Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Podcasting in Education

Evo Terra at Podcasting panel at WesterCon 58, July 3, 2005.

Michael Mennenga at the Podcasting panel

Tee Morris at the same panel

I recently attended a conference (Westercon 58 in Calgary) where I met Tee Morris and Evo Terra (co-authors of the forthcoming Podcasting for Dummies manual), and Michael Mennenga (Terra's co-host on their weekly radio /podcast show). I spent about four hours pumping Terra in particular for anecdotes and insights, and we both were intrigued by the educational potential of this new medium. Evo pointed out that the main barrier for the average citizen to podcasting was the bandwidth requirements, but that these do not apply to educational institutions which generally speaking have much greater bandwidth than they are currently utilizing. (When I asked my own IT people about this, they immediately assured me that university policy was to purchase memory as needed, and that I could access as much bandwidth as required to produce learning objects, such as course-related podcasts.) Evo gave the example of his wife, a jr. high English teacher who had for several years been buying, reviewing, and then presenting young adult books to her students in hopes that some of them would borrow and read one or more of the books. Evo had essentially said to her, "Look, you're doing this presentation on a book every week to your 30 students anyway, why not podcast it as a weekly show and allow other English teachers across the country to benefit from your work?" Sounds like a brilliant idea to me, and one that will quickly revolutionize how teachers access resources, and therefore something for which I need to prep my student teachers.

What I got from Evo was how podcasting is catching on with millions of American commuters who are stuck in their cars for hours at a time and growing bored with just listening to music. Podcasting therefore represents the rebirth of radio, because it provides specific programming on demand. Radio mystery, comedy, drama, etc. is suddenly back in because podcasting technology allows anyone to produce their own shows cheaply and to deliver them directly to their own niche market. Tee Morris, for example, produced 26 weekly podcasts of an abridged version of his fantasy novel, Morevi in hopes of attracting potential readers/buyers.

Michael Mennenga reviewed some of the technology available to produce professional radio quality podcasts and it is astonishingly affordable. The bottom line is that $35US buys one a USB compatible microphone, which is sufficient for acceptable quality 'talk radio' or most educational applications; $150US buys one a mixing console to facilitate more sophisticated integration of music etc.; and $350US buys a complete package that integrates the hardware with dedicated software controls for high end podcasts. If $350 gets one's garageband on air and lets the local SF club produce its own professional quality SF drama, well then hello 500,000 channel universe. (The sociological implications here are very intriguing since media analysts are still trying to come to terms with the 500 channel universe.)

Advantages of podcasting over videoconferencing for distance learning

First, audio may represent a better use of student time. Many of my target audience are rural teachers -- that is why they are taking the courses at a distance, after all -- and the most common pattern is for these teachers to live in one small rural community, and to teach in another...leaving them with a daily commute. For these graduate students, the daily commute is mostly 'deadtime', and providing a weekly podcast of their course lecture is likely to be greeted as an improvement because it allows them to multitask -- two birds with one stone is a deal in anyone's books. In contrast, videoconferencing is generally ineffective because it requires the student to forego other activities to attend class without the actual benefit of being in the classroom with the instructor. Even if we use streaming video so the student can access the video at their convenience, we're dealing with the painful exercise of trying to attend to a talking head for three hours -- not possible. Thus, "less is more" here: audio wins over video because the video component is not carrying its weight in information and ties the viewer up whereas audio frees the listener to drive, walk the dog or do other chores.

Second, audio is easier for the instructor. To produce an audio lecture from my existing lesson scripts requires only as many hours as it would to deliver the lectures in person. In contrast, video conferencing requires additional technical staff or technical know-how and effort on the part of the instructor. Attempts to make the videos more effective (inserting other visuals into the taped lecture, for example) require an expenditure of effort on the part of the instructor out of all proportion to standard face-to-face delivery, and so is a major disincentive to innovative teaching. Thus video demands too much from both lecturer and listener.

