Podcasting lectures

I work at a college. I’ve been gently advocating introducing podcasting to our intranet website, and talking with various people – faculty and students, as well as staff – about the possibilities of using podcasting as a way to enhance in-class lectures. The reaction that I get, almost universally, is that this is just a high-tech way to skip class. I feel that folks are completely missing the point. What follows is a response that I wrote this morning on the intranet discussion forum. I thought I’d share it here because I’ve talked with a few of you, my constant readers, about this topic.


I’m interested, as I have this conversation with various people, that everyone seems to assume that listening to a podcast is an alternative to attending class. This strikes me as a fascinating conclusion to draw, but also strikes me as a rather fundamental misunderstanding of the value of this tool. There are two different uses that I’d suggest. However, the exciting thing about this technology, and the ways that it’s being used on campuses around the world, is specifically that it’s being used in unexpected ways, not that it’s being used in boring ways, like just skipping class. So here’s two very simple ways that it can be used – one fairly obvious, and the other more interesting.

First, there’s the obvious one. Lots of students take recorders to class. These might be microcasette recorders, or some variety of digital recorders. Then, on their own time, they re-listen to the lecture. Often, they will play the recordings while they exercise, or do laundry. They do this so that they can drum into their minds the things lectured on. It lets them replay the bits that they had trouble understanding, or bits during which their minds were wandering. When I was in graduate school, I did this, and I’d usually listen to the lecture at double speed, so that I could get the entire lecture reviewed in 15 or 20 minutes.

The problem with this is that the recordings are *always* poor quality, marred by the whispers and sneezes of the person next to me, subject to my batteries running out, and most importantly, they were lost when I needed to use that tape to record another lecture.

By recording podcasts, we have the same resource, but the quality is far better, and it is permanently archived. It also allows the professor to review what they covered on a particular day. The same resource is available to the entire class. And the students have something tangible that they can take away with them from the class – a CD of all the lectures that they attended, to which they can refer years later.

Yes, obviously, some slackers will use this as an opportunity to skip class. I took *very* few courses at Asbury where a mere recording could really substitute for actually attending class. If we have any professors who have that little interaction with their students, then perhaps the problem is the professor, not the technology. And, furthermore, if attendance is a requirement of the class, then it’s up to the professor to enforce that in some meaningful way other than simply depriving the student of knowledge.

Ok, idea two. This one is far more exciting and interesting to me. I’ll illustrate by a particular example, but I’m sure you can extend it to other ideas. Consider an art appreciation class where various paintings are being discussed. Simplistically, a slide show. As each painting is shown, a brief description is given, perhaps something about the artist, the history, and critical notes on the painting.

As it happens, the m4b format (which many podcasts use) allows for “chapters” with an image associated with each chapter. This would be ideal for such a presentation. It would also be great for a “how-to” style podcast that was presented to accompany a physics lab, with a photograph of each step of the experiment. I’m planning to do just such a podcast to accompany my daughter’s science fair experiment, with a photo illustrating each step of the experiment. Fortunately, the software for producing this is very easy to use, as you might know if you watched Steve Jobs’ keynote during the recent Apple conference – you record the audio, and then drag the images to the appropriate time during the recording.

So, I’ve droned on for quite a while. I tend to do that when I’m excited about a particular topic. I just really feel that most folks are totally missing the point of this exciting technology, and seeing it as nothing more than a high-tech way to justify missing class. Rather like the folks that stay in bed and watch church on TV. It’s so much more than that.