc. launched its updated iTunes & the updated iTunes main site. (see Apple press release)

That includes iTunes Plus, which will allows you to purchase high-quality (256kpbs AAC format) music for $1.29 that DRM-free. Customers can still choose to purchase 99 cent versions of these songs that have digital rights management (DRM) that limits their usage. This initial DRM-free offering is from the EMI catalog and includes their music videos at no additional cost.

But what interests me from my NJIT perspective is that iTunes U is now a link within the main iTunes store, and NJIT is one of the "sweet 16" universities featured in the index. There are rumored to be more than 200 schools associated with iTunes U, though my own links list of public iTunes U schools that I have found is much smaller.

We're in good company. Though most news articles still mention the original schools (Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Duke University), Apple has wisely chosen to feature a variety of schools geographically & by size. So, you have MIT and Concordia Seminary, Penn State and Otis College of Art & Design.

There's a top 10 downloads list (though after one day it doesn't mean much, the existentialists are in the lead).

Our own Tech & Society Forum series is currently a featured podcast program. One of my favorites of that group is Freeman Dyson's talk on "Life After Darwin: The Open Software of Gene Transfer."

Freeman Dyson is such an interesting person to hear. He's a physicist and mathematician, famous for not only his his work in quantum mechanics, solid-state physics, but also his theorizing in futurism and science fiction concepts, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He's Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton (Yes, that's the place where Einstein spent his NJ days).

Included in the sixteen Forum podcasts is Cynthia Breazeal from MIT talking at NJIT about "Creating Sociable Robots", Michael Oppenheimer on global warming and a talk by NJIT's own Phil Goode who is the director of the Big Bear Solar Observatory (BBSO) located in California which is operated by the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

NJIT on iTunes U is used to deliver over 30 courses to students. Currently, eight of those are offered free to the public in our Open Courseware area.

Unlike some universities who have professors wearing microphones in class and recording lectures to offer students, we chose for pedagogical reasons not to pursue that course. The majority of our course offerings are polished, edited talks running much less than a standard lecture period. We didn't want the podcasts to be an "alternative" to class attendance, but rather a tool to extend the classroom.

An excellent example of this is Dr. Norbert Elliot of our Humanities department who has 4 courses offered in our public area. He uses the podcasts for face-to-face classes as preparation prior to the class session, and now begins the class at the point where the most discussion and active learning occurs.

Dr. Elliot was one of our earliest podcasters. We began in 2005, a full year before we even applied to be an iTunes U school, creating mp3's, testing video formats and distributing them from our own site starting with the spring 2006 semester. He was already creating screencasts (using Camtasia) and PowerPoint presentations with audio narration, so he made a smooth slide along the learning curve to podcasting. After some instruction, he produced his own podcasts (some audio mp3's, some video, some "enhanced podcasts" - slides with narration). Having our faculty act as content creators was the model we are most interested in encouraging.

Back then, though we were all impressed by the big podcasting projects such as Purdue's Boilercast, we knew that NJIT could not support with our limited staff any effort to podcast every lecture from every course, and, more importantly, we wouldn't want to even if we could. (I notice that Boilercast has also gone into iTunes U.)

I gave a presentation at an Apple podcasting session at Rutgers College in 2006 and an instructor in the audience asked me, "Why should a student come to my class if the lectures are all online?" My answer was to ask that if, in fact, students could get everything from the lecture in a podcast of it, why should anyone come to class? That wasn't the answer he wanted to hear.

My contention is that if your class is just a lecture with no interaction, no active learning, no added value to being there, then you are doing distance learning - but unfortunately, the distance is only from the front to the back of the room.

There is still some value to archiving lectures start to finish and offering them. It's great for a student who missed class, good for students to review for exams etc. But I cringe when I listen to some of these. I clicked on UC Berkeley's CS 61A, a course in computer science, and after 2 and a half minutes of listening in to a conversation about trying to get the lecture hall projector working correctly, I clicked off.

And I know from experience that IT staffers and faculty cannot be recording and editing all these podcasts. One of our instructors, after his initial semester recording his lectures start to finish, realized that the "shelf life" of them was going to be short. The 90 minutes included Q&A (some unintelligible) and discussion about homeworks, grading policy, exam schedules etc. The next semester he chose to record only the first 20 minutes of his class where he had prepared a concise mini-lecture. After that, mic off, he went into discussion, activities etc. Those mini-lectures are now, following the Elliot model, something students download before a class meeting, adding 20 minutes to his in-class discussion time. Not only did he change his recording method, he changed his approach to teaching.

Finally, I can't ignore the marketing aspect of iTunes U for NJIT. I have seen the number of iTunes users run all the way from Apple's conservative estimate of 10 million to the market research firm Current Analysis saying 200 million users. In any case, that's at least a few million new eyeballs that will see the NJIT name, branding and our content.

Our admissions office was amazed after doing their first 5 minute podcast last fall and having it available for only a week before an open house that students attending said they had downloaded it.

Podcasting, like many Web 2.0 applications, is not something that departments such as admissions, communications, public relations, athletics, alumni and advancement take to easily. They have grown as a print, press release, and mailings operation and the transition is tough.

I'm very curious to see how our download statistics change in the next few weeks given the wider exposure of our iTunes U offerings. (I hope to post about that in June.)

Let's try a social networking experiment - Why not click on that Freeman Dyson lecture right now and let's see if we can't send him right to the top of the most downloaded list!

Downloading NOTE: some podcasts are huge files - our Tech & Society Forum series files are video at about 300mb a shot, so if you don't want a big download, you can just doubleclick a title in the iTunes window and it will stream & play without actually downloading the file to your computer. Of course, if you want to transfer a program to your portable player or put it on a CD, you will need to download the file.