Podcasts as Educational Resources
Over the last few months, numerous articles have appeared in the major American media on podcasting. Of particular interest are three recent newspaper articles, all of which report on the rapid growth of podcasting by well known American schools. Interestingly, the three newspapers — the Washington Post (December 30, 2007), The New York Times (December 19, 2007) and the Los Angeles Times (November 24, 2007) — point out that these podcasted courses are drawing a huge audience of listeners and that the professors have become internet "stars" with followings and fans both within the academy and amongst non-traditional learners. In order to better understand why, rather suddenly, podcasting is creating media buzz and how free podcasts can be used by UMUC teachers and students, I will develop responses to two questions:
- What is educational podcasting as it exists today?
- How can existing educational podcasts be useful as a resource for teaching and learning at UMUC?
Podcasting takes many forms in addition to the university lectures mentioned in the aforementioned newspaper articles: podcasts are featured on National Public Radio, the Smithsonian Institution, the Oyez Project, the BBC, and many other prominent Web sites.
To avoid all mystification and misunderstanding, let's begin with podcasting basics.
What is educational podcasting?
A podcast is an audio file that has been published to the internet and to which one can subscribe; the podcast will then be automatically downloaded to one's computer. Once the podcast is downloaded to one's personal computer, it can be transferred to any MP3 player or one of the iPod models. Generally, this process requires little special attention or effort on the part of the user.
When these audio files are accompanied with video, they are most often called "vodcasts." The podcasts and vodcasts that I am discussing in this article can all be downloaded with absolutely no cost to the listener or viewer.
It should be emphasized that one need not own any Apple product to access these podcasts. They can be very easily downloaded to a standard personal computer.
By far the largest depository of podcasts on the planet is on the Apple Web site, iTunes, and it is the most convenient place to start researching educational podcasts. One need not be an Apple or iPod "owner" or fan to access this site.
The best way to grasp this educational phenomenon is to visit iTunes U for oneself. Here's how:
- Go to http://www.apple.com
- Go to http://www.apple.com/itunes/
- On the right side of this screen, click on iTunes 7 (as of 17 December 07); Download Now. Follow prompts to download the software for the iTunes Store and your personal iTunes Library. There's no charge. This process is relatively simple but occasionally snags. If you have trouble, be patient. I would estimate that on the average, it should take about four minutes to effect this download.
- Once you have downloaded the iTunes 7, under the general menu, to the left of the screen, you will see iTunes U with a "new" icon next to it. Click on this, and below it you will see a partial list of universities that are podcasting their courses.
- Clicking on the name of the school, you see icons with its course titles and descriptions. One may either subscribe to the whole course or individual lessons/lectures. Once you choose which you want, click on the name of the course and the software will move the file onto your computer into your iTunes Library. At that point, if you don't have a mobile device, you should be able to simply play the audio or video file on your computer.
Learners may subscribe to a whole college course or simply request a single lecture that interests them. Often the classroom interaction is included in these podcasts as well, which brings course content to life and allows the person listening to the podcast or viewing the vodcast to participate vicariously in class discussions.
Podcasts also take other forms. The Web sites of major news providers are podcasting a great deal of valuable material. The BBC publishes its major news broadcasts and many more specialized financial, political, and technological topics as podcasts. National Public Radio, similarly, gives easy access to current themes of obvious value and interest. Many other types of podcasts can be accessed not only at their own websites but also through the Apple site, iTunes.
Some of the podcasted university courses are Web enhanced and have extensive support material on their course Web sites. In one of the philosophy courses at UC Berkeley, in addition to the podcasted course itself, the instructor has articles, glossaries, multiple translations, Web links, bibliographies, and video interviews.
Schools often use their exemplary faculty for these courses, both for their eminence and knowledge, and to attract a large and diverse audience. Yale has recently published a series of free and open courses at http://open.yale.edu/courses/. Even a cursory look at the course titles and professors of the Yale podcasts, ranging from astronomy and physics to English and philosophy, demonstrates the school's engagement in this innovative project.
How can existing educational podcasts be useful as a resource for teaching and learning at UMUC?