Third, podcasting allows for greater Individualized instruction. Supplementing the core lectures is similarly easy. For example, in my graduate methodology course, half my students have already taken three or four methods courses in their undergraduate program, whereas the other half have had nothing previously. If I include the lecture on hypotheses for those without any background in research, those with previous courses become bored out of their minds; but if I skip it, those without the background are quickly left behind, lost and terrified. Making the lecture on hypotheses available online as a supplementary resource means that those students who need the lecture can get it, while those who do not need not trouble themselves.

Similarly, our introductory research course is designed as a survey class that lays out the range of research methodologies and orientations available and so cannot provide much depth for any one approach. With the ease with which additional lectures can be made available as online podcasts, one could easily allow students to select a 'custom made' course that would allow them, for example, to choose to focus on either qualitative methodologies or quantitative methodologies in much greater depth.

Fourth, Weekly podcasts may encourage the development of learning objects. Not only could one do a 13 week course via podcasts with no more effort than the usual face to face lectures (especially if one is primarily a 'chalk and talk' style lecturer like myself), but one could continue the weekly episodes to build up supplementary materials. For example, I propose to phone up various methodological theorists and interview them for my course -- doing one one hour phone interview a week would probably not be particularly onerous for either myself nor my potential interview subjects, but over the course of a year yield an additional 40-50 learning objects students could access.

Fifth, podcasting can be easily integrated with other pedagogical techniques. Michael, for example, assured me that PowerPoint presentations could be keyed to podcasts, such that the slides would progress on screen as the podcast provided the associated audio. Of course, this reduces advantage #1 above, but does mean that PowerPoint lectures can be deliver as effectively at a distance as in a face-to-face situation.

Sixth, podcasting could off load lectures from class time If students in a regular (as opposed to distance ed) situation can access lectures outside of class time (perhaps in lieu of equivalent reading hours), then classroom time could be devoted to workshop and hands on style applications. This may not be useful in all classes, but I can think of several situations where I would love to free up class time for direct consultation/interaction with and between students, while still being assured students have the opportunity to hear me cover the key curricular concepts.

Seventh, podcasting can reach a broad audience. This one is still open to discussion, but I'm thinking of making my podcasts broadly available through the Internet, rather than just to my own students. It seems to me that some student in Illinois might well benefit from hearing my lectures as a supplement to his/her own instructor -- I often find it useful to get two or three different takes when trying to master new concepts. On the other hand, as Mary pointed out to me, interview subjects may balk at a permanent universally available recording....They may be only prepared to participate if the podcast are secured behind WebCT logins and up only for the duration of the course. Though personally, I am fine with having my ideas out there as broadly as possible. So we'll see how that one works out.

Eighth, Podcasts open the way to innovative teaching Speaking of interviews, one way to break up the lecture might be to include phone interviews with key speakers. I can't get big names to drop into my class easily, but a phone interview might well be possible...Students should love hearing it from the horses mouth, and talk radio is probably more dynamic than straight lecture. And that is only the beginning. I think one problem with videoconferencing and other distance learning tools is that we are too preoccupied with recreating the face-to-face classroom. But the effectiveness of face-to-face instruction is something of a myth and our preoccupation with recreating that format as closely as possible in distance learning contexts may have more to do with functional fixedness than with effective pedagogy. Let's give talk radio a chance to evolve as its own unique educational tool, with different advantages (and undoubtedly, problems) and figure out which content is best suited to which formats.

Ninth, well, I'm still thinking this through and experimenting, but I'm pretty sure there will be other latent functions here. Of course, I'm sure there may be latent dysfunctions that will turn up too, but we'll have to see.

One question that Jim Henry suggested to me is whether instructors can talk into a microphone as fluently as to a class...without the body language feedback from the students one depends on to pace lessons, to decide what needs to be clarified, and what needs to be skipped over. An issue raised by colleague George Bedard is whether podcasts address the issues of peer learning adequately -- cohorts like getting together for class for reasons of moral as much as for direct learning opportunities; and it is not clear how podcasting can provide some of the support for students who require reassurance about how they are doing. But perhaps a phone in question and answer session could be a start?

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