Podcasting in Education: A Perspective from Bryn Mawr College

by Laura Blankenship, Bryn Mawr College

A podcast is a media file that is distributed by subscription (paid or unpaid) over the Internet using syndication feeds, for playback on mobile devices and personal computers…Like ‘radio‘, it can mean both the content and the method of syndication. The latter may also be termed podcasting. The host or author of a podcast is often called a podcaster.

Though podcasters’ web sites may also offer direct download or streaming of their content, a podcast is distinguished from other digital audio formats by its ability to be downloaded automatically using software capable of reading feed formats such as RSS or Atom.

If you haven’t heard of podcasting in education, then you’ve likely been hiding under a rock. Ever since Duke launched its iPod initiative a couple of years ago, educators have been exploring not just the use of audio, but the connection of audio to the iPod and to other portable music devices. With the increased availability of easy-to-use tools and applications such as iTunesU, more and more faculty and students are jumping on the podcasting bandwagon. Although a few truly innovative uses have cropped up, podcasts have thus far primarily been used for recording lectures for perusal by students for review purposes or by the general public who might be interested. A search of the iTunes Store for educationally-oriented podcasts shows a number of trends. Large, resource-rich universities such as Stanford and Princeton feature not only class content but also lecture series sponsored by the schools in many fields. Language instruction also predominates as do programs that offer short tips on topics such as grammar and LSAT preparation. For liberal arts colleges with few lecture-only classes and fewer resources than the Princetons or the Stanfords out there, the use of podcasts seems at first glance to be unnecessary and undesirable; however, there is some real potential for podcasts to enhance the experience of students in a liberal arts environment. Podcasting (and screencasting) is not just about the one-to-many delivery of lecture material; it also allows professors to reconfigure the use of class time in ways that enhance the intimate learning environment that is the hallmark of the small liberal arts college.

Three Bryn Mawr professors in the sciences began experimenting with podcasting last year. All of them gained a new perspective on their teaching and on the students’ learning processes.

Michelle Francl began podcasting in the Fall of 2005 in her Physical Chemistry course, a course that is relatively small (about 25 students), but still largely centered on lectures. This arrangement is typical of many science classes, even at liberal arts colleges, because of the need to present a large amount of foundational material. Professor Francl found herself increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement and was looking for a new way to organize her class. After seeing a presentation by Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemistry professor at Drexel University, Francl decided to give podcasting and screencasting a try. She had been concerned, as are many professors considering podcasting, about student attendance and a possible drop in performance as a result. Bradley showed that while attendance in his very large lecture class did drop, performance did not. Michelle found that because her class was small and because she strategically edited her podcasts to remove announcements and other information, her students attended class regularly. The podcasts, which she produced both as a videocast and as an audio-only file, were, as she described it, “like TiVo for lectures.” But this was just the beginning for Francl. Now that she has made an initial collection of lectures for this class, she hopes to assign the lectures to be listened to before class. She explained her reason for this as purely pedagogical: “I used to do the easy case in class and then send the students home to work on the hard case. That’s just the opposite of what you should do. Now they can listen to the easy case before class and we can work in class on the hard case.”

In addition to the positive response she received from students, Francl also received recognition from outside Bryn Mawr College. She had created a course blog on which she posted the link to her podcasts and which enabled her to generate the RSS feed that allows for automatic distribution of new files (see box above). She also submitted that feed to iTunes and, after a few weeks, found herself in the top ten educational podcasts. She received email from several of her “fans,” who were students without access to higher education, retired professors keeping up with the field, and students who were supplementing their studies at other institutions with her lectures. She was thrilled to see that there was an audience beyond her classroom for her work.

Neal Williams and Peter Brodfuehrer, professors in biology who team-teach an introductory course, also wanted to embark on podcasting. They had already been posting their PowerPoint lectures into Blackboard. For them, posting the videocast or the audio of their lectures was simply the next logical step. Professor Williams, especially, was a bit more skeptical than Francl about the issues involved in podcasting. He shared her concern about attendance, but he also was worried about the time it might take to produce the podcasts. Incorporating any technology into a class effectively takes time, and podcasting proved no different, but he says it was worth it. He received positive feedback from the students about the podcasts and plans to use them again when he teaches the class again. Professor Brodfuehrer also enjoyed using podcasts. “It made it easy to move between teaching techniques and styles and to use different information formats such as Powerpoint and webpages (the ability to show high quality artwork and simulations easily) and the the tablet (ability to diagram steps and thought processes of underlying material and examples). However, the professors also found that students sometimes did not use the podcasts as effectively as they might have liked. Some students, for example, listened to all the podcasts before exams, essentially re-taking the class and cramming for the exam. Instead, Williams thinks that a more effective use, which he saw a great many students doing, is to skim the lectures for key points that students did not understand. Brodfuehrer said that in future classes, he would like to have a discussion with students about effective uses of the screencasts. Like Professor Francl, Professor Williams sees ways he might alter his use of podcasts in the future rather than simply posting lectures online. He could see, for example, using podcasts to do pre-lab demonstrations, which might result in less confusion for the students. Or they might be used strictly for supplementary material that cannot be covered in class.

All three faculty members say they have learned something about their own teaching styles from listening to their podcasts or simply being aware of the recording process. Professor Williams says he is more aware of the lecture content and is less likely to stray off-topic. He also says that he more clearly focuses on kernels of information and frames that information in a context. Brodfuehrer, too, found screencasting to be a useful tool for evaluating and critiquing his own teaching. Francl found it somewhat painful to listen to herself at first, but gained valuable insights in learning where her strengths and weaknesses as a lecturer lie. Primarily, all are interested in finding ways to help students learn difficult material. The sciences, Williams says, require sifting through a lot of information; thus, the more tools he provides to help students make sense of that material, the better. In the future, he hopes to work on assessing the effectiveness of podcasts to see whether students have better retention in podcast-supported classes.

One area the three faculty members have not explored yet, but have considered, is student-created podcasts. Such podcasts make more sense in classes where oral presentation is more common, such as languages. Many faculty are using student-created audio by simply assessing students’ language skills, but they have not taken this further by having students create longer assignments. Certainly, this is on the horizon. As students who have been accustomed to using these tools on their own or for assignments in elementary and high school begin arriving on our campuses, we will see them respond to assignments with multimedia elements. Students have integrated video into paper assignments, for example, or are creating video and audio-based presentations. Some faculty, too, are beginning to think about requiring multimedia assignments. The effective use of podcasts, whether the source is faculty lectures or student assignments, is something those of us in liberal arts environments need to consider. Many podcasts now might be primarily faculty lectures that show little thought to the listeners outside the classroom and which reinscribe the “sage on the stage” model of teaching, but as Professors Francl and Williams have shown, we can rethink how podcasts effect our teaching and how they might enhance the intimate liberal arts classroom.