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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 May 6 - 12:00 am

1. Education On the Run

 Special Report: Distance Education  

Education On the Run
The launch of iTunes U fuels the expanding use of podcasts at colleges across the country.  

 

By Paul Bradley

You’ve seen them. The seemingly sullen and distant college student, ear buds snugly inserted, seemingly oblivious to all that surrounds them, embedded deep in a private world while their favorite tunes blare or downloaded video clips play on their iPod.

Or maybe not.

These students could, in fact, be learning — listening to a podcast of a chemistry lecture, reviewing the nuances of the iambic pentameter or learning about the proper manipulation of an injured hand.

They could be studying in a fashion characteristic of a new generation of students – the so-called “digital natives” who came of age in the era of the Internet, e-mail, Facebook and cellular phones.

Just as the iPod revolutionized the music industry, the portable media player now is transforming higher education like few distance education initiatives before it. Fueled by the development of iTunes U — a section of Apple’s ITunes music store where colleges and universities can deliver free audio, video and other educational information to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection – podcasting is fast becoming an essential educational tool for colleges and universities.

“It has really taken higher education by storm,” says Ray Schroeder, professor emeritus and head of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “Educators are discovering that they can use a multi-media approach to reach and engage their students.”

Some educators also note that the on-the-go convenience that podcasting offers is particularly appealing for two-year college students.

“The community college has a new generation of students. They are not full time. They work,” says Qiquan Wang, director of instructional technology at  HACC (formally known as Harrisburg Area Community College). “Podcasting can provide an opportunity for time-shifting – students don’t have to sit at their desks to learn. Our students are demanding this.”

Since iTunes U launched a year ago, educational material has been downloaded from it millions of times, according to the company. About 500 colleges now are part of iTunes U, including several dozen community colleges.

Where the Students Are

Higher education’s ready embrace of Apple’s iTunes initiative is easy to understand. That’s where their students can be found. Young people have embraced the technology of portable media devices like no other. Since iPods were first introduced in 2001, sales have topped 100 million worldwide. More than 2.5 billion songs  have been purchased from the iTunes music store, according to Apple.

Moreover, the relationship between colleges and Apple seems to benefit all parties. Unlike Apple’s music store, where songs cost 99 cents each, everything on iTunes U is free. Colleges get free access to Apple’s massive bandwidth and storage capabilities. Apple gets rich and diverse content which drives potential customers to their music store and high-tech products.

For students, iTunes U means that they no longer must rely on notes scribbled during a fast-moving lecture. That missed class is no longer gone forever. Students can download content to their computers, transfer it to an iPod and listen to it anywhere, anytime – at work, on the treadmill, before going to bed.

But to educators like Schroeder, educational podcasts are more than a convenience for students. He contends they have become an educational imperative.

“It is so important,” he says. “Technology increasingly pervades our society. If education doesn’t come along, what we are doing is pulling students out of their digital environment and putting them into textbooks. That doesn’t work. We don’t use scrolls anymore. We don’t use writing tablets. The technology is where the students are.”

Still, Schroeder warns against over exuberance. There is scant data on their effectiveness as teaching tools. There are no uniform standards for podcasts. There is a danger that students will use podcasting as an excuse to ditch class.

In addition, podcasts could widen the digital divide. Not all students own an iPod. While community colleges likely will never replicate Duke University’s practice of issuing iPods to all its students, some are making them available for checkout in their libraries. Students actually need not own an iPod to download iTunes U material, but they do need access to a personal computer and Internet connection, either at their college or at home.

Moreover, the quality of podcasts themselves can vary widely. A recording of a dry, hour long lecture is not very inviting to digital natives. Schroeder believes podcasts must be less than 15 minutes in length to be effective, a bow to the short attention spans of some of today’s students.

The New Digital Culture

Nonetheless, enthusiasm about podcasting is growing. Google search of “iTunes U” yielded 590,000 hits.

No institution has embraced iTunes U more warmly than Broome Community College, a 5,500-student institution based in Binghamton, N.Y. Earlier this year, the college became the first two-year institution to earn a coveted spot on the iTunes U Web site, being featured in a list of colleges alongside institutions like Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Broome President Laurence D. Spraggs – a self-described technology enthusiast who carries  his own iPod in his briefcase while traveling – says iTunes U responds to the needs and desires of students.

