(Cross-posted at BlogHer)
This afternoon I sat in on a presentation by a vendor that supplies hardware and software that records college and university instructors' lectures. The software produces not only podcasts, but also enhanced podcasts (with slides) and videocasts. The packages the vendor offers come with many bells and whistles, and I was impressed that one of the reps has a Ph.D. in educational technology and offered to help the institution collect and analyze data on any services the university purchased.
At the same time, I've been working with some absolutely brilliant women bloggers on a presentation for the upcoming EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative conference. Our presentation abstract states, "Web 2.0 tools have the power to transform education. Such a transformation requires that faculty, students, and institutions take risks. With those risks comes fear, which is often unarticulated. How do you tackle this fear and make real change?"
My current fear and anxiety center around podcasts in higher education. And I'm not sure how to tackle it in ways that effect real change.
Why fear podcasting?
Why should I fear podcasting? After all, podcasts allow students to access lectures when they need them. If they learn best in the late evening, then why shouldn't they be able to watch a lecture after the instructor herself has gone to bed? Studies indicate that the availability of podcasts doesn't affect course attendance--students who would usually skip class still skip. In fact, it may be the most studious class participants who access the podcasts--they can review lecture material and fill in any gaps in their notes. In addition, students who are not fully proficient in the language of instruction can watch or listen to the lectures again to try to better translate sections they didn't understand in class.
As the vendors in today's presentation pointed out, some universities are making their faculty members' lectures available to the public, completely free of charge. One vendor rep talked quite a bit about building a university's brand through publicly accessible podcasts. Indeed, in the case of land grant universities, the institutions have a mandate to perform outreach to the public, and podcasts are a relatively inexpensive way to do so.
Plus, asking professors to videocast their lectures can make them better teachers. After all, the university teaching resources center where I work offers to videotape faculty in the classroom; we then sit down with each instructor to watch the videotape and consult with her about her teaching. If faculty watched their own videocasts, they could learn a lot about their own lecture style and presentation skills.
Today's college students, the vendors told us, have brains wired differently from ours. Specifically, they apparently don't have the attention span or discipline required to read books. And because they're always multitasking--even during lecture--it makes sense to provide them with a podcast they can review later to catch any details they missed while text messaging one another during class.
Plus, how much would I love to listen to podcasts of faculty at my own alma mater? I learned a lot there, and podcasts would not only help me learn, but also keep me connected to the institution--a bonus for the folks in alumni relations and development when they make their perennial appeals to me to contribute to the annual fund.
Podcasts don't address students' shortcomings as independent learners
Despite all these potential advantages to pod- and videocasting, I'm hesitant to advocate for these technologies in the classroom. I fear they will do more harm than good and will allow universities to cut corners in educating students.
First, I'm sick of hearing about "wired" students. They love cell phones and iPods and sometimes social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, and yes, they always seem to be plugged in to some device or another. But they're not really tech savvy in ways that help them better understand the world in the ways undergraduates should. Most of my students--even seniors at my well-ranked research university--don't know how to use the library's vast electronic databases to undertake research. Nor do they understand how to even begin to search for information. Take, for example, the case of a graduate student in (let's say, for the sake of anonymity) gardening studies at a private university where I teach a seminar in gardening history. She was writing a paper on tulips, and yet into the library's search engine she typed "gardens." The entire library specializes in gardens, but it never occurred to her, until I pointed it out, that she might search for "tulips." Many of the other students in the seminar had similar difficulties undertaking research, and this is in what might be the nation's top "gardening studies" program.
Many U.S. university students also have difficulty assessing the authority of a web site; they have frequently cited to me something they learned in junior high school--that if a website's URL ends in .gov or .edu, then it's trustworthy. Um, yeah. I showed them government web sites that reflected the Bush administration's stance on sexual health. It takes a lot of hand-holding to get them to learn to analyze and evaluate sources.
And when, at a professor's request, I go into classrooms to interview undergraduate students about their course, students will say things like, "I wish he would stop asking us questions to which he already knows the answer. Just tell us the information. Just tell us the facts."
