The Growth and Development of Podcasting at UW Oshkosh

Podcasting is one of those terms, like Kleenex or Xerox, that actually refers to something specific, but which people tend to assign to a variety of similar things. In this case, podcasting has been associated with putting just about any kind of media on the internet. In it’s specific form, podcasting means to put media files, either audio or video, on the internet so an RSS feed that will show up in Apple’s music management software, iTunes, enabling students to listen to the files on an iPod. In an even more specific form, capturing a live lecture (for review by students who have actually attended the lecture, he said carefully) is a common association. That’s the specific idea I’d like to talk about.

This has been possible to do for as long as iPods have existed, but two developments brought this to where it was a practical idea.

The first was Apple’s development of iTunes U, free storage space provided to higher education institutions by Apple (how can you resist something that’s free?) with a fairly simple set of routines for uploading files and automatic generation of RSS feeds so a student gets notification of new uploads without having to search for them, and if they set it up in iTunes correctly, the files are downloaded directly to their iPod when they sync it. One of the major ideas is that students are using iTunes to manage their music libraries anyway, so why not leverage this for academic purposes? I should clarify right away that students can listen to podcasts with iTunes on any computer whether they have a iPod or not. iTunes is a free download. This does take a little administration on our Learning Technology staff, but not much. The main trick is to keep the materials matched with courses and linked in D2L with a custom widget.

The next development was to make recording a lecture easy enough so faculty were willing to do it. If you’ve ever been in a classroom before and after class, you probably know that the prof is usually surrounded by students asking questions, so anything that’s going to take critical concentration isn’t going to get done.

When we first started this we relied on two methods.

In our larger lecture halls, we have wireless microphones installed. We found a system called Podcast-in-a-box. This required putting an older computer that otherwise was destined for surplus (without a keyboard or monitor) in the classroom in addition to the computer used for presentation, and connecting the audio output to this podcasting computer. The real beauty of Podcast-in-a-box is the in-class simplicity. The instructor was given a flash drive which only contains a small text file that specifies the instructor, course and the path to the course on iTunes U. To start the recording, the instructor puts on the microphone, plugs in the flash drive, and when they’re done with class, they remove the flash drive. The recording is then uploaded directly to iTunes with all the proper links and RSS feeds created. I should mention there’s a back end server involved but the users have no interaction with it.

The other method, used in smaller classrooms without the installed public address systems, was to give the instructor an iPod with a voice recording attachment and an inexpensive lavalier mic. Starting and stopping the recording is a one button affair on the iPod. After class, the instructors connected the iPod to their computers, the recording downloads to the their local iTunes library, and with two more clicks can be uploaded to iTunes U ready for the students.

Both of these methods had their quirks but the biggest issue was batteries, on the wireless mics in the lecture halls, and on the iPods for the others.

We’ve gone through several variations, but our current method relies on wireless mics that connect to the computer and are charged over the USB port. We’ve installed powered USB hubs to make sure the batteries get charged even when the computer isn’t on. The software that negotiates this is part of the Macintosh Operating system called Podcast Producer. All of the computers now in our classrooms are Macintoshes that can boot into either Windows or the Macintosh operating system. This led to one little surprise. When using Podcast Producer while presenting on the Macintosh OS, the instructor can choose to capture the computer screen with whatever presentation or other software they’re using, while with the Windows starting the remote Mac option, only audio could be recorded. Just about every instructor who had been presenting with Windows switched to presenting with the Macintosh in order to utilize this screen recording function. Actually quite important in courses where a lot of illustrative material and equations are involved.

One question everyone wonders about is “Do the students listen to the recordings?” The only way we have of knowing is by looking at the server logs iTunes provides (We did survey the students and ask them the first semester and got a whopping 10% response rate). LIke any analytic on the web, we can only tell if they clicked on the link. Class size, and the number of recordings vary quite a bit from course to course, but the server logs show that on average, each lecture was downloaded 32 times, and each student downloaded 7 lectures. This is consistent with the idea that students were accessing the lecture to clarify and review difficult points in the lectures. Graphing the downloads for a specific course by date and looking at the peaks easily reveals when the tests in each course occurred.

The other question often asked is whether students still come to class if the lectures are available on line. We have at least two instructors who record and post every lecture, and they report no effect on attendance. These are both upper level biology courses, however. In a conversation with one of the instructors who is recording all her lectures, we surmised that what was happening is that we were giving boost to the better students who really wanted to learn, and that’s really not such a bad thing to invest time, money, and effort into.

Most of these recordings are restricted to class members, but some instructors have chosen to make them available to anyone. You can see the list by going to http://www.uwosh.edu/itunes and clicking on the link at the right of the pages. That will launch iTunes and take you to Oshkosh’s iTunes U directory.

Submitted by Nick Dvoracek
UW Oshkosh