To pursue this question, let's put ourselves in our students' shoes and see educational podcasts through their eyes.
Generally, they own an MP3 player or one of the various iPods. They are comfortable using the iTunes Web site. Most of the (many) students that I have discussed podcasting with are familiar and comfortable with the ins and outs of the iTunes library. Many students already subscribe to the BBC or NPR current events podcasts.
Over the last year or so, I have been using current events podcasts from NPR, the BBC, and the U.S. Supreme Court Oyez Project and in my writing and humanities classes. Most of the strategies that I have been using can easily be adapted to a wide range of teaching/learning situations at UMUC. I have used podcasted reports from the BBC or NPR on the US primaries, the Middle East, and financial trends such as the US dollar-euro exchange rate to bring very current information and topics of discussion to my courses. Academically, there is not much difference between the content of the podcasts and a traditional academic source. The advantage of using the podcast is that it is totally current and often contains within it multiple points of view and lively discussions. Thus, students are exposed to critical thinking in action on lively, current topics.
These podcasts on current events subjects can be used for group projects, to brainstorm research paper topics, and as traditional resources for research papers.
Another example of using an academically compelling use of podcasts occurred in several of my other courses, namely Introduction to Philosophy and Critical Approaches to Literature. Several students in these classes were fascinated by existentialism and wanted to pursue this theme on their own. I suggested that they consult a UC Berkeley podcast on existentialism. What did they discover when they went to this podcasted course?
- Several whole podcasted courses by the important US philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus. The students didn't stop at the two lectures I had suggested but listened to most of the course.
- They also found Dreyfus' current articles on existentialism. These are treasures because they review the history and current literature on the subject.
- Interviews with him in print and on video. This added a human touch to his formal courses on existentialism.
- Links to his major books
Consulting the podcast and Web site were only the first steps in a research quest for these students that lasted most of the term. The students shared their finds and ideas with the other students; they also asked for my assistance in the search for other podcasts of similar quality.
During this educational journey, the students' sense of critical thinking was reinforced. The class quickly saw that the Berkeley professor's whole approach to philosophy is different from mine and these contrasting views formed the basis of many interesting discussions. Other stimulating discussions sprang from the students consulting the podcast and navigating its ancillary material.
I am referring to my own courses only as a matter of convenience: the process of learning that I am describing here applies to almost all courses and levels.
In doing this, I tried to strike a balance between conventional academic uses and strategies that assisted my students, who are generally highly comfortable with the internet, images, video, and open oral discussion. As I was experimenting with this, it seemed obvious that the students were utterly comfortable with the technology and also enjoyed the following facets of the podcast universe:
- Repetition - Students could replay the podcasts as often as they wanted.
- Convenience - It was easy to listen to the ‘casts while exercising or driving. One student-mom mentioned how pleased she was to listen to one of the Supreme Court oral arguments that I used to deepen critical thinking while doing some of the daily duties involved with having a new baby.
- Tone and Idiom - For the most part, these podcasts are sensitive to their audiences, well written and spoken.
- Value-Added - Generally, my use of the podcasts added either information or thematic material that enriched without distracting from my own course.
A confluence of technical, social, commercial, and psychological factors is fueling the use of podcasting in US and international education.
The podcasting of full university f2f courses is just one use of podcasting. Additionally, students and teachers can easily visit the following sites for academically serious podcasts: National Public Radio, the Smithsonian Institution, the Oyez Project, the BBC, and many others also have podcasts.
The Center for Teaching and Learning, in cooperation with Information and Library Services, hopes to offer a workshop on locating, evaluating, and using open source, free educational resources, including podcasting during the 2008-9 year.
At 71, Physics Professor is Web Star by Sara Rimer. New York Times, December 19, 2007.
The iPod Lecture Circuit by Michelle Quinn. Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2007.
Internet Access Is Only Prerequisite for More and More College Classes by Susan Kinzie. Washington Post. December 31, 2007.
Open Yale Courses: http://open.yale.edu/courses
National Public Radio Podcast Directory. http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php
British Broadcasting Corporation Podcast Directory. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/podcasts/directory/station/worldservice/
U.S. Supreme Court Oyez. http://www.oyez.org/