iPods keep students in tune with class

`Podcasts' audio shows are a big hit with college students who miss a lecture or two

October 23, 2005|By JODI S. COHEN

CHICAGO -- When Purdue University senior Marcos Kohler skipped a physics class to attend a concert in Chicago, he didn't have to borrow a classmate's notes to catch up.

Instead, he connected his silver iPod to a computer, downloaded the lecture, and from the comfort of a campus coffee shop, listened to the two-hour discussion on particle physics.

"It recreates the entire class experience," said Kohler, 22, who missed another lecture at the West Lafayette, Ind., campus when he overslept for the 1:30 p.m. class. A video conference class would be even better, he said, but "to go from paper printouts to audio, this is a step in the right direction."

It's a step that a small but growing number of professors are trying. By turning class lectures into "podcasts" - free audio shows that students can download to their iPods or other portable players - students can skip lecture hall but not the lesson.

Supporters say podcasts help students who miss a class or want to review the material, while professors get points for being flexible and using the latest, hippest gadget.

More traditional professors fear that by listening to lectures on the run, students will miss out on learning that can only happen when students and instructors come together.

Professors have posted lecture notes, PowerPoint slides and other written class material online for years, but instructors only recently began testing the best uses of the popular audio technology.

At Drexel University in Philadelphia, a chemistry professor assigns digitally recorded lectures, recorded last semester, for homework and then uses class time to review problems. At the University of Michigan, lectures can be automatically delivered to dentistry students' computers or portable devices.

And, at the University of Hawaii, hundreds of students in a computer science class are required to attend lecture hall only twice a semester - for the midterm and final. Instead of a textbook, they purchase a small iPod at the bookstore, though most students already have one, the course professor said.

Universities have found other ways to test podcasting, using it to publicize campus news and broadcast Sunday Mass.

A newscast about coming events at Allegheny College begins: "Sit back, relax, enjoy. If you're in the car, drive safely while you listen. If you're at the gym, stay focused on what you're doing and be safe."

The California Institute of Technology admissions office last week released an 11-minute podcast for prospective students that leaves listeners with the impression that the school is nerdy, in a hip kind of way.

Rick Bishoff, admissions director at Caltech, said a podcast is a perfect way to grab the attention of busy high school seniors. "I want high school students to listen and imagine, `that is a community I want to be part of.' Or say, `that doesn't sound like any place that I want to be a part of.'"

At a recent national conference for admissions counselors, TwigPod Productions, a Pasadena, Calif.-based marketing company that produced the Caltech podcast, pitched the idea to other colleges. The podcasts cost between $5,000 and $7,500, depending on their complexity.

Some universities, such as Purdue and North Carolina's Duke University, have university-wide programs that make it easy for professors to become podcasters.

Purdue this fall introduced a podcasting service, called BoilerCast, that records and downloads lectures to the school Web site at professors' requests.

About 60 professors are using the service, and their students can access the lectures as soon as 10 minutes after class.

Since Aug. 22, when the program began, the Web site has had more than 34,000 downloads, said Michael Gay, Purdue's manager of broadcast networks and services.

Erica Carlson, one professor podcasting her lectures, said attendance in her 22-student seminar class on thermal and statistical physics hasn't declined.

Carlson downloads her lectures to iTunes as well as the Purdue site. After she was featured on the home page of the iTunes Web site, the number of subscribers to her podcast shot up to 750 from 100.

A college history major e-mailed to say he enjoyed her lectures, as did an engineer who graduated from college years ago.

"I love an audience, but an audience of 750 that I can't read or get feedback from is intimidating," Carlson said.

Her two-hour class hasn't changed, she said. "We run the course just like we did before. Just now it is more accessible."

Duke University professor Richard Lucic, who has 27 students in an introductory computer science course, uses podcast lectures and also requires students to listen to independent podcasts related to class topics.

The easy availability of his lectures hasn't affected attendance, he said, likely because class participation counts for 15 percent of a student's grade.

Jodi S. Cohen writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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