In other words: Don't make us do the readings. Don't make us think independently or critically.
Why podcasting is problematic
Which is where my beef with podcasting comes in.
Because most lecture rooms aren't wired with additional microphones for students, it's only the professor's contribution to the class that gets recorded. So even if the professor does try to engage the students with questions or small-group activities, the students' contributions to discussion usually won't be captured. And thus if a professor is going to record lectures "successfully"--meaning produce a video or audio recording with decent production values--he or she needs to stand within the view of the camera (some of the more expensive of which, admittedly, have motion detectors that can follow the professor) and lecture the entire time.
Very few students learn well from lectures alone, though unfortunately many students believe they learn well from lectures because they see themselves as vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. At universities such as mine, this "knowledge" comprises the information required to perform well on a multiple-choice test or, more rarely, a paper--and in these students' view, hopefully one that doesn't require too much research outside of class.
By promoting podcasting and videocasting by providing easy-to-use services to professors, we're further reinforcing the idea that lecturing should be the default method of instructional delivery. And since the videocasting program offered by this vendor offers screen captures as well, the system also reinforces the too-frequently heinous use of PowerPoint by faculty who don't understand the cognitive style of PowerPoint.
Even worse: According to one vendor rep, some schools find it too inconvenient to establish an "opt-in" system for faculty who wish to have their lectures recorded, so they record everything that happens in the classroom during every class. And some institutions turn the cameras back on the students during exams to discourage cheating. This level of surveillance--of faculty and of students--disturbs me.
As universities take on ever-increasing numbers of students, they run out of classroom space. Accordingly, classes meet less frequently, and previously-recorded videocasts are being offered as an option to replace the missing class meetings. One student in the vendor's promotional video said that he likes the videocasts because "they're interactive." But they're not, except that the student can rewind or fast-forward through them.
Suggestions for videocasting and podcasting
Despite my reservations about the ways these technologies are being deployed in the classroom, it's clear they are, like course management systems, going to stick around for a while. So I have some suggestions for vendors.
First, if you're going to emphasize "social networking" sites in describing the mentality and learning styles of students today, then please actually include some social aspects in your platform. Allow students to tag video and audio and to search tags across videocasts at their university. If my professor's explanation of iambic pentameter doesn't make sense to me, I'd like to easily find videos of other profs explaining the same concept. If students in those other classes can tag or label their professors' videos by chapter, then I could easily search for other recorded explanations of Shakespeare's favorite meter.
Second, allow faculty and students to easily sample and/or mash up videos from a number of different classes. If I know one of my colleagues gives a killer lecture on the 1893 World's Fair, I want to be able to pull out his five-minute discussion of the enormous Ferris wheel and how its popularity reflects Americans' changing views of technology at the end of the nineteenth century. I could assign a viewing of his explanation as homework, to be completed alongside more traditional academic readings on the Fair. There--I've saved myself probably 10 minutes of stumbling through a Ferris wheel lecture, as well as a couple hours of research for lecture prep--and more importantly, I've gained 10 minutes of quality time with my students, time that I can spend interacting with them instead of talking at them.
Third, let me capture that quality time. Make it easy for me to record students who report back to the class after small-group discussion, without making them come to the front of the class, where they might feel alienated from their group and therefore intimidated.
Fourth, integrate into your platform technologies similar to that used by Voicethread so that students can add their own questions or commentary to lectures, either as audio or as text. Then encourage faculty users of your technology to respond to their newly annotated lectures. In other words, make your software truly interactive and social.
Fifth, work with my institution to come to an agreement that treats my lectures and course activities as my intellectual property and that lets me release the course session recordings under a Creative Commons license. As an adjunct, the last thing I need is to be recorded out of a job when the administration decides that it can reconstitute my course using only my syllabus and videocast lectures, using a low-paid T.A. to issue grades.
What do you think of podcasting in education? What are its advantages and liabilities?