“Today students are already using portable audio in their personal lives,” he says. “I saw the way my own son was using his iPod. Our mission here is to meet the growing needs of the community, so embracing and incorporating technology into our academic programs makes sense.”

Spraggs is a former biology instructor. One of his lingering frustrations as a professor was the need to repeat difficult-to-grasp lessons over and over again. The iPod eliminates the need for that. A student can review material repeatedly, anywhere, anytime.

“The portability is really central to it,” Spraggs says. “That is where we are going as educational institutions.”

Jesse Wells, the college’s director of electronic communications, says podcasting and iTunes U represent a natural progression.

“This is really the same thing as we went through in the 1990s when we said, ‘do we really need a Web site?’” Wells says. “This new digital culture we are getting into is just another turn of the wheel.”

Denise Abrams heads the college’s physical therapist assistant program and produced the very first video Broome posted on ITunes U. Her students welcome the chance to view procedures, allowing them to practice until they get them right. Broome’s iTunes U site includes more than 120 video podcasts for physical therapist assistant students.

“A lot of my students have a very visual style of learning,” she says. “I really think (podcasting) has its place. It augments what we can do in the classroom. I think it can help them get a deeper understanding of the material.”

ITunes U has also been a marketing boon for Broome, Spraggs says. Apple reports that Broome’s materials have been downloaded more than 100,000 times – an impressive number for a college with 5,500 students.

From the beginning, Broome officials tried to clear the hurdles that marked the earliest days of ITunes U. Subject matter and quality of courses varied widely. The video content tended to be static, little more than a slideshow and a professor’s voiceover. Some were merely a recording of the “sage on the stage” – a professor reciting a lecture.

Richard David is Broome’s public relations officer. He has a background as a television newsman, and he brought with him an ethic for the kind of production values that make electronic media work.

He heads a staff that operates much like a news crew; goals are discussed before any taping starts and presentations are polished for an audience that is accustomed to highly-produced videos. A video photographer tapes all podcasts, which are then edited and shown to the instructor before being posted.

“This was a chance for us to be a leader and provide a service for our students,” he says. “That’s what compelled us to keep moving forward on this.”                      

Broome’s iTunes presence also includes much more than just educational material. In addition to lectures and classes, there is a public section made up of news releases, audio and video interviews with college faculty and staff members, campus life activities, art and musical performances and sports. In all, Broome’s iTunes U site has more than 350 downloadable podcasts.

“We have a rich array of content, which is what Apple is looking for,” David says.

But what has attracted the most attention for Broome is “On the Quad,” a video podcast featuring six students who discuss the ins and outs of life at the college. Each podcast lasts about 25 minutes. Call it a portable reality show.

“Having the information come from students seems to be reassuring to potential students,” David says. “We didn’t want it to be slick marketing material. We wanted it to be real.”

Second Chances

Jeff Tagliaferro is a 19-year-old student who is a cast member for “On the Quad.” He enjoys taking part in the podcast, and has become something of a local celebrity on campus.

He plans to become a teacher but he is also interested in theater and “On the Quad” gives him a chance to hone is performance chops. Though the podcasts are lighthearted, he says, they are also informative and something he says might have helped acclimate him to campus life had it existed when he was just starting college.

“When I came here, I really didn’t understand what the college experience was all about,” he says. “Those first few months were pretty rough.”

Tagliaferro also taps into iTunes U. He works two part-time jobs in addition to attending college, and the media device has proved an invaluable educational tool.

Once, he had to watch a campus debate for a class but couldn’t get off of work. He watched it later on iTunes.

“You can review material, and you don’t have to rely on your notes,” he says. “You get a second and a third chance to review what you might have missed.”

HACC is not as far along as Broome, but has similar ambitions. The college started making podcasts available in 2007, using a $30,000 grant from its foundation to buy iPods for 32 instructors and equip computers with the right software. Most of its podcasts are of the audio variety, although the college has plans to develop its video capabilities.

“We are really still in the pilot stage,” says Ellworth Beckmann, associate dean of institutional technology. “I think that the public relations office and the president will see the value of this, and allow anyone who has a computer to download information about us. That is where we are headed.”

  Related stories: 
The Virtual College
Community Colleges Lead Other Colleges in Distance Ed Enrollment

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