Podcasting goes to college

Along with packing instant noodles, extra-long bedsheets and photos of loved ones before heading to college in a few weeks, U.S. students may consider adding portable media players to their higher-education lists. Boston-area universities are among those increasingly integrating podcasting into the classroom technology mix.

The academic role of podcasts is proving contentious. Some professors argue that students will be discouraged from attending class if lectures are made available for downloading, while others are not keen on being recorded. There are also intellectual property concerns.

While those are issues to contend with, this region's universities and colleges are experimenting with podcasting. The Boston area is dense with higher-education institutions and is noted as well for the presence of technology companies. Add to those elements technologically savvy students.

"It is connecting to a generation who may prefer to watch and listen than read," Emerson College's Jon Satriale said of that school's podcasting initiative. He is Emerson's journalism technology manager and is helping to integrate podcasting into the college's curriculum.

Emerson, Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other Boston-area schools, have launched podcasting efforts.

Emerson records lectures for podcasting on a case-by-case basis, according to Satriale. The college eventually plans to implement a system that records most lectures and makes them available for downloading.

Emerson's student groups and academic departments also are finding uses for portable media players.

The school's environmental group recorded a speech Massachusetts Senator John Kerry delivered last month in Boston and turned it into a podcast and videocast. Satriale and the career services department recently tested podcasts and videocasts of alumni who were interviewed for job advice. Speeches delivered by college guest lecturers are also turned into podcasts and videocasts.

The digital divide between students with and without portable music players is not an issue for colleges that offer computers with Internet access.

"An iPod is a luxury that allows you to take it on the go," Satriale said. "The important thing is having a computer. Any college that is connected to the Internet has computers in its library that students can use."

Northeastern University's School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS) introduced podcasting last year, according to Christopher Hopey, the school's vice president and dean. Between 50 and 70 lectures are podcast. The college's student body, which is mostly comprised of working professionals and students over the age of 25, fostered the need for podcasting, said Hopey.

"They're traveling for work or have family commitments," he said. "We think it is the right tool for our students to graduate and do something with their lives."

SPCS students can download missed lectures and catch up with coursework. Other professors podcast lectures and use class time for discussion instead of lecturing.

Hopey sees podcasting as a supplement to the college experience and has found that students who add podcasting to classroom learning are more engaged in the material.

"Students are able to expand their knowledge base. Podcasting is just one more of those technologies that adds one more modality of learning."

Northeastern has plans to roll out podcasting to all of its undergraduates, but has no time line for the expansion.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began experimenting with videocasting after a school vice president developed a videocast indexing system last year.

"We leapfrogged the whole audio podcast and decided to go directly into video podcasts," said Larry Gallagher, director, MIT video productions and digital technologies and distance education delivery.

MIT's foray into the medium started by videotaping two lectures, a professor conducting a tutorial and a teacher's assistant holding a homework help session.

Students praised MIT's videocasting offerings and enjoyed the convenience of accessing the material. Students also said that they used the service as an addition to class learning.

MIT produces a videocast magazine and videocasts of research, athletics and special lectures, among other subjects. Audio podcasts are also available for some of these events.

Despite early success, there are issues to work through. Besides enabling students to skip classes, recording and distributing college lectures might create intellectual property woes, while some staff might shun being recorded.

A slide referred to during a lecture is fair use, but placing a video of that lecture on the Web for downloading to an iPod may raise copyright concerns, Gallagher said.

"Some professors think the technology offers an easy way for students to catch up on missed classes, others are uncomfortable being recorded in any fashion and some professors feel the technology makes it easier for students to miss classes and miss key in-class interactions," said Emerson's Satriale.

So, schools see portable media's role in academia as developing.

"We intend on continuing with our podcast experiment," Gallagher said. "Where it goes from there we're not sure."

"Technology makes students more engaged, more into learning. It also make things a bit scary because we don't know what happens next with it," Hopey said.

Student demand for a new method of learning may further drive the adoption of portable media, even among those who understand the need to show up for class.

"Podcasting is a great way of relaying information and I support it," said Danny Zach, an Emerson junior. "But you need to go to class to ask questions and to have that classroom interaction."

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