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Region’s universities test podcasting

Professors at the region’s universities are looking for a new route into students’ minds – the ubiquitous white cords hanging from seemingly every ear on campus.

Podcasts and a variety of new technologies are making their way into academia, as professors test the waters with everything from recordings of lectures to multimedia offerings to the emerging possibilities of virtual classrooms.

While such efforts still are mostly in the beginning stages, tech-savvy professors say they could eventually change the nature of higher education.

“It really makes the classroom a little less essential in the traditional sense,” said Ronald Robberecht, a University of Idaho professor of rangeland ecology and management who uses new media approaches in his classes. “I think in the future you’ll find the classroom is more for high-end, person-to-person discussion, rather than the lecture. That is being pushed toward the Net.”

Most schools in the region have launched some podcasting efforts. Some professors make their lectures available online or for download; others consider podcasts a means of providing supplemental material.

Laurie Klaue, a podcasting specialist at Eastern Washington University, develops specialized casts with faculty members that include outdoor settings and musical scores. Betty Galbraith, a science librarian at Washington State University, uses them for tutorials on research procedures and in classes to help teach research skills.

“All of us learn differently,” Galbraith said. “Some people need to read. Some people need to get in and learn and have failures. … Some people, like me, learn by hearing.”

David Schlater, educational new media manager for the Universdity of Idaho, said faculty interest in podcasts is high.

“In the past six months or so, we’ve seen quite a few more faculty members asking about podcasting. ‘What would it take to podcast my lectures? Should I podcast? Can I podcast?’ ” Schlater said. “The phenomenon that is the iPod has certainly taken hold of students on campuses all across the country.”

The online music store associated with iPods, iTunes, has allocated space for universities to offer podcasts, and schools across the country are taking advantage of it.

Not everyone is sold on the utility of the podcast. Some professors say it reproduces only a portion of the lecture experience, particularly with audio, and eliminates debate and discussion. Students often say they’re interested in a podcast if it replaces the class; they’re concerned about the time it would take to regularly listen to podcasts in addition to regular classwork.

And instructors who are tech-savvy note that while they’re new and trendy in some quarters, podcasts in some ways are a crude instrument for reproducing the wide range of communications necessary for learning.

Ronald Brosemer, a professor of molecular biosciences at WSU, recorded podcasts of an upper-level course last year, but he dropped it this year. He said it drew little attention or use from his students, most of whom attend class and didn’t really need a simple reproduction of the lecture.

“I was neither excited nor unexcited about it,” Brosemer said. “The vast majority of students did not use it.”

Another world

Others, meanwhile, say technology is outracing the podcast.

Greg Moller, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology at the University of Idaho, began Webcasting lectures seven years ago and is well into podcasting. But what he’s really excited about is the virtual world known as Second Life.

Second Life is an interactive online world where people create avatars, or alter egos, of themselves, interact with others, spend and earn money, and potentially share a virtual classroom or discussion space. Some schools are testing the waters in Second Life, but such efforts are preliminary; Moller has proposed grant funding that would allow him to begin using Second Life this fall.

On Friday, Moller, Schlater and Jenine Cordon of the University of Idaho’s Center for Teaching Innovation, met with a Spokesman-Review reporter in Second Life for an online interview about the potential uses of such virtual sites.

They said the possibilities are still being explored, but the virtual site offers ideas for creating new forms of distance or online learning – students from all over the world can assemble in the same online space. In the near future, it’s not likely to replace classroom instruction entirely but could provide a more social forum for students studying a particular subject to gather and discuss.

Moller compared the possibilities to Aristotle’s “peripatetic” style of instruction – essentially walking and teaching by noting the surroundings. He noted that in an online world like Second Life, a student could stroll through a garden and retrieve detailed information about a plant species by clicking on the virtual plants.

The online chat with University of Idaho officials took place in a treehouse. In a three-dimensional world that resembles a video game, users can zoom and change camera angles; walk, fly and teleport to new locations; and have more socially interaction than most online tools now provide.

Now when you’re learning online – even with podcasts or other new media – “you’re a classroom of one,” Moller said.

“These students are changing,” he said. “How they access information is changing.”

The world of Second Life, which includes everything you might find online ranging from commerce to pornography, is likely to be the wave of the future for the Internet, Moller said, and universities are trying to figure out how to use that to teach.

“This is what your Web browser’s going to look like in five years or maybe a little more,” he said. “It’s going to be 3-D interactive.”

Face-to-face time

Klaue, EWU’s podcasting specialist, often works closely with professors to develop relatively advanced casts that use setting and music to enhance information. She also frequently records author readings and other presentations made on campus in an attempt to make them more accessible to everyone. “In the videos I create I like to use music,” she said. “Students like music, and it kind of tells a story.”

That approach might combat one of the potential problems that people see with simple podcasts of lectures – they can be static and negating. Klaue recently received a grant to expand her work on podcasts.

At Idaho, Professor Tim Link is seeking state funding for a “lecture-capture” technology that would make podcasts automatic. He’s asking the Idaho State Board of Education to purchase equipment for the university’s “smart classrooms,” which are equipped with wireless Internet and other high-tech gear. The recorders – a test version in use there – could be programmed to simply record lectures and media presentations like slideshows and turn them into podcasts.

“When you’re done, you basically hit ‘end,’ ” Link said. “What’s good about that is it takes the professor out of the loop.”

Many new technologies are particularly useful for expanding distance and online courses – one of the big growth areas for universities. Robberecht, Idaho’s rangeland ecology professor, has been using a webcam to communicate with students in his distance courses and with time-crunched grad students. The cameras offer a more personalized interaction than students in such courses often get, he said.

“It allows as close to a personalized experience with education as you can have when the student is not on campus,” he said.

The question of how to use the technologies remains in flux. Some professors say that there is great potential in moving the traditional classroom lecture to a podcast or other recorded medium, making them available any time for students. Some envision the day when students would be asked to view a podcast before the in-person class, reserving the face-to-face time for deeper deliberations or discussions. Others note that such an approach would simply burden students with more time constraints.

Ken Pecka, director of instructional resources at Whitworth College, said if students have access to a podcast, “their next question is likely to be, ‘Why should I come to class?’ “

“There’s some real challenges for us to think about,” he said. “How can we re-engineer face-to-face time?”

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